Monday 5 December 2016

Last night’s TV: America in Pictures: the Story of Life magazine

Michael Deacon reviews a profile of Life, the US photojournalism magazine.

Published 02/12/2011 | 09:55

Navy Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson had played the accordion often for Franklin D. Roosevelt during the polio-stricken president's frequent visits to the spa at Warm Springs, Ga. He was scheduled to play for him again on April 12, 1945, the day Roosevelt died at the LIttle White House in Warm Springs. Instead, the officer found himself leading the funeral procession the next day, tears streaming down his face. By Ed Clark. Photo: LIFE.com
Navy Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson had played the accordion often for Franklin D. Roosevelt during the polio-stricken president's frequent visits to the spa at Warm Springs, Ga. He was scheduled to play for him again on April 12, 1945, the day Roosevelt died at the LIttle White House in Warm Springs. Instead, the officer found himself leading the funeral procession the next day, tears streaming down his face. By Ed Clark. Photo: LIFE.com

In the fascinating America in Pictures, part of BBC Four’s mishmash of a season on America, the British photographer Rankin told the story of Life magazine.

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The most striking thing about Life is how quickly it was over. On Life’s first day on sale in 1936, every copy was sold. It was soon read by 100 million people – over half the US population. Yet by 1972 Life was dead.



The magazine was devoted to photojournalism; its photographers were so much more important than its reporters that the reporters were expected to lug the photographers’ equipment around. At first, in contrast to rivals such as Vogue with their focus on the rich and fashionable, it portrayed small-town America: cowboys, cinema-goers, kissing couples. It made the ordinary look extraordinary.



Then it turned to war. So harrowing were Life’s photos from Vietnam that they were credited with helping turn the American public against the conflict. But the rise of television meant people lost interest in photojournalism. Sure, photojournalism was more beautiful, more moving, more profound. But TV got you the pictures quicker. So TV won. No more Life (although it did resurface in 1978 in an inferior form).



Happily Life’s best photos are collected in book form, and are worth owning. Not only do they document American history; they are, in their own right, a small but stirring part of it.



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