Seeing Photography – Life Magazine Mar 28 1969

The new iPad has sparked many comments about it’s intent to offer digital “magazine” content.  Plus, on other blog sites around the world, there have been posts and comments lately about the quality of existing magazines compared to their earlier editions.  ( Mike Johnson’s  Old Time – New Time )  There was also an attempt at sparking a discussion about the future of the photobook ( The Future of Photo Books )

First, if like me, you’ve seen at least a half century pass by, you’ve been through unprecedented change.  My generation first experienced photography in two main ways, first in magazines and books and second in the prints and slide shows of the amateur  photographers who embraced the photography revolution of the early ’70’s.  We all remember the slide show event.  Mostly we groaned whenever our neighbors concluded their dinner party with a projector and screen.

But the magazines of the times, especially Life, Look and National Geographic opened a world that simply wasn’t accessible to us.  Television certainly played a part if you were lucky enough to have a massive antennae on the roof to get a good signal.  But mainly we explored the world through the images that came weekly and monthly in the mail.  I remember accosting the mailman when my Flying magazine was due in to make sure I had it first before anyone else could see it.

The discussions about how we will view photography in the future sparked a memory that I had a couple of old issues I rescued out of recycling bin.  They are both Life, one from Mar 28 1969 and the other Feb 2, 1962.  I remember when I found them that they sparked two feelings, first, nostalgia, the second, on how little had really changed.  Especially the Mar 28, 1969 issue.

( Cover Photo )  Here on the cover is a photograph by Co Rentmeester of an orangutan eating a red flower blossom with the title Vanishing Wildlife – THE THREATENED ORANGUTAN.   Co Rentmeester ‘s photo essay opened up not only a world of wonder about our next of kin but also make indelible statements about something we didn’t dwell on then, that species were worth saving.

The book review section is a wonder in itself.  Not photographically, but the depth of the critique.  Critique being the original concept, where the reviewer isn’t talking about likes or dislikes, but gets into the work to a level so seldom seen in today’s writing.  John Leonard‘s review of Susan Sontag’s Styles of Radical Will is a wonder to read.  And will send you time and time again to the dictionary.

There’s a spread of photographs from Apollo Nine.  The images from space captivated us then.  We knew when a mission was to be launched, where is was going, what they were striving for.  Up until we reached the moon that is.  Afterward, it was seen that, what’s next.  But then the whole view of the world from space was stunning.

Here’s an ad for the Kodak instamatic offering color snapshots!  The flashcube sits prominently on top.

There’s an article about a movie being shot based on Arlo Gutherie’s Alice’s Restaurant .  That probably evoked a flashback for some.  There’s even a shot of “Office Obie.”  You have to know the song. Photography by Steve Schapiro who was involved with the race issues as an activist and who was one of the first on the scene shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Pierre Boulat captures images for an article about the “other Greek.”  Onassis was the main one.  Mr Boulat’s images, in black and white, are simply great.  I can look at this photo spread over and over again.

Finally, the magazine sent Richard Hall and Howard Bingham to Mound Bayou Mississippi.   Mississippi in 1969, during a tense period as America was forced to face itself. Howard Bingham went on to create a name for himself as one of the first Black photographers breaking into the medium and for his work with Mohammad Ali. They are interviewed in the first pages of the issue about there experiences including having a chain gang guard threaten to shoot them.

The story works against the previous spread of the rich, now we are in the very poor South.  The faces are mainly Black, struggling, but occasionally a hint of hope shines through.  Once again, the power of photojournalism comes through to show us a world we didn’t inhabit, but here, one that was just around the corner.

I know there may be never be another magazine like Life.  Perhaps all that it evoked and contained, captured and illuminated is so much a cultural artifact of it’s time that it cannot be replicated.  But as I continue to seek understanding about seeing photography, I wonder if any thing like the iPad can work.  You certainly won’t find a 40 year old copy of an iPad edition being kept around.  In 40 years the whole concept and form of computing will be something that we cannot even envision today.  But I truly wish that there were a printed medium that could arrive weekly, at the reasonable price that Life was, with it’s stunning photography and depth of writing. That’s the way I’d like to see photography.  Again.


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