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Photo Essay Exhibit of Life Magazine

A recent show at the International Center of Photography in New York City offers both familiar and forgotten glimpses of life in America and other countries from the late 1930s through the end of the 1960s. Carolyn Weaver reports on “Looking at LIFE.”

For nearly forty years, until 1972, the weekly picture magazine LIFE was an American institution, documenting the country’s culture and history – and slices of life from other countries, too.

The show at New York’s International Center of Photography, based on a gift from the Time-Life archive, was curated by Carol Squiers and Vanessa Rocco.

Ms. Rocco says, “We tried to focus on two things: first of all, trying to show the breadth of coverage in LIFE, you know, the heterogeneity of

the magazine -- everything from light, fluffy stories, how-to stories -- but also to the great wars, the great hard-nosed photojournalistic coverage that you see in LIFE magazine.”

Pictorial essays, with a small amount of text, were the magazine’s way of telling stories about everyday life, news events, and political and social issues.

One of America’s most celebrated photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, shot the cover story for LIFE’s first issue, in November 1936. It was about the building of Fort Peck Dam in Montana.

Ms. Rocco points out, “The photo here of the turbine of the dam is kind of a classic Margaret Bourke-White modernist-esthetic photo. But what’s interesting to see, and we’re able to do by showing essays, is that Margaret Bourke-White also did these kinds of slice of life set-ups of workers who moved in droves to the shantytowns in Montana to build this dam.”

Margaret Bourke-White traveled the world shooting for the magazine. She documented the rise of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, the brutal lives of South African coal miners, and made some photographs that are still difficult to look at today – the victims of Nazi concentration camps. She was only one of LIFE’s great war photographers.

Vietnam-era photographer Larry Burrows made indelible images of that war for the magazine, and died covering the conflict.

“He was an incredibly gifted compositionalist, his set-ups are amazing, he got very close to the soldiers, really was in the battle with thems" said Ms. Rocco of Larry Burrows photos. "You’d almost have to call this a majestic photograph of Khe Sanh, where the Marines were basically trapped for months.”

At home, LIFE documented the 1963 March on Washington for black civil rights, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The magazine also photographed day-to-day life – for example, white middleclass women of the 1940s and 1950s, and in the late ‘60s, hippies living communally in the country.

LIFE photographed ordinary lives in far-off countries, too. For example, this essay about a family in a Brazilian slum. Photographer Gordon Parks considered it his most successful project, in part because it led some LIFE readers to set up a fund to help the family.

Sections on science and space show the first moonwalk – in photos taken by NASA – and the new science of reproductive technology. For example, this photograph of tiny cow fetuses floating inside a placenta, as well as images from atomic bomb testing in Nevada, by photographer Loomis Dean. Ms. Rocco says that he was the one “…who photographed the testing that was being done on dummies. So the dummies were set up in homes nearby the testing, to see what kind of damage would be inflicted on them. And they’re incredibly eerie.”

The show ends with some of LIFE’s iconic portraits of famous actors, rock musicians and sports figures – showing an image-making power that today belongs, not to picture magazines, but to television. Looking at LIFE was on view at the International Center of Photography, in New York City, which will display other prints from its new collection in the future.