In the constant swim of our 24/7 image-saturated media deluge, it can be hard to understand, let alone appreciate, the singular influence that Life magazine had in both framing and shaping the perception of American life in the decades after the Second World War. According to one study cited in “Looking at Life Magazine,” a 2001 essay collection edited by the art historian Erika Doss, nearly half of all Americans over the age of 10 had picked up a copy of Life during a three-month period in 1950. Compare that to a contemporary mediascape so splintered into microrealities that we barely agree on basic facts, let alone a broader view of the world itself, and the Life story starts to feel like something akin to a media version of a Disney princess movie.
Indeed, looking back on Life invites — almost demands — rose-tinted nostalgia, something Kristen Gresh, curator of photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, was determined to shade in much darker tones. On Oct. 9, the museum opens “LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography.” The title is not meant to be reverential. “For us, the goal from the very beginning was really to write a critical history of the photographs in the magazine,” she said. “Whether it’s in history or American studies programs, Life always seems to represent a sort of celebratory culture. We wanted to deconstruct some of those myths.”
In three sections, the exhibition picks apart the magazine’s outsize influence, and the liberties it took to present a version of America to itself favored by its founder, the legendary Henry Luce, who acquired the rights to the name in 1936 from a previous publication and launched a new version, driven by photography. While it’s true Life was groundbreaking in the opportunities it offered to photographers like Gordon Parks and Frank Dandridge, who were Black, and Margaret Bourke-White, a woman working in what was almost exclusively a man’s world, Luce’s vision for the magazine was steeped in the Great Depression and six years of war. American boosterism never retreated from his vision, and the magazine could skew toward an overly sunny view tailored to an audience, however large, that was overwhelmingly middle-class and white.
Not that Luce shied away from the darkness of an American era riven by conflict. Having Life at the center of the American media universe did more good than bad. The magazine was dedicated to covering racial strife, documenting the segregated south and the civil rights movement; Life’s archives contain arguably the most important visual documents of the era that we have. How they came to be is the concern of the exhibition, and an audio interview with Dandridge in the gallery opens a window into a hidden process.
Dandridge, who frequently covered Martin Luther King Jr., could photograph where white photographers could not. In one of the most harrowing images the magazine ever published, Dandridge managed to photograph 12-year old Sarah Collins in her hospital bed, both her eyes patched with gauze after the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. that killed four Black girls, including Collins’s sister. Dandridge was able to take the pictures because, Gresh said, as a Black man, he could access the segregated hospital where Collins was being treated.
“The show is really looking at the process of making and using and distributing the photographs, not just celebrating all the iconic pictures people know and love,” Gresh said, noting they tried to tell a “specific story about the multi-voice process that created 20th-century photojournalism.”
And make no mistake: Life, almost on its own, all but did create 20th-century photojournalism, at least for a mainstream audience. Its innovation of presenting in-depth photo essays — pages and pages, dozens of pictures for a single story — helped form the popular notion of visual storytelling.
It was not without flaws, or bias. Before and after the war, Luce wanted to lionize American industrial and technological prowess: Bourke-White’s iconic 1936 cover image of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, an industrial-age equivalent to the great pyramids, is one example; or later, J.R. Eyerman’s ubiquitous 1952 photo of movegoers in 3-D glasses.
Luce meant to advance the idea that the country was better equipped than any other to chart the world’s path to the future. Even so, one of Bourke-White’s photographic projects poked that vision right in the eye: Under a giant billboard that read “WORLD’S HIGHEST STANDARD OF LIVING / THERE’S NO WAY LIKE THE AMERICAN WAY,” she captured a clutch of Black flood victims in Louisville in 1937 lining up for food and water from the Red Cross.
At the MFA, Bourke-White is joined by contemporary allies in calling out the magazine’s prevailing ethos. In each of the three sections, Gresh and her team have selected contemporary artists to approach the material with a critical eye. Alfredo Jaar, an artist based in New York and known for probing takes on mass media, reproduces Bob Fitch’s famous image of King’s funeral procession for the magazine three times: once as it appeared in the magazine’s April 19, 1968 edition, then twice with the image blown out, the mourners reduced to dots. One of those images, with Black mourners, is heavily speckled with black dots; the other, sparsely with red dots for white mourners, questions the magazine’s narrative of the movement as diverse and integrated.
By exhuming the motivations and manipulations of a publishing icon, Gresh’s goal is to find contemporary resonance, however unsettling it may be. “I hope that it will encourage people to understand the need to be critical and visually literate,” she said, “that by looking at Life, both its innovativeness, but also its control and manipulation, questions about photojournalism will come to the fore in a way that we can be deeply thoughtful and intentional about what we see, and how we understand and share it.”
Due to a Globe reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Kristen Gresh, curator of photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Globe regrets the error.
LIFE MAGAZINE AND THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHY
From Oct. 9, 2022 to Jan. 16, 2023, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 425 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org