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"LIFE: A RETROSPECTIVE VIEW"

by Diane Calder


"A world picture. . . .does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture. . . .the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age."
--Martin Heidegger, 1977


(Apex Fine Art, West Hollywood) Life magazine was nearing the end of its forty-year reign as America's of its forty-year reign as America's most popular and widely imitated weekly picture magazine when Heidegger voiced this acknowledge-ment of the premium that modern culture places on rendering experience in visual form. Life's publisher, Henry Luce, banked on the power of spectatorship: The look, the gaze, the glance, and the practices of observation, surveillance and visual pleasure.

The first issue of Life magazine, featuring the world as a picture, hit the newsstands in 1936. It was built on the success of Time magazine, which simplified the reading of the news for its busy subscribers by sorting it into departments illustrated with photographs. Life's enlarged format focused on the lure of the visual, downgrading text to a supporting role and making photography the news.

As a pioneer in photojournalism and one of the major forces in that field's development, Life educated its audience, introducing the masses to powerful works by some of the most noted photographers of the twentieth century. For ten cents a copy subscribers could lay their hands on mechanical reproductions of an amazing array of imagery, including photos by esteemed staffers like Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Carl Mydan, J. R. Eyerman and Andreas Feininger.

Life used the appearance of objectivity provided by photography to make credible its presentation of a world glamorized by celebrity lives, dramatic news events, scientific breakthroughs and fashion. Luce had admitted that, "Pretty girls are as much a part of today's life as the irrational bloodiness of war, the unrealities of some contemporary art, and the devious channels of international politics." Despite its photographs of world disasters, the context of the magazine was ultimately consoling. American optimism and ingenuity, engaging aesthetics, features on art and entertainment, and the lure of advertising images managed to outshine the darkest news photos.


Andreas Feininger. "42nd Street as
Viewed from Weehawken," gelatin
silver print, 16 x 20", 1942.







Margaret Bourke-White
, "A DC 4
Flying Over New York City,"
gelatin silver print, 1939.







Ed Clark, "CPO Jackson Mourning
the Death of F.D.R., Warm Springs,
GA," gelatin silver print, 1945.



Carl Mydans, "A child protects her
brother from a stranger with a
camera, Tsingtao, China,"
gelatin silver print, 16 x 20", 1949.





Robert Morse, "Repatriated
Frenchman Returns Home,"
gelatin silver print, 1944.
This exhibition of over fifty select black and white photographs, by major and lesser known photographers, respects that optimistic balance. Beginning with the earliest era, images such as Margaret Bourke-White's Chrysler Building, A DC 4 Flying over New York City and Diversion Tunnels embody an almost euphoric trust in the power and beauty of technology. Bourke-White, one of the publication's first four staff photographers, manipulated light patterns and angles of view into images of startling boldness and beauty for Life and Fortune magazine. Even Bourke-White's 1945 depiction of the liberation of Buchenwald is nearly sublime in its theatrical effect. It distances the observer enough to allow us to view, in a photographic representation, that which would be devastating in reality.

Many works in this exhibition have taken on the burden of added meanings with the passage of time. Like Old Master paintings of the Virgin and Child that incorporate signs of Mary's impending sorrow, they become dialectic. The viewer in the present is informed by events that color the past. Carl Mydan's late 1940's image of children in China and Edward Clark's beguiling depiction of a four-month-old Caroline Kennedy peaking out of her bassinet to eye her enchanted father fall into this category. Clark also captured the unrestrained portrayal of grief on the face of musician C. P. O. Graham Jackson as he played Going Home on the occasion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death.

That icon of the end of an era takes on added poignancy when it is exhibited with pictures that reference the lives and tragic deaths of other American leaders.

John F. Kennedy and the publishers of Life magazine no doubt understood that the informal, snapshot quality of Clark's work added to the sense of reality and trust that clings to these photographs.

In contrast, Ralph Morse's marvelous image of a repatriated Frenchman is so loaded with perfectly positioned signifiers that it could be part of an advertisement. Today the increasing realization that photographic images can be easily manipulated keeps them from being so acceptable as indexes of reality. Our virtual realities go far beyond the playful manipulation that enhanced the mystique surrounding both artist and photographer in Gjon Mili's portrait of Picasso drawing with light. Even issues of authenticity and signature have come into question since Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince began their work with appropriation.

Putting on a pair of 3-D glasses like those depicted in J. R. Eyerman's famed photograph of movie goers is no guarantee that we will be able to view the world as we did in the 1950's. However, a careful look at LIFE: A Retrospective View can lead to a deeper understanding of how we construct our world picture.