Exhibition | Life Magazine and the Power of Photography

On February 22, nearly six hundred visitors joined us in celebrating the opening of Life Magazine and the Power of Photography. Writing this article from my front porch while the Museum is temporarily closed, I remain grateful that so many people were able to experience the exhibition on opening night and during its first few weeks on view. For those who have yet to see it, I hope the following gives you a sense of the project.

Cover of Life, special edition, August 11, 1969. Photograph by Neil Armstrong, NASA. LIFE Picture Collection . ©1969 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved Published weekly from 1936 to 1972, Life magazine was visually revolutionary and extraordinarily popular. At its height, Life reached approximately 25 percent of the US population. It used images in ways that fundamentally shaped how its readers understood photography and experienced key historical events. Drawing on unprecedented access to Life magazine’s picture and document archives, the exhibition brings together original press prints, contact sheets, shooting scripts, internal memos, and layout experiments that shed new light on the collaborative process behind many now-iconic images and photographic stories.

Life’s impact was a result of its approach to visual storytelling, and its photographs played an important role in twentieth-century dialogues surrounding war, race, technology, and national identity. Through the vision of its founder, Henry R. Luce, its editorial teams’ points of view, and the demographics of its readers, Life promoted a predominately white, middle-class perspective on politics and culture. Even as technologies and the distribution of images have changed dramatically in the intervening decades, photographs remain potent tools of communication that can shape and influence our understanding of world events and cultures.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Red Jackson with His Mother and Brother, Harlem, New York, 1948. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 27.9 × 35.6 cm. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks FoundationThe exhibition is organized into three sections that explore Life’s photographic and editorial processes. Life picture editor Wilson Hicks noted, “A picture story starts with an event or an idea.” Life’s editorial team turned events and ideas into assignments for photographers. On being given an assignment, a photographer would frequently work with a researcher, creating a “story-building team,” and then head out with a reporter. Once the assignment began, the focus of a story might shift, and a photographer’s individual vision and on-the-spot decisions became an essential part of the picture-making process.

The first section of the exhibition, “Getting the Picture,” groups objects under headings such as “Gaining Access,” “Hiring Expert Photographers,” and “Following a Script” to explore how photographs were made. Sometimes photographers pitched their own stories to the editors at Life, as was the case with Gordon Parks, who photographed Red Jackson, a gang leader in Harlem, both in peaceful moments with his mother and brother and in more dangerous situations. Through vintage contact sheets and press prints, viewers can appreciate Parks’s nuanced approach, even as the published story placed greater emphasis on the more sensational aspects of Red’s life that the magazine’s audience would have associated with gangs.

Life photo editor Natalie Kosek reviews photographs, 1946. Photographer unknown. Gelatin silver print, 28.2 × 27.5 cm. LIFE Picture Collection As examined in “Crafting Photo Stories,” once a photographer completed an assignment, his or her undeveloped rolls of film and caption files were sent to Life’s offices, where editorial teams selected images and determined how to adapt them for the printed page. Life claimed to have invented the photo-essay, a multipage article with large-scale photographs and minimal text. Photographers often shot thousands of images for a single story, and Life’s negative and picture editors, such as such as Peggy Sargent and Natalie Kosek, winnowed down these images to arrive at a final selection of photographs that could be crafted into a compelling narrative.

With photographic content finalized, the art director and layout artists collaborated with writers, researchers, and fact-checkers to format each page. Few layout mock-ups exist today because they were ephemeral steps along the way to the printed story. Those that do—three are on view for the first time in the section “Life’s Photographic Impact”—show experimentation with the scale and placement of the photographs. Placeholder text indicates that the pictorial message came first. This complex editorial process concluded when final layouts were sent by train from New York to Chicago, where the magazine would be printed by R. R. Donnelley & Sons and distributed across the nation.

Photographs by Carl Iwasaki (American, 1923–2016) and Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Layout mock-up for “Story of the Week: The Compassion of Americans Brings a New Life for Flavio,” Life, July 21, 1961. Photographs pasted on paper, 42.1 × 59.7 cm. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Carl Iwasaki / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty ImagesFrom its earliest issues, sold on newsstands and delivered to homes in late 1936, Life realized its potential power and reach. The magazine’s circulation went from 1 to 2 million between its first and second year, and it peaked at more than 8.5 million in 1969. Readers did not passively consume Life’s photographs; they responded by writing letters to Life’s editors, purchasing extra copies of special editions, and even offering assistance to individuals profiled in the magazine.

Life also perpetuated its own influence by repackaging its photographs and using its technical sophistication and business savvy to outpace its competitors. The rise of television, however, caused audiences and advertisers to move away from illustrated magazines, and Life was compelled to end its weekly run after 1,864 issues on December 29, 1972.

Katherine A. Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography

Life Magazine and the Power of Photography has been organized by The Princeton University Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition at Princeton 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 1998, 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 by 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.