PRINT December 1981


WHEN THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY is rewritten, the entire development of photojournalism will have to be closely re-examined on its own terms. Thus far, the editorial innovations of the German picture press in the ’20s and ’30s and the stylistic contributions of certain great photographers have been highlighted. However, it is only part of the story to acknowledge and reproduce the superb pictures of Erich Salomon or Robert Capa, or to discuss individual editorial inventiveness. Photojournalistic pictures exist within the confines of very different publications with different points of view. The way in which any magazine uses pictures determines how and what those images mean. And assigning meaning is in essence what photojournalism is about.

The most significant picture magazine published in this country up until the early ’70s was Life. It developed various strategies using pictures, headlines, captions, text, and story layout to communicate editorial messages about politics, the respective roles of men and women in society, and the burgeoning progress of American culture. Yet when pictures from Life are exhibited or reproduced in books, their original context is usually ignored. At best, the pictures are accompanied by titles or captions. But we cannot really understand the use to which those pictures were once put when they are haphazardly taken from their original layouts and redefined as pleasing singular entities. Although it has been repeatedly acknowledged that photographs do not communicate an absolute truth, they are still credited with the ability to do so. The “meanings” of photographs are slippery and complicated, however, and any of them might be defined in more than one way. Explicit interpretation of photographs is determined mainly by the discourse that surrounds them.

The discourse about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures rests both in his own elucidation of the decisive moment and in the critical writing that has grown up around the idea; it has been almost wholly involved with esthetics. In the case of Robert Capa, much of the discourse has resulted from anecdotes about the life of the photographer himself, and from the glorification of certain pivotal pictures, such as that of the Loyalist soldier falling dead during the Spanish Civil War. But there was a different and specifically created text originally surrounding such photographs. The magazines that purchased or commissioned these pictures communicated editorial attitudes by caption and text that determined the readers’ perceptions of the pictures. The removal of photojournalistic pictures from their original context to the world of isolated and discrete images points to the crux of the problem.

The majority of pictures taken for Life were made to be seen or used in a multi-image context supported by written material. In an endless hunt for individual masterpieces, the photographic/art community has chosen too often to take single pictures out of Life’s original context and to appreciate them for their formal beauty or anecdotal interest. We now know most pictures from Life in gallery-exhibition form, or as “typically excellent” specimens of a photographer’s output reproduced in books both scholarly and popular. However, to isolate solitary images, ignoring the picture stories for which they were carefully chosen, and commissioned, is to create a fiction. Life exerted a tremendous influence on national and international opinion through its photojournalism, but its aims and its content have often been separated.

Life was not the first picture magazine in the world, but it was overwhelmingly the most successful. Other picture magazines had been published in the United States previous to Life, but all had ceased publication by the late ’30s. Life was an idea, however, whose time had come, in as much as, “Around 1934 practically every newspaper man and his brother was carrying the dummy of a proposed picture magazine in his outside pocket.”1

Life’s first issue was dated November 23, 1936, and it promptly sold out the entire press run of 466,000 copies. Because of mistakenly low advertising rates and its expensive, heavy, coated paper, Life produced an astonishing $6 million loss before it paid back Time, Inc.’s investment. Life’s immediate, calamitous success made magazine history. Far outstripping early predictions of 250,000 readers in 1936, its circulation soared to two million in less than three years.

The presiding consciousness at Life was Henry Luce. The son of American Presbyterian missionaries, Luce was born and raised in China. His father was part of the great sweep of ardent, late 19th century missionaries who spread over the globe preaching “the transcendence of Christianity and the American culture.”2 Henry enthusiastically took up the mission and at age 4 was dictating sermons to his mother and preaching to his playmates in the missionary compound. He served in high editorial positions on newspapers and magazines in both prep school and college. After graduation from Yale he worked as a legman for the imaginative Ben Hecht at Chicago’s Daily News, and then worked with former classmate and future business partner Briton Hadden on the Baltimore News. During this period they conceived a publication that would “summarize the week’s news in the shortest possible space.”3 By early 1922, when Luce was 24, the two entrepreneurs went to New York with the dummy for what would a year later become Time magazine.

