The Story of LIFE Magazine: Built on Powerful Photography

LIFE Magazine is an icon in 20th Century American journalism. No other magazine before or since has placed such fantastic emphasis on pure, honest, visual storytelling, and done it so well. In an age that is rapidly seeing the decline of the professional photojournalist, this BBC Four documentary by British photographer Rankin explores LIFE in its mid-century heyday, as it paralleled the rise of America as a worldwide influence:

Made possible by advances in camera technology in the first part of the century (handheld cameras, 35mm film), LIFE was molded out of a general humour magazine into a weekly photo-centric news publication in 1936. It pioneered the “photo essay” – a documentary style of photography that told large narratives through several images. Through these, as well as the magazine’s unforgettable covers and sensational singular photographs, Americans were intimately connected to the world through images for the first time – through the First World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

LIFE lasted in this form until 1972, when it became financially unstable and ceased weekly production, printing intermittent “special reports” until 1978, then re-emerging as a watered-down general interest publication, released monthly.

LIFE Magazine reportage photography

When the American public looks back on the images that LIFE created, they see the nostalgia of their country’s golden years. In these same images, we photographers – particularly the aspiring photojournalists among us – see the shining moment of our craft’s history, full of optimism, possibility, and hope for the future. When we look at the photographs, we know that there is something drastically different about them, something elusive that is in some way unrivaled by any of the millions of photos made every day. Rankin’s interviews with some of the photographers that made LIFE so monumental help us to understand and appreciate their dedication – the way they honoured their profession and took it so seriously, striving always to make the image better, more impactful, more true. There is much to be learned from these wise men, when we take the time to listen.

LIFE was built by the founder of Time Magazine, Henry Luce. It began with only four photographers – Thomas McAvoy, Peter Stackpole, Alfred Esisenstaedt, and Margaret Bourke-White. Throughout the years, though, it employed some of the greatest photographers ever known, including Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Dorothea Lange. Many will criticize LIFE for its frequent lack of objectivity – a value which is now entrenched in modern journalism, although is actually quite a recent idea. We often think of it as meaning “unbiased” or without opinion, but strictly speaking, it is simply an emphasis on facts, and a waryness of presenting ideas or opinions as truth. When the facts are in, it is virtually impossible for a person not to form an opinion, which makes unbiased journalism sort of a wild goose chase, and LIFE understood this.

LIFE Magazine reportage photography

The story of LIFE mimics the story of America’s ascent as a cultural superpower. Through the depression, the wars, the turmoil, it suffered as America suffered and triumphed as it triumphed. It was bold, fearless, and unflinching in its examination of the ups and downs of American life, always pushing to go deeper into the national psyche. Its journey holds true to its mission, as its very existence tells the dynamic story of the society that birthed, sustained, and ultimately destroyed it.

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One response to “The Story of LIFE Magazine: Built on Powerful Photography”

  1. John McClelland says:

    Excellent! A friend who worked in Time-Life photo for decades tipped me to it. One part of this online text wants to be reviewed and revised. LIFE began in 1936, but that part says (its) photo essays helped Americans follow the First World War (which was 1914-1918). I think the author meant Second WW (1939-45).

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