Great 'Life' magazine documentary on BBC Four

by Ian Thompson

I watched an excellent documentary on my favourite channel BBC Four the other night. Rankin had decided to track down some of the photographers who made ‘Life’ magazine famous since its first issue in 1936. Through this, the programme was able to get inside the heads of some of the most influential photojournalists of the 20th century.

Life was published until 1972, although they published an occasional ‘special’ until 1978. It then became a monthly again from 1978 to 2000. For fans of photography and photojournalism though, the first flourish is considered to be the heyday of the iconic magazine.

As a designer, the covers have always been the most impressive. Even though the look of the cover over the very first issue is clearly part of a powerful visual movement of the time, it’s hard to believe that this Russian constructivist/Rodchenko inspired look was considered commercially realistic for an American audience approaching WW11.

First life cover

This brutal, modernist look never dates for me though. I love it’s uncompromising aesthetic and I think it’s absolutely beautiful. I’d like to think the American public thought the same, but it seems hard to imagine they could though – frankly it must’ve looked like a communist manifesto in late 30s America. Maybe the depression gave the US a taste for the brutal and austere. The only reference I can think of that links this look is possibly Edward Hopper. I’m sure people out there know exactly why this cover worked and I’d love to know.

And work it certainly did. ‘Life’ seems to have been an overnight success, selling 380,000 copies in its first week, rising to over a million in four months.  It went on to sell more than 13.5 million in a single week at one point. Life was originally a humour and general interest magazine from 1883 to 1936. It was bought by publisher Henry Luce in 1936 because he simply wanted the name. All the other assets were sold off. Luce had an idea that pictures could tell a powerful story in themselves rather than to simply be an illustration for the text. The photo essay was born and the text for the whole thing was condensed into captions for 50 pages of pictures.

I’ve lived in a time when magazines have always had to plaster their contents over their covers in order to compete on the newsstands. I’ve heard some editors and even editorial designers attempting to claim that this is a good thing, producing interesting design solutions to the challenge of heavily content-filled front covers. It isn’t a good thing, nor is it interesting. And, given the imminent migration of most if not all publications to the web, it looks likely that the concept of simple, direct visual impact could be on its death bed. No album covers, no magazine covers, no book covers – just a few pixels in the corner of a screen full of text. Web sites are the perfect vindication for those who have always believed that human beings always preferred the content page and the index to the seductive but irrelevant front cover.

As a designer, I’m happy to fight this philosophy to the death. Just look at these amazing covers. And this quality was pretty consistent every week for the whole of the magazine’s first 35 years.

Life covers

But if I’m true to the spirit of ‘Life’, I’ve probably already used too much text already. The three following photographers were the real standouts for me, so I’ll just show some pictures and a minimal-ish caption.

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Known as ‘Eisie’ to his close friends and colleagues (among them Marilyn Monroe), Eisenstaedt seemed to render all the subsequent photojournalists in the documentary glassy-eyed with admiration. He set the bar from the magazine’s outset. He was fast, brilliant and full of it. He got most of his best shots using the technique that Martin Parr now uses of holding his camera low down and not looking through the lens – simply watching the subject for the big moment. His VJ Day celebration photo in Times Square seems to be the very definition of the word ‘iconic’.

W. Eugene Smith

Eugene Smith
I got the impression this guy was really edgy and difficult. This always makes me wonder how someone like that could produce such personal, human work. Curmudgeonly people do seem to speak for us better than they should (Larkin for instance). I saw a programme a couple of years ago where they traced the three miners in that amazing 1950 photo shot at Coed Ely Colliery. I can’t believe how great that shot is.

Larry Burrows

Larry Burrows

There was a great bit of footage of Burrows talking in his plummy English way about his experiences in Vietnam. He looked so utterly out of place – his speccy-intellectual appearance making him seem like a bank manager in khaki, but he risked his life for nine years flat getting some of the shots that defined that war in the way that Capa did for D Day. He died with three other journalists when his helicopter was shot down over Laos covering the Lam Son invasion in 1971. He had dodged every bullet in the field. The more I find out about real heroes, the more they turn out to look like this.

Harry Benson

Harry Benson
Heavy Scottish accent, seems a bit wild, witty, and with a real eye for beauty. Pre-dates all those celebrity pillagers. Makes media figures look like another species.

Producing this post has answered a real question for me. Why do I spend ages finding the pictures for my posts and not nearly long enough writing them. Well it’s obvious I like pictures much more than words. So, in future, I pledge to make my blog posts picture essays, with fewer polemics and diatribes.

Thanks in advance to Time/Life for the pictures and for not locking me, my descendants and dependents away for showing them without permission (up yours SOPA).



To make sure you don’t miss out on our best ideas, news and insights, or if you’d like to receive invites to events that you really shouldn’t miss, you can subscribe to our mailing list here .

Hide comments >
comments powered by Disqus