A Brief Look at Life

September 14, 2017

1936LC 1123.JPG1936LC 1123.JPGLIFE cover 11-23-1936, First cover w. Ft. Peck Dam.

Debut Issue of LIfe Magazine 

If you are an aspiring writer, you look to your favorite authors for inspiration.  But where do you go if you are a budding photographer?  For photographers of a certain vintage, the answer is – or was -- Life Magazine.   Pictured here is the cover of the debut issue, featuring a photograph of the Fort Peck Dam by the incomparable Margaret Bourke-White.  Although it would be decades before I took up photography seriously myself, I was unwittingly absorbing valuable lessons from some of the world’s best photographers as I pored over the pages of Life Magazine each week.       

In 1936 publisher Henry Luce had bought out a struggling humor magazine called Life, stripped it of everything but its title and relaunched it as a weekly photo news magazine.  The title of Life’s later rival, Look Magazine, perhaps better captured what Luce’s brainchild was all about.  You were supposed to look at the pictures, and the text mainly served to explain what you were looking at.  Toward this end, Luce hired some of the best photojournalists of the day, among them Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andreas Feininger, Dorothea Lange and Lee Miller.   

Life took advantage of two recent technological innovations to deliver high-quality photojournalism to its readers.  The first was the recent availability of compact and durable 35-mm cameras like the Leica with shutter speeds of up to 1/500th of a second, which enabled photographers to go just about anywhere to get a story.  The second was the use of heavily coated paper rather than newsprint, which guaranteed excellent photo reproduction quality in a mass-circulation publication.  To show its pictures to best advantage, Life was printed in a large format – much larger than anything on newsstands today.  The magazine initially sold for a dime. But even though it was an instant success, the magazine took three years to earn a profit due to high production costs.  Life remained the nation’s preeminent photo journal until it ceased weekly publication in 1972, the victim of another visual medium -- television.