The American magazine LIFE, was born in 1936 from an idea of the magnate Henry Light; pioneer of photojournalism, it is the first to accord an important narrative with images rather than written text. The news, thanks to their strong visual impact, was able to reach in a capillary way any type of audience, including a more popular target audience. From the 1930s to the 1970s, LIFE has also helped to define the role and influence of the United States during the so-called American Century, a period of transition from isolationism to an interventionist policy, the voice of democratic values in the world.
The New York Historical Society is hosting, a dedicated exhibition to the magazine's six female reporters, the only women employed under contract on a staff of 88 people in total. LIFE has in fact often availed itself of women photographers, seven were for example, were war correspondents, but with assignments in freelance. The six permanent contributors of the magazine are not known to date to the the general public, nor mentioned in the history of photography and photojournalism books except New Yorker Margaret-Bourke White (1904-1971), author of the first cover of LIFE, a tireless war reporter. She was the first photographer to actively document the Second World War, the first western photographer who was allowed to work in the Soviet Union and the only woman in the magazine's first small team of contributors.
Margaret Bourke-White, Building Fort Peck Dam (LIFE's first cover story)
© Margaret Bourke-White, Building Fort Peck Dam (LIFE's first cover story)
Marie Hansen (1918-1969), born in Saint Louis, Missouri, lived in Washington. D.C. and was one of the first women hired by the magazine in 1941. Photographer of numerous Hollywood celebrities and important politicians, for example, her portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower was chosen as the official photograph. Hansen's photostory I WAACS (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) presented at the exhibition, dates back to 1942 and portrays the new female recruits hired in the auxiliary military service of those years, born to support the armed forces. The young soldiers were in Des Moines, Iowa. Hansen convinced Americans to accept the idea of women in uniform. Over 150,000 women were chosen to join the female army.
Marie Hansen, The WAACS
© Marie Hansen, The WAACS
Martha Holmes (1923-2006) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. She began photographing as a teenager and after working in a laboratory of development for a few years, was hired by LIFE, at 20 years old. She worked in Hollywood, Washington and New York. Martha possessed an innate talent for capturing intimate portraits of the greatest Hollywood celebrities. Among the stars she immortalized were Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland and the painter Jackson Pollock. Her photos of the singer Billy Eckstine in 1949 - and in particular one in which he is literally wrapped in the embrace of a fan, are being presented in the exhibition.
Martha Holmes, Mr. B
© Martha Holmes, Mr. B
The reporters Lisa Larsen, Hansel Mieth and Nina Leen have a story of immigration in common.
Lisa Larsen (1925-1959), a German Jew, fled Nazi Germany in 1938, following Kristallnacht's violent program and relocated to the United States as soon as she was a teenager. After a period of work as a photo archivist for the agency Black Star, she soon became a freelance photographer until she signed a contract with LIFE. In the beginning, her assignments concerned mainly subjects of show and fashion, but gradually her interest was directed towards politics (among others, her portraits of the First Lady Bess Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower during the campaign in 1950 and the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John Kennedy). She documented President Tito's visit to the Kremlin during the climax of the Cold War in 1956 and in the summer of the same year, she was the first American photographer granted access to the territory of Mongolia.
Hansel Mieth (1909-1998) changed her name at the Oppelspohm registry office from Johanna Mieth. At the age of 15, she fled a religious family and passed herself off as a boy in order to travel across Europe alongside her future husband, Otto Hagel. After crossing Eastern Europe she reached Otto in 1930 in the United States. The two lovers reunited in the midst of the Depression. In San Francisco they found employment as migrant workers and documented the harsh working conditions with a second hand Leica. In 1937, Mieth was hired by LIFE while Otto continued to work as a freelancer. The photographer's contribution to the magazine concerned social work, portraying the lives of trade unions and the working class of those years.
Nina Leen (1909-1995) Russian Jew, studied painting in Berlin and lived in Italy and then in Switzerland before leaving Europe definitively for New York in 1939 to escape the Holocaust. Hired in the editorial staff of LIFE in 1940, she was the author of at least 50 covers. Her first publications for the magazine were shots of some turtles in the Bronx Zoo, immortalized with her Rolleiflex. She later specialized in numerous fashion services and married the fashion photographer Serge Balkin. Leen's story entitled The Dilemma of the American Woman, is a piece for LIFE which dates back to 1947 and outlines her sociocultural cross-section of the late 40s / early 50s in which the perspective of a career cast doubt on the American woman media. Most women of this time grew up with the idea of having to take care of the house and the children, of having to lead a life as a housewife. However, new and unusual notions were beginning to emerge across social horizons that prompted her to rethink her obligations in a different way.
Curators Sarah Gordon, Marilyn Satin Kushner and Andrew Mellon have selected more than 70 black and white images of the years between 1937 and 1956. Their selection includes not only reportage but also unpublished photographs and photographic specimens of different materials such as the exchange of letters between photographers and publishers, documents and advertisements of the period and some publications of specific issues of the magazine.