LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography

J. R. Eyerman, Audience Watches Movie Wearing 3-D Spectacles, 1952. Gelatin silver print, 29.2 × 21.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Howard Greenberg Collection ©1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved.

Continue to explore Life magazine and its photographs through this interactive digital module. Here you can view each photo story featured in the exhibition as it was published on the pages of Life, as well as the cover for that week's issue and the paid advertisements adjacent to many of the stories. Begin by clicking on a thumbnail labeled with the story’s original publication date, such as August 9, 1943, for Margaret Bourke-White's "Women in Steel" or June 16, 1961, for Gordon Parks's "Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” and then zoom in and out to study specific photographs and read captions. You can turn the pages to see the story develop over multiple spreads, the same way it was presented to Life's readers.

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From the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, the vast majority of the photographs printed and consumed in the United States appeared on the pages of illustrated magazines. Offering an in-depth look at the photography featured in Life magazine throughout its weekly run from 1936 to 1972, this exhibition examines how the magazine’s use of images fundamentally shaped the modern idea of photography in the United States. The work of photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Larry Burrows, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Frank Dandridge, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith is explored in the context of the creative and editorial structures at Life. Drawing on unprecedented access to Life magazine’s picture and paper archives, as well as photographers’ archives, the exhibition presents an array of materials, including caption files, contact sheets, and shooting scripts, that shed new light on the collaborative process behind many now-iconic images and photo-essays.

A fully illustrated catalogue, which won the 2021 Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award, College Art Association, is available through the Museum Store.

Life Magazine and the Power of Photography has been organized by the Princeton University Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After its premiere at Princeton (February 22–March 15, 2020), the exhibition travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (October 9, 2022–January 16, 2023).

Life Magazine and the Power of Photography is made possible by lead support from Jim and Valerie McKinney. Generous support is also provided by the Humanities Council’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project, Princeton University; Sandy Stuart, Class of 1972, and Robin Stuart; the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund.

Additional supporters include John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; M. Robin Krasny, Class of 1973; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher through the Sakana Foundation; the Sara and Joshua Slocum, Class of 1998, Art Museum Fund; David H. McAlpin Jr., Class of 1950; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Frederick Quellmalz, Class of 1934, Photography Fund; Bob Fisher, Class of 1976, and Randi Fisher, and the Brown Foundation Fellows Program at the Dora Maar House.

The accompanying publication is made possible in part from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; the Joseph L. Shulman Foundation Fund for Art Museum Publications; Annette Merle-Smith; and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.      

*Homepage banner image: Margaret Bourke-White, At the Time of the Louisville Flood (detail), 1937. Gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Howard Greenberg Collection—Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. Image by Margaret Bourke-White. © 1937 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Photograph Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.