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At the MFA, a new show looks at what Life left out

‘Life Magazine and the Power of Photography’ examines the ambitions, biases, and blind spots of the iconic ‘general interest’ publication

First issue of Life magazine.Life Picture Collection/ Photo by Life Magazine. © LIFE Picture Collection/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Has any magazine had a more sweeping name than Life? It’s hard to come up with something more all encompassing, other than maybe Existence. Yet there are ways in which Life, which published as a weekly from 1936-72, justified its name.

There was the range of subjects it covered, and all over the world: war, politics, entertainment, society, science, art, fads. The list goes on. As a dummy name for the magazine before finally deciding on Life, the magazine’s founder, Henry Luce, used The Show-Book of the World. That wouldn’t exactly have worked, but it was an accurate enough description, aspirationally.

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Robert Capa, "Normandy Invasion on D‑Day, Soldier Advancing through Surf," 1944.Robert Capa © International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

Life truly was a general interest magazine, an information omnivore, and for its first quarter century that helped make it such a phenomenal popular success. That same omnivorousness then proceeded to doom it. Television offered advertisers more eyeballs. Publications with a narrower focus offered better demographics.

The magnitude of its success justified Life’s name in a different way. It’s been estimated that at the height of its popularity (and impact) the magazine was seen each week by 1 in 4 Americans.

“Life Magazine and the Power of Photography,” which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts Oct. 9 and runs through Jan. 16, largely focuses on two interestingly opposed things: the ways in which Life justified its name (the comprehensiveness and ambition of its approach and the impressiveness of its nuts-and-bolts operation) and how it didn’t (its very considerable biases and blind spots). A collaboration between the MFA and the Princeton University Art Museum, the show has been curated by the MFA’s Kristen Gresh, Princeton’s Katherine A Bussard, and independent curator Alissa Schapiro.

Henri Cartier‑Bresson, "Untitled (Peiping)," 1948.* Henri Cartier-Bresson © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

What set apart Life from other US magazines, as the show’s title suggests, was its emphasis on photography. Several European magazines preceded it in that emphasis: VU, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. Other US magazines would follow Life’s example: Look, Ebony. But Life did pictures more and did them better than any other mass-market magazine. That was the “show” part of Luce’s “Show-Book of the World.”

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Not that text didn’t matter, and matter a great deal: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” first appeared in the pages of Life, as did Norman Mailer’s coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the first Ali-Frazier fight. But think about Life, even today, and the association is almost sure to be photographic: Yousuf Karsh’s 1943 portrait of Winston Churchill; Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings; Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on VJ Day; blurry color images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, taken from the Zapruder film (which Life owned). More than just famous, these pictures are familiar, part of our collective understanding of those years. All are in the show.

Alfred Eisenstaedt , "VJ Day in Times Square," 1945.Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. © LIFE Picture Collection. * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

J.R. Eyerman’s photo of a ‘50s movie audience wearing 3-D glasses is another example. Unlike that image, Eyerman isn’t famous. Many Life photographers, both on staff and freelance, were: Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, David Douglas Duncan, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson. All have work here.

It’s a sprawling, ambitious show, with some 180 items on display. Some of the most interesting are behind-the-scenes stuff: contact sheets, dummy layouts, shooting scripts, memoranda. The procedural aspect extends even to some of the famous images. Several are displayed with both sides visible, revealing editorial comments on the back. The press print of Bourke-White’s “Fort Peck Dam, Montana,” the magazine’s first cover photo, has on the reverse: “Famous Picture: Do Not Circulate.”

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Margaret Bourke-White, "Fort Peck Dam, Montana," 1936© LIFE Picture Collection. * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

As a mass-produced artifact, the magazine was a 52-weeks-a-year marvel. One of the first things a visitor sees is four photographs showing the magazine being published. They’re a reminder of just what a formidable achievement it was to get out several million copies of the magazine.

What made that formidableness insidious (not too strong a word) was Life’s implicit message: that the magazine’s sensibility really did reflect its name. Being about “life” meant that it was in no way narrow or subjective in interests, attitudes, assumptions. Not to get too high flown about it, but seen that way “general interest” was a coated-paper version of Rousseau’s general will. Or it was once circulation got high enough.

Contact sheet with frames from photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt's famed set of a sailor kissing a nurse and other images of the Times Square VJ‑Day celebrations, 1945© LIFE Picture Collection. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This is, of course, nonsense. Looking back, it’s plain what the magazine’s biases were (they were that much more pronounced at its sister publication Time). Life’s sensibility was white, male, affluent, triumphalist, upbeat, stoutly anti-Communist, far less stoutly pro-civil rights (though certainly in favor in a “these things take time” sort of way), and so inherently pro-American as not even to realize there might be any alternative that wasn’t at best misguided and at worst outright wicked. It was, after all, in the pages of Life that Luce published his celebrated “American Century” essay.

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Throughout the show, various biases and related editorial shortcomings are pointed out. The most startling are sins of commission. A photo spread on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visiting the Lincoln Memorial slightly doctored the main image to tidy the composition. Fortunately, that’s pretty trivial. The most pernicious are sins of omission. Charles Moore’s images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Alabama in 1963 are so shocking, and grimly self-explanatory, it’s hard to imagine that the toned-down accompanying captions and story kept many readers from understanding the nature of what had gone on. But as the accompanying wall text details, the words that ran with the photographs are startlingly discrepant with what the photographs present.

Margaret Bourke-White, "At the Time of the Louisville Flood," 1937© LIFE Picture Collection * Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

The curators have done prodigious research in the Life archives. Perhaps the extent of their knowledge leads them to wonder about how much their readers know or can figure out for themselves. The wall text accompanying Bourke-White’s photograph “At the Time of the Louisville Flood,” from 1937, describes how its “juxtaposition of a billboard featuring a smiling white family touting ‘the American Way’ and the ‘World’s Highest Standard of Living’ above a line of Black Americans waiting for flood relief highlights disparities between advertising and reality, as well as racial and economic inequality.” Well, yes, absolutely, and 2 + 2 = 4.

Presumably in an effort to give the exhibition a sense of relevance and additional moral heft, not that it doesn’t already have both, the show includes the work of three contemporary artists: Alexandra Bell, Alfredo Jaar, and Julia Wachtel. The idea is for them to “frame larger conversations about implicit biases and systemic racism in photojournalism and contemporary media, inviting us to reflect on ourselves and our inherited historical narrative.” That’s a challenging brief.

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Alexandra Bell, "Gang Leader," 2022.Courtesy of the Artist * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

Bell reworks several front pages and section fronts of The New York Times so as to highlight various biases and a lack of objectivity. She blacks out text, writes editorial comments, and so forth. This is useful and informative. But it’s also slightly unsettling, though not in the way that Bell likely intends, since implicit in her presentation is the idea that her own views are themselves somehow objective and unbiased.

What Bell, Jaar, and Wachtel seek to do, another wall text explains, is “interrogate the news media through their practice.” Any such endeavor is good and welcome and can even be illuminating when, or if — and here, obviously, the views of someone who is himself part of the news media might justifiably be considered suspect — it also strives to “interrogate” its own assumptions, biases, and practice. Otherwise what you get is bien-pensant cant. Whether such a dual interrogation has occurred is for viewers to decide.

The show concludes with a nice flourish: a very circa 1969 alcove. It has shag carpeting, a couple of TVs showing footage of the first moon landing, and a split-level glass-and-metal coffee table. On it are a copy of the show’s catalog and four fanned-out copies of Life. It’s a material-culture reminder of how much Life could be a part of everyday, you know, life.

LIFE MAGAZINE AND THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHY

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 16. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.