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That’s life: The story of the classic photo journalism magazine

Children at Puppet Theatre, Paris, 1963. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt - Credit: Archant

In the era of selfies and iphone snaps, the photographs in a new exhibition about life magazine represent a lost world from the mid-20th century. RICHARD HOLLEDGE reports.

What image would a magazine editor put on the cover of a new magazine? A picture of a celebrity? A sporting hero? Surely a bunch of beguiling children.

When US publisher Henry Luce launched Life magazine in 1936 he rejected all those obvious suggestions. Instead, he chose a dam.

Stark, massive and uncompromising, a concrete perfection of impersonality and purity of style, the kind of image one would expect from a serious architectural publication.

The celebrities, sportsmen and children would come later. Luce also chose not to reflect a world in which Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were spreading their poison in Europe. Instead, the image of the newly-built Fort Peck Dam, in Montana, spoke of a confident nation that had helped win the First World War, a USA which was recovering from the Great Depression of 1929 and was now embracing its burgeoning economic and political power with enthusiasm.

It is one of classic images from the Life Magazine Collection at London’s Atlas Gallery which reflect Luce’s aim to produce “big pictures, beautiful pictures, exciting pictures, pictures from all over the world, pictures of interesting people and lots of babies”.

Luce, who had already made a fortune publishing magazines such as Time, paid $92,000 to the owners of Life, a failing, humorous magazine, convinced that there was a market in photo-journalism.

He was right. Nothing had been seen like it before – or indeed matched since its demise as a weekly in 1972.

The first issue sold 380,000 copies and within four weeks the circulation rose to more than a million a week. At its peak in the 1950s it had 100 million readers and was making as much as $12.5 million a year.

The timing was perfect – and lucky. By the 1930s, camera technology had improved to allow photographers to carry their equipment relatively easily, printing methods had advanced and television had yet to make an impact. The news came only from print-heavy papers and radio.

Now, the reader could actually witness the world in action.

Luce was adamant; the photojournalist would rule the pages and the reporter would play second fiddle. As one of Life’s early staffers recalled ruefully: “The reporter often had to carry the photographers’ heavy bags of gear. We were the pigs and the photographers were the big-time farmers.”

One of the most significant of Life’s photographers was Margaret Bourke-White. She was the only woman of the original four on the staff and it was her image of the Fort Peck Dam that ushered in this new era of radical journalism.

She took many architectural images such as New York’s George Washington Bridge but she was a fearless chronicler of conflict and controversy. She was the first female photographer in Second World War combat zones and joined US general George Patton’s Third Army on its march through Germany in the spring of 1945. She was on the scene when the prisoners of Buchenwald concentration camp were released in the same year.

She wrote: “I kept telling myself that I would believe the indescribably horrible sight in the courtyard before me only when I had a chance to look at my own photographs.”

She covered the Korean War and the partition of India and Pakistan, where she photographed the ailing Indian leader Gandhi at his spinning wheel and exposed the plight of black workers in South Africa in a series, Gold Miners.

In a documentary with British photographer Rankin a few years ago one of her contemporaries, reporter Ralph Graves, recalled: “She was very painstaking, she took forever to set up a shoot. She used lights for everything. I don’t think she trusted God to handle the sun correctly.”

And in an aside which he would not get away with today, he added: “She had quite a reputation as quite a hot property. Beautiful woman. She looked like a lady, which she wasn’t totally. She slept with a fair number of generals but they were important to her cause and a fair few colonels if they had the authority she needed.”

When one of her colleagues – a man – was criticised by head office for not matching her output he riposted: “She has a piece of equipment that I don’t have.”

Nonetheless, as her Life colleague Carl Mydans put it, Bourke-White’s influence was “incalculable”. One of the others who worked on that first edition with her was the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt, who went on to create 2,500 photo-essays and 90 cover photos. German-born, he covered the rise of Adolf Hitler and in 1935 produced a series about Ethiopia, just before the Italian invasion.

Of those thousands of photographs, he is probably best remembered for his life-enhancing images such as Children at a Puppet Theatre, Paris, with its young faces agog with eager expectation, apprehension and glee.

