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Saturday, June 18 2016 08:32
  • When I was growing up, my parents received Life magazine every week. It was a valuable source of information, especially for my father, who was a newspaperman. For me and my younger brothers and sisters, it provided entertainment, some of it scandalous.
    I still have a few issues of Life from those days stacked up on my office floor. The one at the top of the pile is dated Jan. 4, 1937. It could be had for 10 cents; subscribers could save money by paying $3.50 a year.
    The cover photograph is an immense close-up view of President Roosevelt’s face. It is a face that shows power, seriousness and a certain beauty. In a few weeks, he will take the oath of office for the second time, in the first presidential inauguration to be held on Jan. 20.
    The publishers of Life were no fans of the New Deal, but this issue is full of information about Roosevelt’s first term. There are photographs of his cabinet and his family, maps showing the huge impact of government construction projects, and color views of public art by the likes of Reginald Marsh.
    At 80 years’ remove, this magazine can appear provincial. It shows an America that is almost entirely white, devoted to cowboy movies, and content to keep its distance from the rest of the world. The news from France and Germany is peppered with somewhat patronizing comments. Life did not expect much sophistication from its readers.
    Nor did it get much, at least from me and my friends. We ignored the political leaders and made straight for the photos of scantily clad women that appeared in every issue. These pictures were extremely mild by today’s standards, but they served to produce considerable youthful guilt.
    Our choice of subject matter may have been immature, but we were right to choose photography over text. The magazine favored an eccentric prose style, and its editorial views have not held up well. But Life was the first truly great exemplar of photojournalism. For a few cents each week, we were able not only to read about the world, but also to see it.
    The copy in front of me has its share of posed photographs, like those of Roosevelt’s cabinet. But the collage on pages 42 and 43, dedicated to FDR’s amazing victory, is full of movement and vitality, showing recurring images of the president and the crowds that acclaimed him.
    The viewer’s eye lingers on a superimposed group photograph of the president and his family at the moment of victory, looking both ecstatic and exhausted. FDR is supported by his cane and by his son’s arm. He is smiling broadly, but one can sense his effort.
    The latter-day reader knows things that the original readers did not. Certainly few members of the public were aware of the extent of Roosevelt’s disabilities. And in 1937, it would have been impossible to envision the full horror of the war that lay just ahead.
  • - In World War II, Life magazine would send extraordinarily gifted and courageous photographers to cover the conflict and its harrowing effects. My memories of the war years are largely based on the issues of Life that we received each week. In that respect, I was probably typical of that pre-television generation.
    Now we no longer count on news magazines to provide us with arresting images. The digital age has provided us with millions of photojournalists, providing us with billions of images. But I cherish the magazines that my parents and I handled almost 80 years ago. They provide a tangible and consoling link to my past self and a past world.