The best magazine covers of 2020

In a year of flux, magazine covers were dominated by radical change, calls for change and the changemakers themselves. We look back at ten of our favourites

Magazines are often searching for what’s next. Yet this year has been one where nobody has known what is around the corner, and it’s forced us all to pause, take stock and reflect. It’s a collective behaviour that has manifested in magazine covers that have in many ways felt quieter, giving breathing room for images to speak for themselves.

Headlines and covers have turned overwhelmingly to urgent matters ranging from the climate crisis to widespread systemic racism, while also documenting the ever-changing situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19 of course influenced the media in other ways, namely the very means of production. For magazines reliant on commissioning photoshoots, resourcefulness and imagination have been essential in getting an issue over the finish line at all. And yet, despite the challenges facing media publications the world over, titles ranging from Playgirl to Fact have baulked at the idea that ‘print is dead’ by relaunching this year in the format.

As we approach the end of 2020, we’ve hand-picked ten memorable magazine covers that embody a year nobody will forget.

Vogue Italia’s January 2020 issue cover, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano

Vogue Italia: January 2020 issue
In a bid to examine ways of producing a magazine with sustainability in mind, Vogue Italia kicked off the year with an illustrated magazine that abandoned photoshoot production for the entire issue. Seven artists were commissioned to create each cover, which not only bucked the visual status quo but also came as a beautiful tribute to the early tradition of fashion illustration. The magazine covers were inadvertently prophetic given the spate of illustrated and painted covers that were adopted more widely this year during the pandemic – a format to which even Vogue Italia returned for the June issue, which featured covers illustrated by children.

Good Weekend’s cover shows scenes from Orangeville, NSW photographed by Nick Moir

Good Weekend magazine: Bushfires Photographic Special
In January 2020, Australia was rocked by a disastrous, record-breaking bushfire season, with lives, homes and habitats destroyed in blazes that consumed over 20% of Australia’s forests. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine dedicated a special edition to the reportage photography covering the events. The cover shows a firefighter running to safety, vision obscured, sparks falling like rain, and engulfed in burning red hues that many will recognise from the distressing footage that emerged during the coverage – the likes of which are already reappearing as Australia grapples with bushfire season all over again.

The Guardian Weekly cover art directed by Andrew Stocks

The Guardian Weekly: The New Isolation
As the coronavirus pandemic broke out around the world, the many behavioural changes offered no shortage of inspiration for art directors. A March special edition of the Guardian Weekly came as the UK entered national lockdown for the first time, with a sparse cover visualising the physical distancing guidelines that had come into play for many societies the world over. This approach proved popular among titles elsewhere, from St Louis Magazine in Missouri to Slovenia’s Objektiv supplement, while Vogue Italia took the white space approach even further with a blank April cover.

Vanity Fair Italia cover created by artist Francesco Vezzoli

Vanity Fair Italia: L’Italia Siamo Noi
Italy grabbed headlines in April as it became one of the earliest western European countries to come up against the coronavirus crisis. The Italian edition of Vanity Fair acknowledged this by commissioning a cover by artist Francesco Vezzoli, who depicted the nation’s tricolour flag with a tear at the centre. The artwork paid homage to 20th century painter, sculptor and founder of spatialism Lucio Fontana, and was auctioned off to raise money for charities supporting businesses.

The New York Times Magazine features a cover shot by Philip Montgomery

The New York Times Magazine: Epicenter
By April, Covid-19 had become part of the everyday vernacular as death tolls skyrocketed around the world. However, many people had not seen what it looked like on the frontlines in hospitals. Photographer Philip Montgomery gave an intimate insight by capturing these scenes for a New York Times Magazine assignment and documenting the chaos and trauma faced by doctors and health workers on a daily basis. “It took me a second to engage and really start to make my pictures because, in a lot of ways, my jaw was on the floor,” Montgomery said of the experience in an interview with Gem Fletcher. “The reality had set in, in terms of what was happening to our city and our fellow New Yorkers.”

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David Hockney’s iPad drawing on the cover of the Telegraph Magazine, also shown top

The Telegraph Magazine: A New Dawn
During the coronavirus crisis, David Hockney kept himself occupied by creating iPad drawings from his home in France. Offering some light relief in difficult times, the artist was commissioned to create the Telegraph Magazine’s front cover at the end of May, depicting a peaceful Normandy sunset. Hockney’s work was later snapped up by British Vogue for its Reset issue, where his 2006 oil painting of East Yorkshire was joined by 13 other covers of landscapes created artists including Nick Knight, Nadine Ijewere and Tim Walker.

Kadir Nelson’s Say Their Names on the cover of the New Yorker

New Yorker: Say Their Names
Following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of US police, and the outrage, trauma and reflection that ensued, New Yorker published a cover that contextualised his murder as part of a long history of violence inflicted upon Black people in America. New Yorker regular Kadir Nelson painted the cover portrait of Floyd, which also contains portraits of victims within his silhouette, whose stories can be unearthed in more detail online in the interactive cover story. Painted cover images were favoured at other US titles too, including Time magazine’s poignant America Must Change artwork by Charly Palmer, and Amy Sherald’s painting of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair.

Michaela Coel photographed by Ruth Ossai for the cover of New York magazine

New York magazine: TV issue
Easily one of this year’s biggest TV sensations came in the form of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a gripping drama that navigates waters as vast as sexual assault, identity, race, sexuality, gender, love and friendship to extraordinary effect. Although anchored in east London life, the series – which aired on both BBC and HBO – caught the attention of leading stateside publications. Chief among them was New York magazine, which put Coel – the show’s co-director, executive producer, writer and star – on the cover with an image shot by British-Nigerian photographer Ruth Ossai. While Coel also made the cover for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Ossai’s portrait for New York mag has both a strength and sensitivity that speaks to the complexity of the series that landed her on the cover.

Misan Harriman’s photograph of Marcus Rashford and Adwoa Aboah on the cover of British Vogue

British Vogue: Hope
For the first time in Vogue history, all 26 editions of the magazine from around the world coordinated the all-important September issue on a single theme: hope. At British Vogue, Edward Enninful turned to activists to bring the issue to life, led by a cover portrait of footballer and staunch campaigner Marcus Rashford alongside model, activist and Gurls Talk founder Adwoa Aboah, photographed together by Misan Harriman. The issue came with a special fold out cover comprising portraits of multigenerational changemakers in the UK and beyond, and marked yet another powerful, unconventional cover from Enninful’s Vogue.

Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin’s Amt und Unwürde cover created by Jonas Natterer, art direction by Thomas Kartsolis

Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin: Amt und Unwürde
In a year punctuated by world-altering events at every turn, many of the usual political fiascos have slipped away from the headlines. Yet between the US Presidential Election and the bewildering handling of Covid-19 in the USA, Trump still managed to gain plenty of column inches and grace a handful of magazine covers. While satirical covers have been a mainstay at US titles, Germany’s sharp-witted Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin put a new spin on the Trumpian visual language for its presidential quiz special. With the Trump administration on its way out, the graphic cover might be one of the final examples of orange iconography that we see for a while.

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