From the beginning Hadden shaped “Timestyle” (the progenitor of Lifestyle), “the slicing, trimming, flavoring, coloring and packaging of the news to make it more interesting and more salable than it was in real life.”4 Snappy, exaggerated verbs and adjectives were used to limn the characteristics of those Time wanted to flatter or ridicule. A politician could be portrayed as “trim-figured” and “keen-brained,” while his opponent was seen as “flabby-chinned” and “gimlet-eyed,” and the former “strode” while the latter “shambled.”5 In concert with this highly visual approach to the news, Hadden made one other discovery that would also be of immeasurable use to the later Life magazine: the “mischievous” use of candid snapshots, which could be used, again, to flatter or ridicule.6 The idea of news as raw material that could be visually coded and then buttressed by written explanation provided the first step in what would become Life’s style of reportage, based on the inventive, elastic manufacture and linkage of text and photograph.

As a captain of the modern press, Luce understood himself to be in control of “the dominant mental and psychological environment of the people.”7 In his three magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, and in his many speeches, Luce took every opportunity to hammer home his views: a messianic belief in America and the American way of life (he once said of America that “no nation in history, except ancient Israel, was so obviously designed for some special phase of God’s eternal purpose”8); the celebration of free-enterprise capitalism (in a speech to Ohio bankers he said: “Have no embarrassment about making too much . . . Every dollar you make is a patriotic contribution to the national debt . . . make money, be proud of it; make more money, be prouder of it”9); and a fanatical hatred of world Communism (in 1930 Time was already calling for “an international Capitalist boycott of the Soviet State”10). In all of this he was the perfect spokesman for the blossoming expansionist American culture of the 1950s. Just as his rhetoric was heavy-handed and simple-minded, so too was its translation into the pictures which began to constitute the “news.” The Godless Communists were a dark, monolithic entity whose threat could be shown in a two-page picture of the dictators Lenin and Stalin embalmed and displayed in a spotlit blackness for the Soviet masses to worship. Women were delightful, frivolous creatures whose essence lay completely on the surface where the camera could easily capture it—in the “sensuous strength” of their stride, the “sweetness” of their smiles, and in their “perfect grooming.” Life gave equal time and thus equal importance to what it saw as the hovering Communist menace and to “Broadway’s Smartest Dumb Blonde.” As time went on, all subjects were similarly homogenized into the same spectrum of trivia.

As former editor Wilson Hicks of Life noted, more important than the concept of photojournalism, the enterprise or the talent, was “the body of beliefs and convictions upon which the magazine was founded . . . It stood for certain things, it entered at once the world-wide battle for men’s minds.”11 Hicks never spelled out exactly what those beliefs were, but this passage perfectly conveys the rigorously self-righteous tone of the magazine in general. Life made itself a virtual textbook for American political opinion, mass culture, and sex-role instruction.

In the prospectus for Life the magazine’s didacticism and its interest in entertaining were presented as a function of visual representation from the outset. Luce’s final version included these varied aims:

To see life; to see the world, to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon . . . to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls . . . Things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.

Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and the new expectancy of half mankind.

To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by LIFE.12

Embedded in this potpourri of manifest wonderment—the apotheosis of the visualized as enlightenment—are all the elements of a new visual ideology. By dint of his privileged access to the wishes of the Almighty, Luce was able to intuit the “will” of mankind. And so, Life undertook the “mission” of seeing and showing, reinvoking the ardent rhetoric of rectitude that echoed down from Luce’s, and this country’s, missionary past.

