For much of the 20th century, Life Magazine conquered mass media as the primary visual source for current events. From 1936 to 1972, the magazine presented the public with carefully crafted images that captured real-world social and political narratives. Henry Luce, the publication’s founder, was able to expose readers to a wide variety of images outside of their immediate community, shaping discussions about contemporary issues in the process. As the Museum of Fine Arts puts it in its new exhibit, “with its visually revolutionary brand of storytelling, Life fundamentally shaped how its readers understood photography and how they experienced and remembered events.”
The exhibit, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography,” documents these crucial photographs, stories and histories. Through its well-crafted presentation of original negatives, contact sheets, vintage photographs and internal communications, viewers are taken on an immersive journey into not only the magazine’s history but America’s as well.
Walking into the exhibition, viewers are invited to sit down beside a vintage coffee table surrounded by suburban wallpaper reminiscent of the 1950s and flip through issues of Life from that era. Unlike most museum exhibitions, in this instance, the MFA is directly inviting viewers to interact with the exhibition’s subject of study. For young audiences not familiar with Life or its general structure, this display provides a fantastic opportunity to connect with and understand the publication’s appeal before continuing.
Subsequent rooms cover the publication’s founding and its early history. Viewers have the opportunity to read Henry Luce’s original telegrams describing the magazine’s purpose and analyze early “dummy” versions and drafts of Life’s first issue. Prints by Margaret Bourke-White, one of Life’s first photographers and its very first female photographer, are displayed, including “Fort Peck Dam, Montana,” the 1936 image that became the magazine’s first cover. Other iconic images on display include J.R. Eyerman’s “Audience watches movie wearing 3-D spectacles” and Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Winston Churchill sitting with his cane and glaring into the camera with his powerful stare.
These photographs are complemented by a variety of text panels surrounding each section of the hall, which provide insight into the photographers and the processes involved in capturing some of the 20th century’s most influential images. Rather than simply presenting recognizable pictures to the viewer, the exhibit makes an effort to educate visitors about the journalistic process — describing how stories were assigned, how agency photographers composed their own shots and how scripts were involved in these visual narratives. Visitors who download the MFA’s mobile app have the opportunity to listen to interviews with Life reporters who share their first-person experiences with the photographs and stories presented.
Apart from simply describing these artifacts, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” also explores the magazine’s focus on the …….