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Co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and the Princeton University Art Museum, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography”

In the period from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, the majority of photographs printed and consumed in the U.S. appeared on the pages of illustrated magazines. Among them, Life—published weekly from 1936 to 1972—was both extraordinarily popular and visually revolutionary. Estimates for pass-along readership—the number of people who shared each copy of Life in spaces like waiting rooms and offices—suggest that the magazine may have regularly reached about one in four people in the country. The photographers who worked for Life bore witness to some of the most defining moments of the 20th century—and the magazine’s use of photography shaped the way many Americans experienced, perceived and remembered these events.

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Margaret Bourke-White, Flame Burner Ann Zarik, 1943, printed about 2000. Gelatin silver print. Princeton University Art Museum. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White. © LIFE Picture Collection.

Co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and the Princeton University Art Museum, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” offers a revealing look at the collaborative processes behind many of the publication’s most recognizable, beloved and controversial images and photo essays. The exhibition brings together more than 180 objects, including original press prints, contact sheets, shooting scripts, internal memos and layout experiments—drawing on unprecedented access to Life’s picture and paper archives. Added to the exhibition for its presentation at the MFA, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” also incorporates works by contemporary artists Alexandra Bell, Alfredo Jaar and Julia Wachtel, whose critical reflections on photojournalism and the politics of images frame urgent conversations about implicit biases and systemic racism in contemporary media.

In a press release, MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum shared, “This major exhibition is an invitation for our visitors to experience a time when photographs first began to influence world events and narratives—and how they continue to do so today. Life’s groundbreaking use of photography shaped important 20th-century dialogues in the U.S. around war, race, technology, art and national identity. Through a generous collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, we are exploring this process in a more critical and complex way than ever done before, and at a moment when technologies of distribution have evolved and disrupted the recording of history.”

“Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” was curated by Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs at the MFA; Katherine A. Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at Princeton University Art Museum; and Alissa Schapiro, an independent curator and doctoral candidate in art history at Northwestern University. In 2016 the curators were among the first to delve deeply into the Time Inc. Records Archive, which was newly available at the New-York Historical Society. In 2019, the MFA and Princeton University Art Museum became the first museums to be granted full access to the LIFE Picture Collection, the magazine’s photographic archive. In February 2020, the exhibition debuted at Princeton, but closed after three weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition and the accompanying book grew out of these unparalleled research opportunities, which helped to advance new scholarly perspectives on Life’s pictorial journalism. The book was named the 2021 recipient of the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship.

Among the over 30 photographers featured in “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” are Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Frank Dandridge, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith. The exhibition also emphasizes the contributions of women to the magazine’s success—not only photographers such as Bourke-White, whose monumental image of the Fort Peck Dam graced the first issue, but also negative and picture editors such as Peggy Sargent and Natalie Kosek. Additionally, “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” considers how the magazine—through the vision of its founder, Henry R. Luce, its editorial teams’ points of view and the demographics of its readers—promoted a predominantly white, middle-class perspective on politics, daily life and culture, even when documenting the country’s reckoning with racism and xenophobia. The exhibition makes a point to trace Life’s complex, and sometimes contradictory, approach to such stories through the inclusion of works by photographers from different backgrounds and perspectives that captured difficult images of ethnic discrimination and racialized violence, ranging from the Holocaust to white supremacist violence of the 1960s.

The exhibition is divided into three historical sections, interspersed with immersive contemporary moments. The first section, “Getting the Picture,” focuses on the creation of Life photographs, exploring multiple factors such as the details of the assignment, the idea for the story developed by the editorial staff, the selection of a particular photographer for the job, and the photographer’s own decisions about how to best capture the images needed to construct a story. Once a photographer completed an assignment, his or her undeveloped rolls of film and notes were sent to Life’s offices, where editorial teams selected images and determined how to adapt them for the printed page. The second section, “Crafting Photo Stories,” examines the making of a photo-essay, a format with stunning visuals and minimal text that Life claimed to have invented. The complex process involved negative editors, picture editors, art directors, layout artists, writers, researchers and fact-checkers in the construction of each page. The third section, “Life’s Photographic Impact,” considers the power and reach of the magazine, whose circulation peaked at 8.5 million in 1969. Here, the exhibition explores not only responses from readers—who wrote letters to the editor and even offered assistance to individuals profiled in the magazine—but also how Life perpetuated its own influence by repackaging its photographs and using technical sophistication and business savvy to outpace its competitors.

Contemporary works by Alfredo Jaar, Alexandra Bell, and Julia Wachtel appear in immersive moments installed between the three historical sections. Jaar questions the ethics of representation and the politics of images in his photography, installations, films and new media works. The exhibition features “Real Pictures”  from Jaar’s Rwanda Project and the U.S. debut of his multimedia installation “The Silence of Nduwayezu” from the same series. It also includes the triptych “Life Magazine, April 19, 1968,” in which he manipulates the magazine’s iconic photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 's funeral procession to point to the disproportionate number of Black mourners relative to white ones.  Similarly, works from Bell’s “Counternarratives series” highlight racial biases in annotated pages from The New York Times. Finally, in a newly commissioned work by the MFA, Wachtel directly responds to photographs from Life and engages in deep critical discourse about popular culture and politics, as well as media consumption.


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