Behind the Cover: August 2013

Photographer Robert Clark shot cupcakes and other sweets to illustrate the cultural history of sugar for our August 2013 issue.

What better icon than a cupcake to illustrate a story about our obsession with sugar?

The simple treat has beguiled America's sweet tooth for centuries, recently inspiring a trend of specialty bakeries, food trucks, and even a reality TV series. Now the cupcake's coups also include a glamour shot on the cover of National Geographic magazine. (Read the story: "Sugar Love.")

Other contenders for the cover image included gummy treats, cotton candy, and soft-serve ice cream. But the cupcake won because it was thought to have the widest appeal, says the magazine's creative director, Bill Marr.

"We wanted a summery, easy-to-read photo of something luscious that you would just want to dive into," says Marr. "What was interesting to me—and fun—was how much disagreement there was among our staff over what makes the most mouthwatering sweet. I think it sort of comes down to your own personal history and associations."

Photographer Robert Clark describes the image's aesthetic as "kind of 1950s-'60s, Betty Crockerish." He spent many sugar-filled days working on this story in his New York City studio, and shot some three dozen different cupcakes from a Brooklyn bakery called Cupcakeland.

"It's sort of like writing—you may have to take a lot of notes until you find something that really works," says the story's photo editor, Susan Welchman.

Although some photographers "style" food with other substances—for example, a bit of petroleum jelly can make an apple appear glossier—nothing like that was done in this case, says Welchman: "I wanted everything to be real." (Clark did move some sprinkles around with tweezers, though.)

So, how many of the portrait subjects turned into snacks? Only a few, says Clark.

"You start drinking coffee and eating all this sweet stuff just because it's there, and it makes you feel awful pretty quickly," he recalls. "We ended up throwing a lot of it out." (Food pantries won't accept unpackaged goods, Welchman noted.)

This certainly isn't the first time Clark's work has been featured on the front of the magazine—he's shot 15 covers, including four different baby portraits for the May edition. (See: "Behind the Cover: May 2013.")

Photographing this story was fun, says Clark, but also a wake-up call: "It's sort of appalling to realize how much sugar we consume."

Meanwhile, our international editions didn't always stick to cupcakes, since they're not necessarily as popular abroad as they are in the United States. Foreign editions of National Geographic went for frozen yogurt, cotton candy … and, in Serbia, the sugar cubes that are liberally tossed into coffee and tea. The Indonesian edition gets a prize for the best headline: the alliterative phraseGila Gula, or "crazy for sugar."

How do you feel about our cupcake cover—and the other cover choices? Share your answer in the comments.