Editors of Life, The (4 stars)

The Editors of Life

The Great LIFE Photographers (Thames & Hudson)


A picture, as the hoary old cliché runs, paints a thousand words. If that’s the case, then there may not be enough of them in all the languages of the world to cover the stories featured in LIFE magazine down the years. Created in 1883 by John Ames Mitchell, a thirtysomething New York illustrator with a large inheritance to spend, the magazine strove to have opinions about ‘politics, society, literature, the stage, the stock exchange, and the police station.’ In this collection of shots mainly culled from its years as a weekly publication (1936-72) there aren’t too many pictures taken inside cop shops, but the world’s battlefields, film sets and scenes of nature are all well represented.

From the vivid horror of Larry Burrows’ Vietnam pictures to Hansel Mieth’s staggering shot of a Rhesus monkey in Puerto Rico and from Sam Shere’s capturing of the Hindenburg disaster to William Vandivert snapping the carnage of WW2, there is barely a page that goes by without your jaw plummeting. Perhaps the most effective images are the quieter ones, whether moments of contemplation (Hitchcock peering out of a window or John Lennon on a New York train) or the silent aftermath of terror (a Berlin rape victim being comforted or a Japanese soldier’s severed head). In his introduction, the magazine’s former picture editor John Loengard wonders whether such photojournalistic endeavours can ever be considered as art. If evocative, poignant, funny, moving and shocking is art, then LIFE’s rich tapestry was up to its elbows in it.

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