There must not be at the marketplace a magazine with better covers than LIFE. Maybe such definitive sentence like this one looks like an exaggeration but it's sure that, along many decades, LIFE appeared to the marketplace systematically with high graphic quality covers, with a lasting rhythm hard to maintain. Its secret lies essentially on good background photographs, made for some of the great names of worldly photojournalism, using an efficient and sober drawing, in red-and-white tones. It's an absolute reference.
It was precisely because of photography that some covers became immortal -- and vice-versa. Who doesn't know the famous "VJ Day Alfred Eisenstadt's image, in which an American seaman kisses a nurse at the New York streets celebrating the victory over Japan, or even the superb portrait of Winston Churchil made by Yousuf Karsh? Both were published by LIFE. And there are a lot of other examples that could be joined.
In 1936, LIFE, remodeled after bought by Henry Luce (Time magazine proprietor), began this pattern with a strong journalistic and photographic component. It was one of the great contributions in order to expand photojournalism. It had a weekly periodicity until 1972, and a cover that became its branding for many years -- a black-and-white background photography and subtitles with discrete fonts at the bottom of the cover. Up, at the left side, a bright red rectangle with the logotype balanced with the foot at the same tone, and there was the number and the edition date.
At the end of the 1940s, the first images that, along the next decade, would be more common (keeping, however, the same principles of graphic composition) started to come up. LIFE dominated the American magazine market during forty years, selling more than 13 million sample at each edition. Its aesthetic got imposed and its reputation became so big that personalities like President Truman, Winston Churchill and general McArthur chose the magazine to exclusively publish their memories.
Nowadays, LIFE remains to be a big magazine, even if it's distant of its initial austere image. It still represents an insurmountable reference and a lesson in terms of photography and typography. Besides, LIFE tells the 20th century History with images. And they are the best.