Life floundered to find direction for its first several years. But even in the early issues it had begun to define its approach to the use of photographs and text. Its definition of the news was similar to that of the tabloids: blood (young doctor and dog mangled by train), sex (“How to Undress in Front of Your Husband”), scandal (society woman shoots handsome husband to death), and evil or ridiculous foreign politicians (“The new salute of the French Radical Socialists . . . was the self-congratulatory gesture used by U.S. prizefighters on entering the ring”). The critic Bernard De Voto observed in 1938 that Life consisted of “equal parts of the decapitated Chinaman, the flogged Negro, the surgically explored peritoneum, and the rapidly slipping chemise.”13

In the first issue of Life the reader was presented with a number of archetypal picture tales. In one, a young wife creeps out into the woods to give birth to a “child of sin.” Three pictures spell out the illicit story. The first is a shot of the house where the pregnant Mrs. Crawford “rose from her husband’s bed” to go “barefooted” into the woods to give birth. The second picture shows the couple together, gazing down at the baby, which the cuckolded husband lovingly holds. The caption informs us that “all the world” believed along with Mr. Crawford that “a big brindle bulldog had brought an unknown baby to the doorstep.” In the final picture a nurse tenderly holds the hapless infant because, “Police took the baby and family opinion forced simple Mr. Crawford to give up his storytelling wife.” The use of vivid captions leads the reader through a tiny morality tale. The picture of the house shows the alleged site of the drama. The house operates both as potential for matrimonial bliss and as the site of the depicted reality of brutal betrayal. Secondly we see the players: the smiling husband, the innocent baby, and the sinful, slovenly wife, whose nightgown slips suggestively off one shoulder. And as a finale we witness the intervention of the forces of good, the nurse and the police who will protect the innocent child while offstage the husband’s unseen extended family exerts its superior moral influence on the side of righteousness, bringing the situation to a quick and satisfactory conclusion. The use of the empty site, such as the house, where meaning will be supplied by a caption alone, the loaded portrait shots of the significant players, whose contributions for good or ill are explained in the caption, and the tidy, theatrical conclusion (which can run to either tragedy or burlesque), are hallmarks of all Life’s picture stories, whether the subject was movie stars or political rebellion.

Although Life may have labored uncertainly until finding its way, Wilson Hicks admits that, “Prior to publication, Life had become acquainted with the fact that when a picture story is being composed, pictures, though not a discursive medium, lend themselves to something of the same manipulation as words.”14 The only pictures that seemed to Life unmalleable were those that contained “too much style,” such as the work of Walker Evans or Edward Weston. André Kertesz’ photographs were rejected by Life because they “spoke too much.”15 Such photographers were mostly consigned to the section entitled “Photographic Essay,” differentiated from the rest of the picture stories that comprised the magazine. This is one of the reasons why many of the pictures originally published in Life in their typical picture stories and recently unearthed for exhibition seem so puzzling. Most are not significant photographs; they were made and selected to be part of a greater whole. As Hicks noted, it was “not alone the picture for the picture’s sake, but the picture for the idea’s sake that counts,” and even bad pictures took precedence when they fitted into the editor’s story idea,16 though stylistically excellent pictures could be used as well. Pictures of varying quality and style could be unified by the layout and text to create integrated entities communicating Life’s position.

The lead story for the October 25, 1954, issue was called “Hanoi’s Red Masters Take Over.” It opens on the right hand page with a large picture of Vietnamese troops waving their helmets and smiling. But the caption informs us that the Vietminh troops only “follow the platoon leader’s orders” to “happily wave their sun helmets.” From the outset we understand that the Communists use coercion in order to exact a seemingly spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm. The puppet troops are lost even in victory without orders from their leader. A smaller picture of a group of women huddling together is captioned, “Residents dutifully bearing Vietminh flag watch Reds enter Hanoi.” The use of a group of women is even more effective because of the greater vulnerability women exude. So both the helpless population and the military minions find themselves obeying orders from above, totally bereft of freedom. Employing very few elements—two pictures, two captions and a headline—Life set up the terms for their reportage (and our understanding) of this “fateful” event—the final departure of the French from Hanoi after 68 years of occupation, and the Communists “winning” finally bringing repression with them.

