Monday, May 10, 2010

In Praise of Life magazine

One of my favorite things to do is to page through a vintage Life magazine.
The magazine may be unfamiliar to anyone younger than a baby-boomer but in it's day, it was the weekly magazine to subscribe to.
The whole basis for the magazine which first was published in 1936 was as photo-journalistic endeavor where words and photographs, especially photographs, brought the news of the week, of lifestyles, features, to the American citizenry.
It was a fixture in millions of other households during the 40s, 50s and 60s.
The list of staff photographers found in the masthead over the years read like a who's who of famed image makers: W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisensteadt, Larry Burrows, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, just to name a few.
And it's a fair bet that if you conjure up some vintage iconic image, odds are good it first appeared in Life.
At its peak in the 1960s, the weekly magazine had a circulation of more than 8 million.
In its day, Life was a gold mine from the ad revenue it earned for its parent company, Time, Inc.
An ad in Life was considered the gold standard of advertising. Nowadays, you'll see an item hanging in a store aisle touting "As seen on TV!" but back in the 50s and even into the 60s, the mantra was "As seen in Life!"
As a photojournalist I enjoy the editorial content of a vintage Life magazine, but even more entertaining is the advertising that was replete in its pages.
The advertising provides a revealing peek into the way things were. Or in some cases, the way people wished things were.
How about pink appliances? No doubt there were a few folks who wound up regretting their early 50s purchase of the pink refrigerator and matching stove they saw advertised in Life by the time avocado-green and copper-toned appliances became stylish in the early 60s.
And the shine of a '58 Packard automobile that was glowingly spread across two pages of the Sept. 22, 1958 issue of Life may have dimmed a bit for anyone who purchased one and just a year later, the Studebaker-Packard Company then decided to drop the Packard name plate.
Life magazine folded in December, 1972.
I was a photojournalism student at the University of Minnesota when the announcement was made that the magazine was ceasing publication due to rising postal rates and declining ad revenue.
I and several of my classmates indulged in numerous libations that evening as we discussed the significance of the magazine's demise. Life magazine was, after all, the photo-journalistic summit to which we all aspired.
From 1978 to 2000, Life was revived as a monthly publication and arguably, it still published some memorable images by talented photographers.
But I think some of the luster of Life, a grandly formatted weekly magazine that arrived without fail in millions of American households was lost in the transition to a smaller, monthly version.
And today when I find one of those old copies of Life, whether it's in pristine condition or moldy and mouse-nibbled like the one I carefully paged through the other evening, it's always like finding a treasure.