December 1, 2022

Life magazine’s exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is eye-opening

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This fact shocked me: Between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War, according to the organizers of “Life Magazine and the power of photography“, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “the majority of photographs printed and consumed in the United States appeared on the pages of illustrated magazines”.

Today, with photographs published and consumed everywhereit is amazing to think that their distribution has ever been so concentrated.

Among the illustrated magazines, the most important was Life. Published as a weekly news magazine between 1936 and 1972, Life magazine sold tens of millions. When you include casual readership, its pages regularly reach about a quarter of the US population.

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Life magazine appeared before the appearance of television. What made it groundbreaking was the focus on photography. Previous illustrated magazines used artists’ illustrations. If they used photographs, they were subordinate to the written word. Life has brought photographs to the fore.

Its founder, Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce, was inspired by European image magazines. Working in New York with Kurt Safranski, a German Jew who came to the United States to escape Nazi persecution, and Kurt Korff, former editor of the “Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung”, Luce experimented with models and mannequins, before typing a “Flyer for a new magazine.”

You can see this electrifying document in the first gallery of the exhibition. It was like a pitch, so it might help to imagine it delivered by the voice of Jon Hamm as Publicist Don Draper, filled with speaker pauses for dramatic effect. The purpose of the new magazine, Luce wrote, would be “to see life; see the world; attend major events; look at 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 and enjoy seeing; to see and marvel; to see and be instructed.

Van Gogh through a pinhole

The magazine’s working title at this point was “The Show-Book of the World”. Its premise was that “to see and be shown is now the will and new expectation of half of humanity”. Feel the tectonic force of this statement! The destiny mission of the new weekly was to be carried out by photographers. The magazine, writes Luce, “aims to be the greatest exhibition of images on earth. … He offers to scour the world for the best pictures of all kinds; edit them with a sense of visual form, story and drama; and publish them on fine paper, every week, for a penny.

Killer sentence. Fantastic use of punctuation. I had goosebumps when I read it. It also made me wonder about the rhetoric they’re cooking up right now at Meta, Google, and Apple, and how it will shape our lives in the decades to come.

Because life has truly shaped lives. It affected people’s understanding of the world and their attitudes, and it took on the power of a shared document, a story. “It was all three [TV] networks combined,” said Stan Flink, 99, a former journalist and correspondent for Life, on the occasion of the exhibition audio guide.

By emphasizing visual storytelling through sequenced photographs (instead of single images illustrating stories), Life revolutionized news. Photographers who have worked for the magazine include Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. But this exhibition curated by Kristen Gresh, Katherine Bussard and Alissa Schapiro, is not a greatest hits selection of iconic images from the pages of LIFE. Its design is more ambitious than that.

It includes some of the best-known photographs of the 20th century. Among them: Capa’s photograph of the 1944 Normandy landings (which the photographer Matthias Bruggman described on the audio guide as “the Mona Lisa of conflict photography”); JR Eyerman’s 1952 photograph of an audience watching a movie with 3D glasses; Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 photograph of a sailor kissing a woman on VJ Day; and Frank DandridgePhotograph from 1963 of Sarah Collins, 12, hospitalized with injured eyes after the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church killed her sister and three other daughters.

Birmingham’s “Fifth Daughter”

But the show doesn’t just showcase these iconic photographs and their stories. It delves into all aspects of the photographs – from the commissioning process of the magazine and history scholars to the assignments themselves, the image selections, captions and layouts, and the subsequent impact of the images. It’s not just about how the sausage was made, but also how it was cooked, how it was served, who ate it, and how it tasted. For anyone interested in journalism, photography, and ethics, it’s eye-opening and captivating.

“Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” is a much larger version of an exhibition that opened at the Princeton University Art Museum in early 2020. This exhibition was interrupted by the pandemic. If you missed it there and can’t see it in Boston, it comes with a catalog full of new research from the archives of Life magazine and the photographers who worked there.

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Sometimes photographers would come up with an idea and get it accepted. Far more often, the magazine’s editorial team would select the subject, choose a photographer, and research the story using researchers and a story writing team. In other words, it was a collaboration. The challenge of collaborations, as everyone knows, is to keep everyone on the same page. At Life, things got interesting when the photographer in the field (usually accompanied by a reporter) captured things that didn’t entirely fit the story as it was conceived.

It is fascinating to read letters and telegrams sent from the field by people like Margaret Bourke-White, Yousuf Karsh (who photographed Winston Churchill) and W. Eugene Smith. Smith, after spending nearly a month photographing midwives working in impoverished areas of the southern United States, wrote to the magazine complaining about the “staggering” amount of money he had spent on portable cameras, lenses and strobes, and lamenting the condition of his car, “So battered by the brutality of the backcountry cow trails that I feel I must either return it when I return or go through a complete and costly overhaul.” Smith hoped his story would strike “a mighty blow…against the stupidity of racial prejudice.”

Letters sent by photographers in Vietnam and other war zones are a reminder of both the risks taken by war photographers and the enormous logistical challenges they face, including smuggling rolls of film to the magazine.

Inevitably (it’s in the nature of journalism), the photographers on the ground discovered more than the story writing team had imagined. The team back in Life then had to decide how far to adjust their initial idea or, conversely, how far to massage the images (by selection, caption, layout or sometimes even manipulation) to make them “adapt”.

Were many of their decisions based on ideological biases? Undoubtedly. Catastrophic global conflict dominated the magazine’s early years, and the Cold War followed. So did the civil rights movement, Vietnam and second-wave feminism. Life’s generally moderate view (in an American context) might seem imperialistic from a foreign perspective. And in America, where the magazine catered to a mostly white, middle-class audience, it often ignored or misrepresented the experiences of large swaths of the population.

The Boston exhibit includes more recent, unaffiliated work from LIFE by three contemporary artists—Alfredo Jaar, Alexandra Bell, and Julia Wachtel—who are interested in the power of images in journalism. Their works, conceived as reflections on some of the questions raised by the historical part of the exhibition, are conceptual and critical of the power structures underlying the production of mainstream news. I found Wachtel’s installation abstruse, and Bell’s write-ups and arch-provocative reworkings of New York Times front-page stories provocative but tendentious (as she obviously thinks the original stories were).

I found Jaar’s installations more touching. The Chilean-born, New York-based artist finds simple yet powerful ways to question the effect of new photographs of traumatic events. Her work expresses empathy for photographers and their subjects. Photographers, he says on the audio guide, are often betrayed by photo agencies and media companies. They send their work, but a “photo editor comes in and selects the images according to the ideological agenda of these media companies. Perhaps most of the best images have never been used because they don’t fit the media narrative and their ideological agendas.

The point is well understood, but it is not just about ideological agendas. It’s also about storytelling constraints in a given format; on collaborative work in the context of relentless deadlines; and on the bottom line. Life magazine was a business. People on the editorial side reportedly had differing opinions on which images mattered most. Their colleagues on the business side would have had their own opinions on how to sell copies and attract publicity. Ideology is inherent in everything, especially in economics. It may be useful to make it visible. But it is naive to simply wish these forces to go away.

In any case, it is the kind of big questions raised by this fascinating program, which can also lead us to measure the distance between the end of Life, which ceased to appear 50 years ago (overtaken by the television news and “magazine” format like “60 Minutes”), and today’s media landscape, where algorithms rule, infotainment prevails, cynical manipulation of people’s fears is de rigueur, deep fakes are rife and the he very idea of ​​a shared reality underpinned by empirical truth is under constant attack.

Life Magazine and the power of photography Until January 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. mfa.org.