The following two-page spread contains six photographs: Vietminh troops entering Hanoi; Vietnamese refugees scrambling through the windows of a train leaving Hanoi; a French police chief briefing his “Red successors”; two Vietnamese women reading graffiti in French, “To Leave Is To Choose Freedom”; a man looking at posters of Communist leaders Ho Chi Minh and Malenkov; a street totally empty due to a daytime curfew. The overall effect is desolate and faceless. In these pictures most of the faces are totally obscured. The troops are out of focus, the scrambling refugees are seen from the back, the two women look away to read the slogan, and the man bends his head to study the pictures of his new “masters.” In the picture of the police, although the faces are partially visible, it is the postures of the men that tell much more—the “Reds” stand respectfully before the slightly dejected but regal departing French chief who imparts his wisdom. The sixth picture shows the empty streets where these virtually faceless people are left to confront their new political predicament.

The next and final two-page spread shows the departure of the French as “A Lowered Flag Ends An Era.” Here the one-paragraph text informs us that: “For French troops, still bitter about the way the whole delta area had been bartered to the Reds, the last days in Hanoi were filled with nostalgic ceremony.” The pictures emphasize the poignancy of the French position. On the left-hand page, two horizontal photos at the top and bottom show the “crack” members of a Moroccan regiment passing in final review. These troops are also faceless, but as a group they form a soldierly unit, and their mettle is shown by their determined bearing. Their rifles, although somewhat askew, are tilted back sharply in right-shoulder-arms position. The effect of their ragtag but proud military presentation is heightened visually by a puddle that runs the width of the picture and throws back a vividly graphic reflection of the marching troops (in contrast to the more casually structured shots of the Vietnamese). The same mirroring device is used in the lower picture, where troops loaded into trucks towing 155mm howitzers begin evacuation. Sandwiched in between these two documents of stoic, soldierly defeat is a small picture of two French generals visiting the “misnamed cemetery of conquest to pay tribute to the men who had died defending the delta.” Ornate headstones stretch back between the two elegant profiles, reiterating by their regular, rectilinear arrangement the ideal of an orderly and disciplined military presence now gone to its “death.”

The last picture in the story is a full-page image captioned, “In fading light French salute tricolor, lowered at Hanoi headquarters for last time.” The symmetrical, atmospheric picture shows two French soldiers in the foreground with their backs to us. They are bold, saluting brackets for the main action, where two men in the middle ground lower the flag as a line of doll-like troops erectly dot the far distance. It is “fading light,” we assume, that is responsible for the hazy, grainy, almost Pictorialist quality of the photograph, giving the effect of viewing this final farewell through tear-filled eyes. A visual empathy is thus established with the disheartened French.

The written and pictorial information in this story partakes of a number of typical strategies. Bitter anti-Communist rhetoric was pervasive, and helped shape the terms of this country’s Cold War attitudes. Communist takeovers were a specially touchy subject for Luce himself, because of the fall of his beloved China, a fact alluded to in the Hanoi text. But this system of loaded, complex connotation was not reserved for politically important cases.

A relatively new subject of the time was the integration of Southern schools. After flipping through advertisements for cigars, hosiery, and water softener in the September 16, 1957 issue, we are confronted by a visually convulsive two-page spread entitled, “Troubles Beset School Opening: Blows At Integration By A Small But Dangerous Minority.” The largest of four pictures shows a group of teenage boys apparently lunging wildly toward the viewer (the true object of their anger is unseen). Immediately we feel apprehensive. We look to the caption to learn that they are taunting a Negro girl who has started school under a new integration program. In a smaller picture the girl herself is seen, grimly staring ahead, seated in a crowded auditorium where a blurry figure in the aisle gestures crazily toward her. We learn she is the 15-year-old daughter of a theology professor and that in this photo she “sits quietly, endures a further demonstration.” These two pictures use blurring as their style and their means of communication, but here it doesn’t represent nostalgia as it does in the Hanoi picture. The blur of motion signifies the frenzied desperation of the troublemakers, just as the quietude of the young girl connotes her greater moral fiber. In the other two pictures, adults with open mouths jeer at several children. All energetic movement denotes negative attributes in this series of pictures.

