As a kid who grew up with a shelf filled with yellow spines, I can attest to the rhythm and general predictability of a National Geographic cover. With few exceptions (most notably those holographic covers from the 1980s), cover photography from the 1970s, 80s and 90s followed a familiar pattern of a far away place, strange creature, or “exotic” face in saturated color. We were armchair explorers living vicariously through the eyes of those famous photographers – Indiana Joneses with a camera.
In the mid-2000s, the editors started experimenting with studio photography and illustration – perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that the visual language of magazine covers had evolved. A few issues started to appear indistinguishable from something you might find on the cover of TIME. Conceptual illustration was rare, and when used, it lacked ingenuity and subtlety. Case in point: the September 2013 cover of the Statue of Liberty underwater to illustrate sea level rise.