Amateur Photographer is 130 years old. Yes, you read that right: an astonishing 130 years, starting in 1884 when you have to wonder just how many amateur photographers actually existed. As part of their celebration they published a two page spread of covers, picking out one from every year of publication.
Of course it took thirty or forty years for photographs to appear on the cover at all: it is only after the first world war that the whole of the front cover was consistently given over to a single stand-out image. And for the next forty years the pictures rotated round the standards of birds, pets, celebrity, cute children and landscape: eclectic, silly and wholesome. It was only in 1963, the year before I was born, that the women start to appear. Then pretty much every cover features a woman, the monomania of the next thirty years. At first pictures of the female face, but as the sixties wear on, more and more of the female figure appears – more and more female flesh. By the seventies, women pose in swimsuits, corsets, lingerie. 1994 hits a new low with a young woman posing suggestively with a snooker cue, but then finally the run breaks. The women vanish and for the last twenty years the covers are largely a parade of chunky pictures of cameras.
My generation grew up in a world saturated with female flesh used to sell everything from cameras to cars to newspapers. Being born in the sixties I was unconscious that it had ever been different. That world has largely gone, ditched as it became obvious that it no longer sold, in a world in which women also buy cameras and cars and newspapers. The astonishing thing is that it lasted until 1994 (and beyond). By the time I was an undergraduate in the eighties, feminism was beginning to seem irrelevant, a force that was no longer needed in a world in which men and women were now equal. And yet at the same time if you walked into any newsagent the shelves were groaning with magazines like Amateur Photographer, middle of the road magazines using pictures of semi-naked women as bait to catch sales.
The time line of magazine covers gives a fascinating glimpse into a little piece of social history. Amateur Photographer was warming up to the idea that sex sells, and doing its bit to make a generation of young women feel uncomfortable going into a corner shop, at just the same time that my school teachers were telling us that women had nothing left to complain about. And once sexy covers became normal it took a lot more than a few women expressing outrage to take them off the shelves again. The changes that finally took the women off the front cover of Amateur Photographer were probably too numerous to count: millions of individual decisions about what makes one magazine more attractive than another, made by men and women from week to week, probably unconscious of the steady drift in public opinion. A steady drift caused by so many things: by women’s greater earning power, by it becoming normal to hear a female point of view, by a growing consensus that using female nudity to sell magazines wasn’t “just a bit of fun”. One year commercial necessity put near naked women on the front cover, then one year it took them off again.