The text of the story deals not only with integration, but also with the issue of reporting on the subject of integration itself. It opens by announcing that “These pictures give evidence of the deep reactions in the South” to integration and how, although some Southerners had accused the press of distorting the situation, “the photographic evidence was irrefutable.” The second paragraph describes this particular aspect of the integration story in just four sentences. “The troublemakers were a small minority but a dangerous one.” (The trouble is thus localized, personalized, reduced to a few individuals rather than representative of the politics of an entire country. The pictures supposedly show us those individuals.) “Frequently . . . the grown-up tormentors were not ‘people of substance in the community.’ ” (What can you expect from less than sterling citizens?) “The crudest jeers for the Negro students were those that came from their white schoolmates, who drew encouragement from adults.” (Children, when under the influence of irresponsible adults, cannot be held wholly responsible for their actions.) “But from the white youngsters also came the first, sudden kindnesses.” (White Americans are basically decent. This story will have a happy ending. The pictures will show it.)

The next two-page spread in the story, headed “A Governor Flouts Government of United States,” implicates a renegade state official as one of the “troublemakers.” Surrounding two pictures of National Guardsmen facing down black students in Little Rock are individual portraits of the major players in this drama. Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas leads the cast. He called out the National Guard to prevent the federally-sanctioned integration, thereby causing this incident. He is the only official who is shown smiling. Following him we see a federal judge, the Guard commander, a school superintendent, the U.S. Attorney General and aides, the “dissenting” mayor of Little Rock and, finally, a grim-faced President Eisenhower disembarking from an airplane as he interrupts his vacation to confer on Little Rock. These kind of pictures are used mainly as identification, to reassure the reader that there is a full cast of important authorities fighting the problem at hand. In this case they are forced to line up against a governor, who is acting in defiance of United States law.

The third two-page spread, “Determined Action—And Time—Aids Integration’s Slow Rise,” introduces a hopeful note. The pictures show a white student erasing graffiti that says “Nigger,” a “non-violent” civil rights discussion between blacks and whites, and police confronting and arresting troublesome “racists.” Already, the pictures tell us, the situation is being righted, with the law and the citizenry acting in tandem. The last picture on the page shows a group of black students in Tennessee, scene of mob violence the year before, as they “walk to school without incident.” The message is that progress is slowly but surely made despite the presence of the minority of bigots and troublemakers.

The hopefulness of the third spread prepares the reader for the fourth and final spread, “Once Within the Classrooms, Kindness and Fair Play Enter.” Here progress is proved as individual children, who have triumphed over the difficulties of integration and are now attending school unmolested, are pictured. The final full-page picture shows the professor’s daughter from the beginning of the story, now receiving “Friendship instead of taunts . . . Assigned a homeroom group, she was joined after a lonely hour by girls who will be her classmates . . .” Sitting among them, “she happily discusses courses.” The sole black girl in the picture, she giggles demurely, but it is unclear from the depicted situation what has provoked her mirth, since the rest of the girls look aimlessly about. But her smiling face is enough photographic evidence to show that in America, even gravely difficult situations can be and will be solved in a humane and even genial way. Despite its skewed reporting, Life was sympathetic to desegregation from the time of the first Supreme Court order in 1954.

The fact that it is a group of girls who have effected this victory is crucial as a bridge to the story immediately following: “Backstage In Quest To Be Miss America.” As we leave the schoolgirls, who have finally begun to exhibit the sweetness and charity the readers of Life expect from girls, we proceed to pictures of slightly older girls also seeking a victory. Implied in the linkage of stories is the possibility that, as a black girl can now be accepted into a group of white students, so, too, may a black young woman someday be a contender for, and even a winner of, the title of Miss America. There aren’t any black women to be seen in this display of hopefuls in 1957, but because of the closely associated spreads featuring girls and pageant contestants we receive a multi-layered message about the personal advancement possible for all Americans and the values admired in American women. Warm-heartedness, a forgiving nature, patience, and a capacity for compromise are emphasized in both stories.

