Selecting a mere 10 covers from the more than 2,000 issues that graced LIFE magazine through the years might seem like an impossible task. Foolhardy, even. But we trust that no one in his or her right mind would quibble with the Yousuf Karsh cover of Churchill in 1945 (slide 3), or the inclusion of Leonard McCombe’s “Marlboro Man” from 1949. Is anyone going to seriously argue that the 1969 classic, “To the Moon and Back,” does not belong in any list of the most iconic LIFE covers — or a list of the most iconic magazine covers, period?
Could Lennart Nilsson’s landmark photo of a human fetus in utero for the April 1965 “Drama of Life Before Birth” issue possibly be left off such a list?
And then there’s the April 1945 cover featuring W. Eugene Smith’s photo from Iwo Jima, as Marines take cover on a hillside amid the burned-out remains of a banyan jungle at the very instant that a Japanese bunker is obliterated. It is a picture, a great picture, that captures the violence inherent in war perhaps more graphically than any other ever published in LIFE.
The photographers represented here, meanwhile — those on staff (Ralph Morse, Margaret Bourke-White, Larry Burrows) and those who worked on contract (Philippe Halsman, Karsh) — are among the very best who ever picked up a camera. That there are literally scores of others who shot for LIFE who just as aptly fit that description speaks volumes about the magazine itself, and about the quality of photojournalism that was practiced by dedicated men and women in those years when LIFE was still a weekly to be reckoned with.
Not everyone will agree with all the choices in this gallery. And that’s all right. But from our perspective, these covers provide as strong and as varied a sampling as one is likely to find of 10 pictures that capture the very best of LIFE through the years.