There is the sheer exuberance of Drum Major, University of Michigan with its pied paper figure prancing across a lawn followed by laughing children and the poetry of the Ice Skating Waiter, Grand Hotel, St. Moritz as he swoops in fabulous synchronicity, tray in hand, one leg raised chair high, the other skimming along the ice.

Perhaps his best known image is the nurse in the arms of a sailor kissing with uninhibited joy as the end of war against Japan is declared in 1945. VJ Day, Times Square, NY, August 14, is so famous, so familiar, it is in danger of being dismissed as a cliché but it catches an instant of pure joy.

The war cemented the magazine’s popularity by bringing the triumphs and tragedies of the battlefield into millions of living rooms in a way that had not been seen before.

It was Life photographer Joe Rosenthal who took Marines of the 28th Regiment of the 5th Division Raise the American Flag Atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, and Mydans was one of the first photographers to be embedded with the troops – now common practise when countries go to war.

Clutching a small 35mm camera at a time when most photographers were still shooting with larger, unwieldy equipment, he worked on the Finnish-Russian border, across Europe and in China, Singapore and Thailand.

He was in the Philippines when he and his wife, Life researcher Shelley, were seized by the Japanese and were made prisoners of war in China for nearly two years. After they were repatriated in 1943, Mydans was on hand to create one of his best-known shots – General Douglas MacArthur landing at Luzon, Philippines.

Peacetime provided its own share of drama – and trauma. Hank Walker, who spent more than 10 years as a White House photographer had time to take only one shot to capture the intensity of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy arguing with brother Robert over who should be his vice-presidential running mate. JFK chose Lyndon Johnson; Robert hated him.

One of the most chilling images of that era is by Mydans – On the 6.25 from Grand Central to Stamford 1963 – which shows row after row of commuters, heads half-hidden behind headlines all carrying the same story: The assassination of John Kennedy.

John Dominis covered six Olympics, including the 1968 summer games in Mexico City, where he immortalised American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium, their gloved fists raised in a Black Power salute.

He reported from Vietnam, he was at Woodstock and he was clearly at home with the celebrity culture of the day, catching Frank Sinatra in a Miami restaurant with 1960s chat show host Ed Sullivan, fingers in a circle of appreciation, and distilling the implausible cool of Steve McQueen in Black Jaguar at studio, California.

This small exhibition is an amuse bouche into a world that was dangerous and depressing, fun and classy.

We find the Beatles, larking about in a pool in a Miami cold spell pretending they were enjoying themselves, by John Loengard who also snapped the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson flying a kite in Provence, France, in 1987.

It seems a marvellously serendipitous moment but, in fact, Bresson was tricky about having his picture taken. Eventually Mrs B persuaded him to fly their daughter’s kite for the ‘impromptu’ scene.

For sheer joie de vivre it is hard to beat Bob Landry’s Fred Astaire, Putting on the Ritz, where the dancer appears to defy gravity with a casual aplomb and a smile. And while we’re on the subject of poise Loomis Dean’s portrait Noel Coward, Las Vegas, is a perfect image; the theatrical pose with his ubiquitous cigarette holder against the low mountains in the distance, the line of clouds and the shadow of the great man stretching out across the desert.

As with most of Life’s images and the photo essays that made its name there is time to reflect, admire and be moved.

There is no equivalent in the age of the selfie and iPhone snaps which are soon lost in a digital miasma. In fact, photojournalism of that quality is virtually a lost art in newspapers and powerful images such as the dead migrant child on a beach in Turkey in 2015 are rare.

It’s ironic to note how the roles of photojournalist and reporter appear to have been reversed. Today the snapper gets a tiny credit above the photograph while the reporter invariably gets a byline, sometimes with a picture.

Imagine how that would play with the virtuosos of Life. Carl Mydans wrote in a draft for an unpublished memoir: “Marked by pride and delight and excitement in what we were doing under the new name ‘photojournalists’ we became storytellers and recorders of our times in pictures.”

Life Magazine Collection is at London’s Atlas Gallery until February 1

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