Separate pictures of the individual players are once again arrayed across two pages—Miss Arizona, Miss Missouri, etc. The first word of each caption (set in capital letters and in boldface) is the clue to reading this type of picture. Whereas the officials in the desegregation article were initially identified by profession as Federal Judge or State Executive, the contestants are identified by the little activities they perform in the pictures: Practicing, Primping, Plucking, Doodling, Buttoning, Strutting, Posing, Breakfasting. Hence, the contenders for “fairest in the land” should involve themselves only with small, untaxing pastimes.

Men appear in three small pictures: John Barry BREAKFASTING with three girls to judge their personalities, a boy identifying the arriving girls is a SCOREKEEPER, while a boyfriend and father are SEGREGATED from the main all-girl activity. The men are identified very clearly in terms of their power or powerlessness in the situation. The use of the word segregated as a boldface caption on the page immediately following the desegregation article is an example of the way Life would use highly charged words or situations and by clever juxtaposition equate, diffuse, and trivialize a given event by the suggestion of alternate contexts or meanings.

The largest Miss America picture is an overhead shot of the contestants scrutinizing themselves in vanity-top mirrors as they get ready for the formal dress competition. The size of the picture and its sheer busyness indicates that this is critical examination to be made. In none of the pictures nor in the text is there any suggestion that the contestants need real concentration, talent, fortitude, or intelligence to participate in this event. Nor is there any real indication of tension or competition. What is communicated is only a fluttering, wistful, inconsequential series of minor but exciting actions which might lead to the title.

In the midst of this frothy, girlish excitement, we are already far away from the problems of black children in Southern schools. Through the careful juxtaposition not only of pictures and words but also of stories with radically different subject matter, the reader is relieved of the burdensome urgency of anxiety-producing news situations. Wilson Hicks gives an example of this kind of strategy used within a single story in his explanation of the layout of a hypothetical story on a fatal avalanche. Midway his imaginary Managing Editor says: “It goes pretty well. You get the rescued people first, then the rescue itself, then you get the fun at the end as relief.”17

In addition to the typical photo story, Life also ran longer illustrated articles. The fact that the images didn’t have to be visually integrated the way they were in a picture story gave the editors the opportunity to take a different approach and use other kinds of pictures within the same article.

The cover story for the September 16, 1957 issue was “Crime, Part II: What A City Should Expect From Police,” a profile of Cincinnati’s model police force. Crime was not yet the pervasive and intricate topic it is today; nevertheless, it was an obvious disturbance in the body politic that had to be dealt with. And again Life began by depicting the officials who were ably coping with the situation. The color cover photograph shows the Cincinnati police chief leaning on a switchboard and coolly talking on the phone. He stares stoically up into space over the reader’s head, a model of self-possessed professionalism, regally distant and in control. The full-page color lead picture to the article shows a line of police cadets awaiting inspection, angling down the page toward the viewer. Everyone in the line turns his head stiffly to look toward the camera except for the cadet nearest the viewer, who looks away by looking straight ahead of him. By shifting his gaze away from us (as the chief shifted his, upward) he distances us, showing us his rugged, dedicated profile. The picture conveys order, sunshine, cleanliness and duty-bound strength.

