The Digital Journalist

The Last of LIFE
Editorial by Dirck Halstead

On a spring day in 1972, a group of world famous photojournalists held a wake. Sprawled on the floor next to their small offices, they drank bottles of wine and liquor that had been squirreled away among the cases of photographic equipment.

That morning, they had been assembled with the rest of the editorial staff to be told that LIFE, the proud flagship of photojournalism, was dead. Carl Mydans, one of the original masthead photographers, mistily said "I never believed that I would outlive my profession." That was 29 years ago. Carl is still alive and kicking, while LIFE has died yet again.

Six years after being closed down as a weekly, LIFE was resurrected by Time Inc. as a monthly. But it was a pale imitation of its former self. The outsized pages of the weekly, which allowed its editors to display many of the most famous photographs ever taken, across giant print layouts, shrank to a magazine just slightly larger than Time. Most important, when LIFE was reconceived, it would be with one huge difference. Instead of being a stable for a proud photographic staff, the new order was "no photographers!" It seemed as if they had taken a cue from a dictum attributed to a Wall Street Journal editor, "the great thing about not running photographs, is you don't have to have photographers." 

Well, LIFE ran photographs. Some of them very good, by photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, Eugene Richards, David Burnett, David Hume Kennerly, Mary Ellen Mark.  With one remarkable exception, when David Friend, then Picture Editor, hired Joe McNally, there would never again be a staff photographer for LIFE.

The groundbreaking concept of the original LIFE was to have a staff of star photographers ready to be sent across the globe at a moments notice, in peace and in war, to bring back their own particular visions. Photojournalists the likes of David Douglas Duncan, Tom McAvoy, Ed Clark, Peter Stackpole, Margaret Bourke White, Leonard McCombe, George Silk, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, and the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt, all put their personal mark on the magazine. Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes credits those photographers with creating the vision for his show, which has dominated television ratings for years. Their formula was the same: you take a few excellent journalists, who consistently produce great work--Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, Andy Rooney, Leslie Stahl--and let them bring their special star-quality personalities to the storytelling art. The idea that the stars are atleast 50% of the program is essential to the formula. At LIFE the photographers were the stars.

So, what happened to the old LIFE? First, it was the advertising. Once TV came on the scene, its unique position as the largest mass market platform for advertisers quickly eroded. At its height in the mid '60s, LIFE had a paid circulation of over 8 million, with three or four more times of "eyeball views." That made it a very important destination for advertisers. In the early '70s, LOOK, it's main competition, was shut down.

LIFE picked up a lot of LOOK's subscribers. That was mostly bad news. The reason is that both LOOK and LIFE had offered bargain subscriber rates, which translated into a price of about 19 cents per issue. With the added burden of printing the extra copies for LOOK subscribers, every pressrun was costing Time Inc. more money than the magazine could generate. With an 85% subscription base, within months, LIFE was hemorrhaging money.

There were a lot of misconceptions, by new management, about LIFE and photojournalism. In many cases, pictures were squeezed together in layouts that would make any present art director wince. 

Now a days photojournalism students think the old LIFE photographers had a big say in how their pictures were run. Wrong. Once they handed in their film, they were ushered out of the editorial offices posthaste. When a picture editor told Ed Thompson, then Managing Editor, that some photographers wanted to layout their own stories, he yelled "they must be out of their minds!" W. Eugene Smith got his way a few times, because he was "a pain in the ass!" But even Smith eventually quit in disgust.

Whatever its shortcomings, the old LIFE was the home of distinguished photojournalism. And so, when the reincarnated LIFE was announced, the decision not to hire any staff photographers was a bad omen. 

Picture editors, like Peter Howe, David Friend, and Bobbi Baker Burrows did their best--but it wasn't the real LIFE.

There was a brief period, however, in the 1980s, when the old LIFE breathed once again. It was during the Gulf War. For a month, LIFE, having a real story to cover, started a weekly publication. It was magnificent--filled with pictures by the Turnleys, Neil Leifer, and Salgado, among others. We were shown what big magazine photojournalism could mean. The problem was that Time Inc. buried the magazine. There was virtually no newsstand distribution or promotion. Without those crucial elements few saw what a weekly LIFE could look like. The war ended, and LIFE was pronounced D.O.A.

Does this mean there is no place left for LIFE-type photojournalism? No, but probably not on the printed page. If Time Inc. had been smart, they would have devoted far more energy to recognizing and embracing the promise of the Internet.

With confidence in photography, empowering photographers with new tools, and financing in-depth journalism, they could have established a beachhead on the World Wide Web. Instead, they frittered away this last opportunity. Perhaps someday, someone at Time Inc. will realize what could have been done, and do it. The LIFE brand is a valuable one, but one that will languish in the land of could-have-been, until somebody realizes what made it special-- PHOTOGRAPHERS.

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