Last week, President Barack Obama, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2012, granted us a rare sitting with the legendary photographer Nadav Kander. We chose Kander because of his remarkable ability to capture the mood of a moment. He has photographed some of the most iconic people of our time — from Sir Paul McCartney and Brad Pitt to Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, who is also featured in this issue. The two Obama portraits appearing in the issue are the first formal portraits of the President since his re-election.

As managing editor Rick Stengel writes in his editor’s letter, “We are in the midst of historic cultural and demographic changes, and Obama is both the symbol and in some ways the architect of this new America.” To capture that magnitude, TIME commissioned Kander, whose signature style is defined by his exquisite lighting and almost painterly touch, to make a historic cover. The last time he photographed the President was in 2009 for The New York Times Magazine.