The two pictures of uniformed policemen are self-consciously posed to communicate the serious, elevated nature of police in general. The long article that follows gives a brief description of “the basic purpose of police work,” i.e., to reduce “the opportunity for the occurrence of unwanted incidents by surveillance and conspicuous patrol . . . designed to give an impression of police omnipresence . . .” Turning the page we see six black-and-white pictures showing separate instances of the police in action; checking pawnshops for stolen goods, raiding a prostitute’s room, doing shoplifting duty, aiding a child who has swallowed poison, two policemen receiving information from an informer, and two policewomen patrolling for runaway children, liquor law violations, and sex deviates. In five of the six pictures the police are in plainclothes. Unless we look closely, we do not even register the discrepancy between the textual information and the pictures of the police. At no point does the article explain or even mention the use of plainclothes officers. The black-and-white candid shots show us the nitty-gritty of everyday police reality, as opposed to the emblematic formality of the color pictures. The two together fuse into a picture of police as a whole, regardless of any inconsistency.

An additional section entitled “Unforgettable Crimes” is dropped into the article, introducing a third (nonphotographic) pictorial strategy by using commissioned color paintings that illustrate a series of famous crimes. The paintings are not documentary but depict a particularly crucial (for the story) imagined moment in the criminals’ lives (unavailable to the camera), such as the point when a train conductor realizes a young woman’s luggage might be filled with something other than clothing (two dead bodies). The expressionist style and contrasting colors of the illustrations are well-suited to conveying danger and anxiety.

The introduction of sensational crimes that had nothing at all to do with Cincinnati added another layer of meaning to the article and to the pictures. Now we see that underneath the veneer of mundane police routine lurks a dangerous, hateful, bizarre, incomprehensible, exciting nightmare world of mythical criminality. We feel ourselves flushed with admiration for the police, for their bravery, their perseverance and tolerance, and their potentially glamorous exploits. On the page facing the last unforgettable (painted) crime we return to the article and the orderly columns of type topped by smallish black-and-white pictures of Cincinnati’s daily beat: the police chief at a YMCA meeting, a cadet checking a towed car.

The story ends with a picture of the police chief and his wife gazing at their adopted daughter with adoration. We see that the chief is in private life a loving man (in contrast to his stony-faced public visage on the cover of the magazine). This situation is implicitly what the police are protecting––the safety and sanctity of the nuclear family.

In all four of the picture stories just discussed, Life used the gestures of the individuals involved to tell, and to interpret, the story at hand. It was as a totality, a catalog or encyclopedia of human gesture to which meaning was imputed by captions enabling us to “read” the pictures the way we were meant to read them. Through its concentration on individual drama and individuals caught in the “web” of circumstance, Life showed its version of the workings of economics, politics, and history. By provoking empathy for the single innocent player, Life promoted rugged individualism as a substitute for a real understanding of historical occurrences.

What Life did was to construct concrete visual representations of myths already present in American society and play them out using contemporary characters.

To isolate and extol individual photographs from Life’s stories is to misrepresent the point of that magazine. Life had an extraordinary ability to sanction and create myths as truth. It shaped American and international culture. It also shaped the image of America for the world. It is not important that single great pictures were published in Life, (which they were), but that all the pictures used by the magazine worked as a system of communication that exerted an enormous influence and that has not been widely understood.

Carol Squiers, a free-lance photography critic, is curator of photography for P.S.1, New York, 1981-82.



1. Otha C. Spencer, “Twenty Years of Life: A Study of Time, Inc.’s Picture Magazine and Its Contributions to Photojournalism” (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, School of Journalism, University of Missouri, 1958), p. 102, quoting Paul Deutschman’s unpublished history of Life’s first ten years.

2. W.A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972, p. 15.

3. Swanberg, p. 57, quoting a New York Herald-Tribune notice.

4. Swanberg, p. 59.

5. Swanberg, p. 60.

6. John Kobler, Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 57.

7. John K. Jessup (ed.), The Ideas of Henry Luce, New York: Atheneum, 1969, p. 42.

8. Kobler, p. 5.

9. Swanberg, p. 145.

10. Swanberg, p. 91.

11. Wilson Hicks, Words and Pictures, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952, p. 85.

12. Kobler, p. 105.

13. Swanberg, p. 145.

14. Hicks, p. 42.

15. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 38.

16. Hicks, pp. 60-61.

17. Hicks, p. 79.