Interview: Ian Birch, author, Uncovered

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The new book ‘Uncovered — Revolutionary Magazine Covers’ offers real insight into magazine-making through a series of interviews with the people behind a selection of front cover designs from the last fifty years.

Author Ian Birch worked at Time Out and Smash Hits before launching Sky magazine in the eighties. At EMAP he  helped launch Red, Closer and Grazia, before moving to New York where he became editorial director at Hearst Magazines, responsible for titles including Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health and Good Housekeeping.

We’ll be reviewing ‘Uncovered’ in more detail here soon, but ahead of that (and his appearance at ModMag in a couple of weeks) we put a few questions about the book to Ian.

What inspired you to produce this book?
Now that social media has replaced magazines as a primary engine of popular culture, it seemed the ideal time to chronicle and celebrate some of the industry’s key moments. Where better to focus than on covers? A great cover captures just such a moment and becomes a social document with a unique backstory.

My original proposal was a picture book with snappy captions but that soon felt thin and unsatisfying. I started to talk to some of the key people involved and quickly realized that was the way to go.

It would be an oral history, telling the stories of the covers in the words of the people who created them – the editor-in-chief, creative director, photographer, photography director, publisher, writer, stylist, illustrator and very occasionally the celebrity or a relevant academic. This meant I started in the late fifties because, prior to this, many of the key players are, sadly, dead or unavailable. I did more than 160 interviews.

What effect would you like the book to have on the magazine industry?
I didn’t write the book with such a grand aim in mind but if it encourages any of the iconic independent titles or the bigger media houses to pay more attention to their archives and realize the gold they contain, I’d be delighted. When I went to the New York offices of Interview , for example, they apologized about the parlous state of their back issues. Equally, some of the big newspapers seem to have little or no interest in their history – unless they think they can make some money out of it.

Which is your favourite cover in the book?
That’s an almost impossible question. The answer changes on a daily basis but today I’d say New York 27 July-9 August 2015 (above).

Accusations of sexual misconduct about Bill Cosby had been emerging which he vigorously denied. Photography editor Jody Quon felt the accusers were not being taken seriously enough and, despite quite a bit of skepticism within the magazine, slowly gathered together as many of them as she could for a shoot with Amanda Demme. It was, understandably, an emotionally charged session.

Demme wanted it to ‘represent taking back power but in a very elegant way…The empty chair was there just to show we had an uneven number and we needed one or three more people. But the magazine channeled my brain and turned that empty chair into an open seat. It was their time to have their voice and that’s why it worked.’ The cover helped re-introduce the case. ‘That’s what I think a great cover can do,’ said editor Adam Moss. ’It can change a conversation.’

Which front cover in your career are you proudest of, in the sense it might have been included in the book?
The most revolutionary cover I was involved in was never published. It was the cover of the first dummy for Sky which was originally conceived as a wildly ambitious dual sex, pan-European youth culture fortnightly in English. Designed by Malcolm Garrett and Assorted Images in late 1986, it combined the new soundbite editorial approach of USA Today which had been launched in 1982 with the convention-busting energy of i-D.

The cover was a gatefold with video grab of Madonna on the front and Sean Penn inside. The extraordinary paper technology made the whole issue interactive: perforated panels you tear out and keep; an 8-page ‘video spectacular’ of Grace Jones (above) enhanced by chevrons and quotes; a review section that had indented pages like the then all-pervasive Filofax. It was, inevitably, too much for Hachette and we eventually turned it into a dapper dual sex British-based monthly.

Sales figures weren’t a criteria for selection, but do you have a sense of how well or not the selected covers sold? It’s a mixed bag. Vanity Fair’s pregnant Demi Moore (above), not surprisingly, flew off the shelves. Esquire’s ‘White People’ was stapled to them.

Terry Jones took huge delight in his controversial Vogue ‘Green Jelly’ being the fastest-selling issue of 1977.

There are so many factors that determine sales: the competition that week, distribution problems, the weather, a national obsession like The World Cup, a cover so provocative that it turns at least half your audience off.

How do you feel when you look at a typical newsstand today?
There are fewer and fewer to look at. The accelerated death of general interest and me-too titles and the incredible surge of independent launches means that magazine outlets are going the way of vinyl: specialist shops like magCulture and subscription services like Stack launched by passionate print champions.

Does the book mark the end of an era? Can you foresee another such book in 50 years time?
Absolutely, I can see another such book sometime in the future. What is dying is the industry business model which has dominated since the ‘50s – not magazines themselves. The passion to publish will always be there especially now that technology has made producing a magazine easier than ever.

We live in fractured times and many people still feel their voices are missing from the mainstream. A magazine gives them that voice and creates a community with whom they can have a supportive and dynamic conversation.



Ian Birch will be speaking at this year’s ModMag London conference on Thursday 1 November. In a special session, he and Varoom! editor Olivia Ahmad will contrast some of the magazines from his book with more recent front covers.
Book your ticket now.


Order your copy of ‘Uncovered — Revolutionary Magazine Covers’ by Ian Birch from the magCulture Shop.


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