Jul 11, 2014 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and Life magazine lived up to that adage perfectly. This dedication to pictorial story telling made it one of the most popular publications in the country. Publisher Andrew Miller and Renaissance man John Ames Mitchell founded the magazine in New York in 1883. Mitchell was known for his prowess in many fields: publishing, architecture, art, and writing. His keen eye for style and graphic design made Life magazine a breeding ground for many talented people we know and love: Norman Rockwell, Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the infamous Gibson Girl), and Robert Ripley (who debuted his first cartoon in Life, 20 years before he found fame with “Believe It Or Not”).
The first chapter of Life’s existence centered on light entertainment: jokes, pictures, and socially-focused opinion pieces. While there were other magazines with the same focus, Life stood out because they employed zinc-coated plates, raising the art work to an even higher quality. The motto of the first issue was “while there’s life, there’s hope.” With this optimism and visual emphasis in mind, the publishers launched into even greater efforts. Life magazine worked to get the United States into WWI and even took a clear stance against Prohibition in 1920.
However, Life received some criticism for antisemitic cartoons and also for not keeping pace with the more risque, post-war taste. A new editor, Robert E. Sherwood (formerly of Vanity Fair), helped position Life against its new competitors: The New Yorker (which debuted in 1925) and Esquire (established in 1933). But in 1936, Life took on a completely new direction that revived the failing publication.
Henry Luce bought Life magazine and made a bold first move, introducing an entirely new format. It was a huge hit! Each sturdy issue cost a dime and contained fifty pages of condensed wording with pictures. It became even more of a time capsule of modern life by not running away from violence and war. Being a photographer for Life magazine was a very honorable title (and highly coveted). Much like in the early days, they backed the war effort during WWII. Photographers did not shy away from graphic images and strove to engage the public. In 1942 Life even sponsored an art contest for soldiers. Photographer Robert Capa led the way in bringing the world’s issues into frame. The magazine centered on the turmoils of war just as much the splendor of victory. Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured perhaps one of the most iconic images of post-war America. His 1945 picture of the nurse in a sailor’s arms in Times Square perfectly reflected the feeling of nation-wide euphoria.
These kinds of “finger on the pulse” features helped Life create even more milestones. In 1954 Dorothy Daindridge graced the cover of the publication, becoming the first African-American woman to do so. Years later, in 1966 they even did a cover story on LSD. While they pushed the envelope in an effort to compete with the lure of television, they also stocked the magazine full of pictures of movie stars, astronauts, JFK, and other celebrities. While the publication officially ceased in 1972, you can now take part in the legacy via the Life archive, sponsored by Google.
For our readers: Have you read a copy of Life magazine? Do you feel like we’ve become de-sensitized to the graphic images of war or do you think they are still as powerful as during Life’s hey day?