10 of the Greatest ‘Life’ Magazine Covers of All Time


This week, 76 years ago, Life magazine published its first issue of the pictorial journal since folding as a weekly humor publication during the Great Depression. Publisher Henry Luce was already editor-in-chief of Time and wanted to create a magazine that didn’t just talk about the news. He wanted people to live it through stunning photographs. The prolific publisher wrote a prospectus for Life (then titled The Show-Book of the World) with poet Archibald MacLeish, and it’s the perfect way to set the mood for our gallery of the magazine’s best cover images.

“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed; Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half of humankind. To see, and to show is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication… ”

These are a few of our favorites. What about yours?

October 15, 1971

“The new site is Florida, but the air is pure old Disney,” Life’s article began, showcasing 1,500 Disney employees ready to welcome visitors to the newly opened Walt Disney World. The Magic Kingdom’s sister site — Disneyland in Anaheim, California — had opened 16 years prior, but the Sunshine State boasted an 18-story Cinderella Castle (more than double the size of Cali’s) and 27,500 acres of land to play on. The issue also included a pull-out poster of the park so people wouldn’t “feel like a stranger in paradise.”

August 28, 1964

Having just arrived in the United States that February, four mop-topped, grinning guys from England landed on the cover of Life after being greeted by thousands of fans in New York City and 73 million viewers on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles’ appearance marked the start of music’s British Invasion and signaled a change in rock and roll forever.

April 7, 1952

Famed portrait photographer Philippe Halsman captured a young actress on the rise for her debut Life cover: Marilyn Monroe. The photo is one of six the alluring star would model for that made the front page. Halsman’s image makes the 1952 issue one of the most collectible. (And yes, Life is totally talking about flying saucers in the upper right hand corner of the cover. We love it.)

February 1, 1963

That’s so raven.

Back in 1942, Hitch wrote Have You Heard? for Lifea photo-dramatization in collaboration with photographer Eliot Elisofon about “wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do.”

April 30, 1965

“Ten years ago, a Swedish photographer named Lennart Nilsson told us that he was going to photograph in color the stages of human reproduction from fertilization to just before birth. It was impossible for us not to express a degree of skepticism about his chances of success, but this was lost on Nilsson. He simply said, ‘When I’ve finished the story, I’ll bring it to you.’ Lennart kept his promise. He flew into New York from Stockholm and brought us the strangely beautiful and scientifically unique color essay in this issue.” Pictured is an 18-week fetus inside the amniotic sac (placenta at right). With custom macro lenses and equipment (created with Karl Storz and Jungners Optiska), Nilsson helped revolutionize in utero photography, revealing the never-before-seen “drama of life before birth.”

August 22, 1949

Leonard McCombe captured the spirit of the American West in this portrait of Clarence Hailey Long, Jr. for a photo essay about ranching. Long was the foreman for the historic JA Ranch in Amarillo, Texas at the time. His image was the original inspiration for ad man Leo Burnett’s famous Marlboro cigarettes campaign, featuring the ubermasculine Marlboro Man.

November 1, 1954

Actress Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American woman to be featured on Life’s cover. She was also the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (for her role in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones).

July 20, 1953

Life went a-courting with then Senator John F. Kennedy and his soon-to-be wife, Jacqueline Bouvier. The photo captures hope, promise, youth, and exuberance — all qualities America was ready to embrace when JFK was sworn into office as President less than ten years later.

February 11, 1966

Associated Press combat photographer Henri Huet — a former painter — was working an assignment in An Thi, Vietnam where he encountered a wounded Army medic, Thomas Cole, in the trenches. The young man’s head was covered in bandages, but he was helping his fellow soldiers despite his own wounds. Moved by Cole’s determination and tenderness, Huet snapped one of the most iconic wartime photos ever published. It was featured on the cover as part of a 12-photo series and won Huet a Robert Capa Gold Medal.

July 25, 1969

Neil Armstrong photographed just before he left for the Apollo 11 space flight and became the first human being to step foot on the surface of the Moon. We can’t even begin to imagine the excitement and utter anxiety the mild-mannered astronaut must have been feeling, not even certain he would come back from the mission alive. Instead he was all smiles and about to become a national hero.

July 12, 1937 (our wild card pick)

We like when you got creepy that one time, Life, even if you didn’t. “Cynthia” was a Lester Gaba creation — the artist responsible for pioneering modern-day department store window design. He was a former soap sculptor from the Midwest and created mannequins with an uncanny, lifelike quality. Cynthia even had freckles and different-sized feet.