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16 April 2016

Timeline: 4535 Time Magazine Covers, 1923-2009

  • Visualization 1. Covers of every issue of Time magazine published from the first issue in 1923 to summer 2009. Detail. Click here to view the full size image on Flickr.

  • Close-up detail of Visualization 1. Click here to view the full size image on Flickr.

  • Visualization 2. Detail. Click here to view the full size image on Flickr.

  • Close-up detail of Visualization 2. Click here to view the full size image on Flickr.

Authors

Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass

Full Resolution Visualizations

Description

This project presents a visualization analysis of the Time magazine covers (1923-2009).

Visualization 1

Data: Covers of every issue of Time magazine published from the first issue in 1923 to summer 2009.

Total number of covers: 4535. Distinctive red borders have framed Time magazine cover designs since 1927. In order to highlight changes within these borders, we cropped all images to eliminate their margins (red or otherwise).

Timescale: 1923-2009.

Mapping: Time covers appear in order of publication (i.e., from 1923 to 2009), arranged in a grid layout (left to right and top to bottom). Mapping 4535 Time covers into a grid organized by publication date reveals a number of historical patterns. Here are some of them:

  • Medium: In the 1920s and 1930s Time covers use mostly photography. After 1941, the magazine switches to paintings. In the later decades the photography gradually comes to dominate again. In the 1990s we see emergence of the contemporary software-based visual language which combines manipulated photography, graphic and typographic elements.
  • Color vs. black and white: The shift from early black and white to full color covers happens gradually, with both types coexisting for many years.
  • Hue: Distinct “color periods” appear in bands: green, yellow/brown, red/blue, yellow/brown again, yellow, and a lighter yellow/blue in the 2000s.
  • Brightness: The changes in brightness (the mean of all pixels’ grayscale values for each cover) follow a similar cyclical pattern.
  • Contrast and Saturation: Both gradually increase throughout the 20th century. However, since the end of the 1990s, this trend is reversed: recent covers have less contrast and less saturation.
  • Content: Initially most covers are portraits of individuals set against neutral backgrounds. Over time, portrait backgrounds change to feature compositions representing concepts. Later, these two different strategies come to co-exist: portraits return to neutral backgrounds, while concepts are now represented by compositions which may include both objects and people – but not particular individuals.
  • The visualization also reveals an important “meta-pattern”: almost all changes are gradual. Each of the new communication strategies emerges slowly over a number of months, years or even decades.

Visualization 2

Mapping: 4535 Time magazine covers spanning 86 years are plotted left to right.

X axis: Publication date, 1923-2009.

Y axis: automatically measured brightness for black and white covers, or saturation for color covers (mean value of all pixels).

Visualization of 4535 Time covers reveals a number a number of temporal patterns: The image makes visible the pre-color printing era on the far left, a cluster of brief early experiments in color printing (with left-margin coloration), and then the gradual shift from black and white to full color covers, with both types coexisting for a number of years.

Taking a step back, we can see that brightness and saturation follow a cyclical pattern of rising and falling, with dramatic peaks and valleys only becoming apparent over periods of a decade or more. Standing apart from the overall curve are extreme exceptions: glowing bright images and pale designs that float above or below the cloud of covers typical of an era.

Taking another step back, we can compare our present decade to the entire 86 magazine history. The drop in saturation since the end of the 1990s represents an unexpected development - since for the previous 50 years average saturation level first gradually went up and then stayed the same (since middle of the 1960s).