The power of front-cover magazine photographs is to whisper intimately and resonate loudly in the mind, persuading, or not persuading, someone to buy the publication.
In the case of Spare Rib magazine, we were competing on the newsstand alongside existing women’s magazines of the time. It was 1972, and the women’s liberation movement was in its infancy. Hostility to the new feminism was expressed everywhere, in all of the media, although women’s magazines were beginning to publish the occasional article addressing questions of women’s independence. That did not mean that any of those magazines had shifted their attitudes. Women were on the planet as adjuncts to men, and if there was not a man in a woman’s life, the magazines wanted to help her find one. Spare Rib was pioneering the view that women’s lives were about much more than that. A lot had to change.
The first issue carried a photo of two young women smiling naturally, without heavy make-up, looking like anyone’s best friend in a relaxed mood. The photo was taken by Angela Phillips, who had been working as a photographer for just a short while. Soon she turned to journalism as a way of making her living, but this photo stood out on the newsstands because it was so obviously not a shot of models, nor was it a shot that posed the women seductively or invitingly or remotely, as an icon of femininity. This expressed the new ethos, the principle of feminism that motivated the publication of Spare Rib. The search for a changing role for women in a society that needed changing, to establish a level playing field for women, and the space for women to rediscover their voices and express themselves in new ways. This involved both anger and joy. And to find photographic images that would both communicate to a potential buyer of the magazine and convey these new hopes—or the difficult realities—meant a proliferation of different approaches.
To take one example—the front cover of issue 3—the photo was of a middle-aged woman looking away from the camera, her face partially obscured by overhanging rocks that made up the background. It was a composite photo to illustrate the main feature in the magazine describing the experience of agoraphobia—the fear of open spaces—that kept this woman trapped indoors. But it was illustrative, if you like, of a wider issue—a woman confined by her responsibilities as a housewife. It was an image that resonated beyond the subject of the article.
This was the approach that became useful in commissioning and choosing the cover photo. Whether it was an article about the history of dolls, or about the liberation of cutting off long locks, or about a screaming fan at a rock concert, or the need for more nurseries—with a cover photo of a woman travelling on a bus holding her baby in a sling and another child in tow—those cover photos were in stark contrast to the conventional covers on all of the other contemporary women’s magazines, from the glossy and expensive to the cheap and cheerful.
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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 22, 2016
Commissioned by Photoworks