The Birth of Life, 79 Years Ago

Life magazine

The first issue of the pictorial magazine Life debuted on Nov. 23, 1936 and featured a cover photo of the Fort Peck Dam by Margaret Bourke-White. (Newseum collection)

By Prerana Korpe

Life, the iconic American photo magazine, debuted on Nov. 23, 1936.

Life magazine had a previous life as a weekly humor publication which folded during the Great Depression. Prominent American publisher Henry Luce purchased the name and re-launched the magazine as a picture-based periodical.  It was the wish of Life’s inaugural publisher to go beyond a magazine that just talked about the news and actually give people the chance to live it through vivid imagery. Photographs published by Life magazine became some of the most recognizable images of U.S. and world events in the 20th century.

Life fortified the importance of photojournalism by demonstrating the ability of a single photograph to accurately capture the sentiment, complexity and urgency of a single moment in time, as a news source. The magazine’s motto, “To see Life; to see the world,” described its mission to utilize stunning photography to deliver powerful reporting of world events.

During its early years and through the 1950s, Life enjoyed great success. The magazine published Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1952, earned all rights to the memoirs of President Harry S. Truman in 1953, and featured Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American woman on the magazine’s cover, in 1954.

In the late 1950s, rising popularity of television reduced interest in news magazines such as the picture-driven Life.  Still, the magazine continued to bring historic images into the homes of its readers, with color photos of the war in Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy and his family, the Apollo program and movie stars. Life discontinued weekly publication in 1972 until 2004, when weekly publication resumed as a newspaper supplement, and continued until the final edition was published in 2007.

From “Goin’ Home,” which captured the mourning musician at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral procession in 1945, the “Marlboro Man” in 1949 and “Man on the Moon” in 1969 to “Fall of the Berlin Wall” in 1989 and countless others, Life magazine captured modern history’s most significant events in single snapshots, creating iconic images which transformed history into visual memories commonly held and shared by the public at large. By capturing news through the lens of a camera, photojournalists produced timeless images of fleeting moments – delivering news as more than something to be read, but something to be seen, and something to be lived.

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