Walking the walk: how The New York Times Magazine’s recent ‘walking issue’ cover was made

Image: Andrew T. Warman for The New York Times

For The New York Times Magazine‘s recent Walking New York issue, the design and photography team created its most ambitious cover to date in a collaboration with artist JR. An image of 20 year-old Elmar Aliyev was printed across 62 strips of paper, pasted onto the street in the early hours of a morning and photographed from a helicopter. Here, design director Gail Bichler tells us how it all came together…

The idea, says Bichler, was “to create a memorable cover that spoke to the idea of walking and showcased the energy of New York City. We had been wanting to have JR do a project with the magazine for a while – this seemed like the perfect moment.”

Image courtesy The New York Times Magazine


In a meeting with JR in March, Bichler explains, the artist “proposed the idea of photographing a recent immigrant to New York and pasting a massive picture of that person on the ground of a highly trafficked pedestrian plaza and shooting it from the air as crowds of people walked over it.”

“We liked JR’s poetic notion of conveying the invisibility of many of the anonymous immigrants who make up the fabric of our city,” says the magazine’s director of photography, Kathy Ryan. “Our need to have a walking figure on the cover intersected beautifully with the themes of JR’s current work.”

According to editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, who wrote about the project on the NYT website, the team (which included photo editor Christine Walsh, associate photo editor David La Spina and photo assistant Karen Hanley), decided to photograph recent immigrants and paste their images onto the city’s streets “where they and other immigrants are often invisible”. (Silverstein writes that much of JR’s recent work had been concerned with immigration.)

Images: David La Spina/The New York Times


The team then embarked on some location scouting and looked for people from different countries who had come to New York within the past year. Elmar Aliyev, a 20 year-old waiter at Azerbaijani restaurant Old Baku, who immigrated to the US from Azerbaijan last year, was eventually chosen as the cover star.

The location for the work would be the Flatiron Plaza, a triangle-shaped slab of pavement between Fifth Avenue, Broadway and East 23rd Street, right in the middle of Manhattan. City permits were secured for April 11, two helicopters arranged while, Bichler adds, the team also brokered access to the Flatiron building to install a time-lapse camera (the resulting film is below).

Images: Andrew T. Warman for The New York Times


“[We also] arranged the light scouting so we could figure out the precise timing of when JR needed to be up in the helicopter to shoot the plaza in the most favorable light,” says Ryan. “It was a huge production, involving the work of many people on our team and JR’s team.”


Pasting the image together took around three and a half hours and resulted in the 150ft-tall image appearing in the morning, Silverstein explains: “The sun came up. Pedestrians began to wander over Aliyev. Just as JR had predicted, they often walked right over him without even noticing. To make out the image, you had to be high above.

“In the middle of the day, when the angles of shadow were favorable, JR went up in a helicopter and photographed the pasting, with all the cheerful and untidy street life of an early spring day in New York City happening on and around it. That image is the one you see on the cover of the magazine – a gloriously massive portrait of one of the city’s 3.1 million immigrants, unseen by many of the people passing him on the street.”

Image: Andrew T. Warman for The New York Times


By 9.30pm that evening, the image of Elmar was gone – a water truck had been brought in to wash the sheets of paper away. But, as Silverstein added at the end of his post, JR’s work wasn’t finished.

In addition to working on the cover, he had been commissioned to shoot a series of portraits for the inside of the magazine, images that were also posted up on walls within the five boroughs of NYC when the special issue went online – a map of where they are is here.

Furthermore, the Walking New York edition is also the first themed or special issue that art director Matt Willey has worked on since joining the magazine in mid-December last year.

Images courtesy The New York Times Magazine

Willey’s typeface Timmons NY is used throughout the issue and, along with MFred, is the second face he has donated to the Buy Fonts Save Lives initiative.

The inside of the issue is packed with bold headlines – some in striking white on black – and a series of street photographs by Lee Friedlander alongside a photo-essay by Christopher Griffith that documents the hands of several shoe shiners.

The result – a real team effort – is a powerful statement about the city and the people who live, work and walk there.

Images courtesy The New York Times Magazine

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