Under the Cover: May 2016

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here at The Atlantic, we like to do things … differently. The latest example is our Money issue, also known as “The Money Report.” We decided, of course, to do a cover story about not having money—more specifically, the shame that comes with financial stress in middle-class society.

A combination of poor decisions, as well as rising education and health care costs, have put the author, Neal Gabler, in a position where he would have trouble coming up with $400 cash in an emergency. “Financial impotence,” he calls it, “has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it.” In other words, nobody wants to talk about their financial struggles.

When it came time to come up with the cover image, I started with ideas about financial struggle. One image I really liked was a guy in the hole. Literally. I wanted to stick a guy in a hole, holding his empty wallet:

Or what about using Gabler’s term “financial impotence”? Maybe a hand holding a tiny dollar?

While these would’ve been cool images, they didn’t convey the idea of “shame.” So I went back to the drawing board. I focused on the idea of shame and the “need to mask” oneself and then I thought about sports.

Let’s say you’re a fan of the New York Knicks … like me. And let’s say the Knicks are trash. You may decide as a fan to attend a game. You may also decide that rather than show your face, you would cover it up because you are too ashamed to be shown cheering for such a bad team. (C’mon Phil Jackson, get it together!)

(Jonathan Bachman / AP)

I wanted to apply that idea to our cover. I came up with a new sketch:

Idea approved, I reached out to L.A.-based photographer Hugh Kretschmer. We came up with more middle-class situations for who we were now referring to as “Baghead.”

Baghead mowing the lawn …

Baghead getting the bill at a restaurant …

Baghead paying for organic groceries …

Baghead and the rest of his Baghead family at home …

When I got to the set, the first thing I did was put my art school education to some good use and draw sad smiley faces on paper bags:

For the interior shots we used painted backdrops, the kind that movie directors used before the invention of CGI. Our theme: The perfect middle-class life that Americans envision—nice house, two cars, white picket fence—isn’t always what it seems. It’s not real:

There is nothing like welcoming a model to the set and saying “… oh, that’s nice … now put this bag on your head.”

Photographer Hugh Kretschmer behind the lens

For the photos accompanying Gabler’s piece, we worked in some details for our more eagle-eyed readers, like Mr. Baghead’s driver’s license:

… and the name of the grocery store where he shops for his kale and organic yogurt:

… and, of course, the family dog*, who is equally ashamed:

As for the cover, we went with the old “pockets-like-rabbit-ears” (RIP B.I.G.), making this sad character even sadder. I really hope he gets it together …

Till next time, true believers!

*No animals were harmed in the making of this cover. It was fake.

(Under the Cover archive here)