The February 21 opening of the Princeton University Art Museum’s “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” promised to be a powerful draw for the museum.
Its subject was a mass media publication with a new idea that took hold of the public in 1936 and didn’t let go until its parent corporation, Time Inc., closed it in 1972.
Yet, as PUAM photography curator Katherine A. Bussard and Boston Museum of Fine Arts senior photography curator Kristen Gresh show, during its hayday, Life hired and dispatched scores of now celebrated photojournalists across the globe to do something new in American publishing: capture the news in images.
And by doing so, those photographers also created some of our nation’s enduring images and started a precedent that we now take as matter of fact.
And unless the State of New Jersey’s social distancing regulations are reversed and the exhibition is allowed to reopens before its scheduled closing on June 21, readers will have to experience it though PUAM website, a massive and authoritative publication, and articles such as this one.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is something to commemorate.
So what exactly was Life magazine about?
As Life founder Henry R Luce noted in 1936, his new venture was a weekly designed “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers, and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms , things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed; Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind.”
He concluded the statement by calling his new kind of publication “the Show-book of the World.”
Yet it is more than just seeing with the eye.
As PUAM director James Steward and the Boston Museum director Matthew Teitelbaum note jointly in the introduction of the exhibition’s 338-page catalog, “Great single pictures published in Life have been celebrated extensively; the complexity of the magazine’s picture-making enterprise and influential communication system has, however, been underrecognized. Life’s photographs, intended to be seen in sequence with supporting text, have, time and time again, been removed from their original contexts. This project attempts something entirely different in exploring how the magazine championed photography through sophisticated visual storytelling processes shaped by many photographers and to which many staff members contributed.”
That’s a point picked up by the curators who in their catalog introduction first put the phenomenon of Life magazine into context by saying that looking at Life’s influence may be difficult in an era “when news images can appear on devices instantaneously as current events unfold around the world and are captured by journalists, concerned citizens, bloggers, tastemakers, and others.”
However, they argue, “Today’s media ecology—with its self-awareness, reliance on reaction, and concomitant modes of circulation—was anticipated, if not invented, by Life magazine.”
They later move to the “power” of Life’s photographs.
“The desire to use photographs to tell stories and not to illustrate them came alive in Life’s layout department, considered the heart of the magazine’s production, where mock-ups for every page of the magazine were generated,” note the curators.
“Here the art director and layout artists collaborated with writers, caption researchers, messengers, and others to construct each page. Editors read caption copy material with researchers, copy editors fact-checked text, and editors pinned layout mock-ups on boards to make final selections. Simultaneously researchers gathered data to complement the photographer’s or reporter’s caption files. The subject of a photo- essay could determine the approach to its layout.”
While few Life layout mock-ups exist, the curators say the few that do “show clear experimentation with the scale, placement, and graphic impact of images on the page. Additionally, we know that approximately 30 to 40 cover mock-ups were made per week, although the chosen cover was generally formulaic, usually featuring a portrait.”
While understanding the process of how Life’s photographs and pages worked, the curator’s description of how the monthly magazine was prepared is also interesting: “Final layouts reached the R. R. Donnelley & Sons printing plant in Chicago by air, train, and teletype as a form of ‘insurance against failure.’ Advertisements, which required multitonal printing, created one of the biggest logistical challenges and had to go to press up to six weeks in advance.”
However, they continue, the mechanics of operating a weekly, breaking news needed to be addressed and, say the curators, “the entire process could be completely upended and sped up” as exemplified in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, 1963, on learning the news, (Hunt) stopped the magazine’s presses, and Life’s editorial team redid 38 pages to provide coverage of the assassination itself, its aftermath, the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. Because of the vicissitudes of the news cycle and the long lead time for advertisements, Donnelley printed, folded, gathered, sewed, trimmed, and then mailed out or bundled for newsstands Life magazines in a nearly continuous operation.”
Nevertheless, although the mainstream—or “bourgeois” according to media critics—publication is connected to its photographers and the images that are so familiar that they seemed to have always existed.
The former includes powerhouses Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith.
The photos include the D-Day landing in Normandy, the 1945 Times Square Victory in Europe Day Sailor-Nurse Kiss, a portrait of a defiant Winston Churchill, an audience watching a 3-D movie, and scores more.
They also chronicled painful times—the Civil Rights struggles, Vietnam War, the Cold War—as well as lighter ones, as in a peek into the life of the Beatles.
Despite the publication circulation reaching 8.5 million weekly subscribers, the publishers decided to cut their losses in 1972 when they saw a reduction of advertisers who moved from print to television and a rise in postage and production costs. This followed a costly acquisition of the Saturday Evening Post’s “lists”—presumably subscriber and advertiser data—in 1969. The final publication was the last week of December.
And while the issue’s theme was the year in pictures, no photo was used on the cover.
The exhibition—featuring much more discoveries and revelations—represents a first. The two museums were the first to be granted complete access to the Life Picture Collection and among the first to delve deeply into the newly available Time Inc. Records Archive at the New-York Historical Society.
The hope is the PUAM and exhibition will reopen before the end of June and regional audiences will still have the opportunity to view it. Others will have to make a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where the exhibition currently is scheduled to be on view from Aug. 19 to Dec. 13.
Meanwhile one can visit the PUAM’s online link to the exhibition.