The legacy of Life magazine’s images celebrated in new show

The first magazine to pioneer the concept of photography-led stories, a new exhibition showcases some of Life’s most iconic photographs from its archive

When Life magazine was re-launched by magazine magnate Henry Luce in 1936, the idea was to put photojournalism at the forefront and publish only photography-led stories. Readers soon became accustomed to seeing images from around the world that gave them the kind of first-hand insight they’d never previously had. At one point it was selling 13.8 million copies a week, and in its lifetime the magazine commissioned more than 120,000 stories and 10 million photographs.

Life was published up until 2000, and to celebrate the contributions the magazine made to documentary photography and photojournalism, Atlas Gallery in London is exhibiting a selection of some of the magazine’s most iconic and influential photographs.

VJ Day, Times Square, NY by Alfred Eisenstaedt (August 14, 1945) © LIFE Gallery of Photography. Courtesy Atlas Gallery

“Life was the first publication to pioneer the concept of the extended photographic essay, with features sometimes extending to 15 pages and with 20 or 30 different photographs reproduced,” explains Ben Burdett, director and owner of Atlas Gallery. “The photographers who took these images got very close to their subjects and became closely involved in the stories they were depicting.” 

This rawness and truth found in the photo stories produced by Life is why the publication is still revered today. The exhibition is co-curated between both the Life curators in New York and the gallery. “We have worked with the collection for many years so they trusted us with the works and gave us a large degree of autonomy in choosing the images,” says Burdett.

Encounter, NYC by Nina Leen (1946) © LIFE Gallery of Photography. Courtesy Atlas Gallery

The images on display are all black and white and taken from the magazine’s golden era, roughly 1936-1972, though the gallery plans to run a Life in colour exhibition at a later date. “We wanted to exhibit as many of the truly memorable and famous images from the history of the magazine but also works which we had not necessarily shown before at the gallery,” explains Burdett.

Life owner Luce defined the purpose of the magazine as publishing “big pictures, beautiful pictures, exciting pictures, pictures from all over the world, pictures of interesting people and lots of babies”. The vast subject matter found within the pages of Life meant ordinary people sat page-to-page with glamorous celebrities on an equal footing. But Life didn’t shy away from the real grit of life either, and often reported on the horror of war, natural disasters and times of political unrest through arresting photo stories. 

The Beatles, Miami Beach by John Loengard (1964) © John Loengard. Courtesy of LIFE Gallery of Photography/Courtesy Atlas Gallery

For Burdett, this has been an opportunity to highlight the photographers whose contributions have been great but sometimes overlooked. “It is hard to resist Alfred Eisenstaedt’s exuberant VJ Day image. However, I have also become fascinated by the work of lesser known photographers such as John Loengard and Leonard McCombe,” he says. “Nina Leen is a hugely underrated and little known Russian-American photographer whose contribution to photography has largely been forgotten due in large part to the later 20th century’s lack of regard for the work of women photographers in general.”

The exhibition is a who’s who of great American photographers, and along with Eisenstaedt, Leen and Loengard, it also showcases the work of names who became synonymous with the magazine including Margaret Bourke-White, John Dominis, J.R. Eyerman, Andreas Feininger, and Joe Rosenthal. 

Annie Leibovitz and assistant Robert Bean on the Chrysler Building, New York City by John Loengard (1991) © John Loengard. Courtesy of LIFE Gallery of Photography/Courtesy Atlas Gallery
Drum Major, University of Michigan by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1951) © LIFE Gallery of Photography/Courtesy Atlas Gallery

Some standout images in the show include Loengrad’s image of fellow photographer Annie Leibovitz with her assistant Robert Bean tip-toeing along the outside of the Chrysler building to capture dancer David Parsons from the 61st floor. Another is Andreas Feininger’s image, The Photojournalist, which first appeared in the June 1955 issue of Life and depicts the silhouetted head of young army veteran and photographer Dennis Stock holding a camera. The image became an icon of the magazine. 

“To a large extent Life’s stories were about life not news, although in many ways the pictures were the news behind the news, which is what people responded to,” says Burdett of the magazine’s legacy. “It was the human stories that people wanted to read about as much as the reporting of events and this was something they had never been offered before.”

The Photojournalist by Andreas Feininger (1951) © LIFE Gallery of Photography. Courtesy Atlas Gallery
Noel Coward, Las Vegas by Loomis Dean (1955) © LIFE Gallery of Photography. Courtesy Atlas Gallery

Life remains more than a record of history and the Atlas show highlights the incredible talent of the photographers they had on their roster. It’s a chronicle of great American photography and for Burdett is signifies a bygone era.

“It was more exciting as there was more at stake,” he says. “Photographers had less room for error.” Perhaps it’s a combination of nostalgia and looking back at the analogue methods these photographers used to create incredible images that is really why Life magazine’s tenure is thought of as the golden age of photojournalism.   

Life: Selected Prints from the Life Magazine Collection (1936-2000) is on now at London’s Atlas Gallery until 1 February; atlasgallery.com

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes