A lens for laughter and pain

The Great Life Photographers
March 18, 2005

Is Life still alive? One sees Life Year in Pictures 2005 on newsstands and a Google search shows that a new version of Life is available as an insert into US newspapers. However, the great world-bestriding weekly magazine, that ran from 1936 to 1972, is long gone.

One looks back at it through this copiously illustrated volume with respect, pleasure and, of course, scepticism.

Although Marshall McLuhan, author of the phrase "the medium is the message", appears to have become profoundly unfashionable, perhaps we are all McLuhanites now. If we think of Life magazine as a brilliantly successful journalistic enterprise, perhaps we also see it as the banal carrier of a society's cliches. Hence the fascination of The Great Life Photographers , which embodies many of the magazine's characteristics but offers them in a new and disbelieving age.

For example, surely only Life could introduce the veteran photographer and film-maker Gordon Parks in this style: "Something mighty there is inside a man that takes him from being the youngest of 15 children raised in Kansas poverty, something that lets him clear the cruel hurdles implanted by a racist society, something that permits not merely survival but mastery of all that he embraced."

Parks made an important contribution as a black role model and as a photographer of talent, but the style gives off the whiff of something extinct. Nonetheless, the book is timely because it allows one to look back at a uniquely powerful magazine - represented from the inside by old and new Life staffers - from a new perspective. It will be of special value to anyone interested in the history of photojournalism.

One of the first lessons offered is that the photographs we see here are not necessarily the ones published. For example, the section on one of the four founding staff photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, includes her photograph of Fort Peck Dam on the upper Missouri River, Montana. However, the full-frame horizontal version we are shown is a poor, diffuse thing compared with the compressed, towering, genuinely uplifting image as cropped for the launch issue of the magazine on November 23, 1936.

These photographs functioned as elements in the ensemble of word and picture, or many words and many pictures, constructed by teams. True, John Loengard gives us a cover and a spread in his introduction, but his approach suggests, very naturally, an old-fashioned and uncomplicated view.

He tells us, for example, that the photographer Bill Ray "caught" Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr President" to John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden in 1962. Surely nothing could have been less impromptu? One of the intriguing themes of the book is the way that politicians and celebrities trade access for exposure. Such was Life's power in the days before TV replaced it as provider of mass information that almost everyone was prepared to play along with its photographers.

Such was its power, too, that on a rare occasion when it disagreed with the US administration, it was able to go right to the top.

Thus, George Strock, photographing alongside US soldiers in the Battle of Buna in Papua New Guinea in 1943, took a picture of some of the 3,000 Allied dead on Buna Beach. "At the time, censors banned showing any dead American soldiers, but Life raised the point with the Government, and FDR himself decided the public was growing complacent and should see some of the reality; thus Three Dead Americans ran in Life ." Of course, the book has its own unwritten rules on what can and cannot be published. At least, one cannot imagine it containing a close-up of the severed, scorched head of an American soldier: the one illustrated is Japanese. It is extraordinary, too, in our days of embedded reporters, to read how Paul Dorsey, a Marine Corps photographer in the Pacific in the Second World War, "personally dispatched seven Japanese", and "made darn sure they were dead".

Life fawned over and flattered the powerful and famous - it made them more so and was happy to provide propaganda - and its photographers "set up" pictures that would have seemed authentic to most of their readers. Herbert Gehr was regarded as "temperamental" because he was "heard to mutter violently when the US fleet refused to change its position to enable him to get a better pattern shot of its searchlight display".

It is hardly less intriguing to read about the famous photograph of a leopard springing towards a baboon, which has convulsed into a ball of terror: John Dominis "orchestrated his famous baboon-leopard encounter (the feline was a rental dropped in among the simians)". One could go on about the juvenile magazine prose, the complacency of power and so on, but the way these characteristics are revealed is one of the good things about the book.

Furthermore, the book has many marvellous photographs. Horace Bristol made the most dignified and closely observed photograph of a woman ironing. It is a pleasure to salute Loomis Dean's sharply shadowed No l Coward portrayed in his dinner jacket in the desert outside Las Vegas in 1955.

Andreas Feininger's portrait of his fellow photographer Dennis Stock is a magnificent image, partly because the face looks androgynous.

The book displays not only the work of Bourke-White but Life's other fine female photographers: Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen and Hansel Mieth. There are moments of considerable wit, as when Dmitri Kessel shows us four pictures of Vincent Auriol, the French President, shooting pheasants at the Chateau de Rambouillet in 1950, his gendarme bodyguards diving for safety at his feet.

Humour invades Wallace Kirkland's " Pregnant Mrs Jane Dill, after being told the chemical wafer on her tongue indicates the baby is a girl, Northbrook, Ill., 1954 ", perhaps because the mother-to-be opens her lipsticked mouth with such alacrity that one is reminded both of Edvard Munch's The Scream and Ken Dodd in full flow.

Mark Haworth-Booth is visiting professor of photography, University of the Arts, London.

The Great Life Photographers

Author - The editors of Life
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 608
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 54293 7

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