In these times of rapid-fire news cycles and global social media, it’s hard to imagine that in 1936, the launch of a national news weekly transformed the way a wide swath of Americans in the mid-twentieth century understood the world around them.
From its first edition in 1936 through its final weekly issue in 1972, Life Magazine magazine was a ground-breaking publication that pioneered the use of visual imagery to present current events to its American audience through vivid photographs. Many pictures were shot by some of the world’s most prominent photographers, from Alfred Eisenstaedt to Margaret Bourke-White to Robert Capa and Gordon Parks.
Life, as envisioned by its founder and influential publisher, Henry R. Luce, stood apart from other American news magazines of the time, when articles were dominated by text. The format was inspired by pictorial magazines in vogue across Europe.
By 1950, Life reached some 25 percent of the country’s population, largely its targeted white, middle class audience.
An eye-opening exhibit, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography,” on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston through Jan. 16, showcases the stunning photos that filled the magazine’s pages.
The show features many of Life’s iconic images and others not as familiar, that chronicled historic milestones, including the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
One display case includes the six-page spread, “Atrocities,” published on May 7, 1945 – the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies – jolting the public with harrowing images of the liberation of Buchenwald and other Nazi concentration camps.
The exhibit highlights a surprising and more subtle story of Life’s many Jewish contributors, including Kurt Safranski and Kurt Korff, among other German-Jewish refugees who were pivotal in the magazine’s success.
Many of its renowned photographers were Jewish, from Eisenstaedt to Capa and Bourke-White, who did not discover her father was Jewish until she was an adult.
Through more than 180 objects, the exhibit is a brilliant undertaking by a team of curators: Kristen Gresh, the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh senior curator of photographs; Katherine A. Bussard, the photography curator at Princeton University Art Museum; and Alissa Schapiro, an independent curator whose doctoral research sheds light on Holocaust imagery. An award-winning catalog accompanies the show.
The exhibit’s depth and new insights reflect the curators’ deep dive into Life’s photographic archive. The MFA and Princeton were the first museums to have full access to the collection.
Visitors get an insider’s view of the magazine’s production that reveals the artful orchestration of Life’s team of designers and photo editors that included many women whose significant role shaping each edition emerges from the shadows.
The exhibit stays crisp and relevant with the inclusion of contemporary artists, including Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar, Alexandra Bell, and Julia Wachtel, whose searing works confront questions of ethics, war reporting, bias, and racism that compel viewers to take a more critical look at past images and today’s media.
The Jewish story unfolds from the first display, a series of mock-up “dummies” for the creation of Life designed by Safranski, and Korff, who fled Nazi persecution in the early 1930s. Both had played leading roles with illustrated news magazines across Europe.
“This is pretty amazing,” the MFA’s Gresh told the Journal on a tour through the exhibit. “Today, they [the mock-ups] don’t look revolutionary,” “ … But at the time, it was totally a radical notion to have an image interrupt the text, the kind of overpowering presence of the image,” she said.
Among the points of Jewish interest independent curator Schapiro suggests are photos that may not have explicit Jewish themes but were taken by Jewish photographers.
Schapiro and Gresh both marvel at the dazzling photographs of Fritz Goro, a German-born Jewish photographer renowned for his innovative science and technology photographs.
The haunting pages of “Atrocities,” with photos taken by Bourke-White and others, offer a window into the complexities of reporting on the Holocaust, Schapiro explained.
While the images were a jarring recognition of the Nazi’s brutality, the multi-page spread did not say that the victims or survivors were Jewish. Some scholars have suggested that Bourke-White was reluctant to reveal her own Jewish identity.
In Life’s archives, Schapiro discovered a nine-page document written by Bourke-White to Life editors that mentions the Jews she encountered at Buchenwald numerous times.
“This idea that Bourke-White tried to subvert the knowledge of Jews at Buchenwald is categorically untrue,” Schapiro said.
Trying to unpack the decision by Life’s editors to not to mention Jews in that series, is among the compelling questions about Holocaust imagery further explored in a catalog essay by Jeremy Adelman, director of the Global History Lab at Princeton, and in Schapiro’s forthcoming dissertation.
It’s one of the thought-provoking discussions the MFA’s Gresh hopes emerges from the show, to “look at media today with a very critical eye,” Gresh said. Θ