Life was the eyes of the nation. Few magazines captured the world through such a powerful lens. Life’s photo essays alternately celebrated individual courage, attacked tyranny, praised technology, science, and illuminated the trivial, superficial, and ephemeral sides of life. Publisher Henry R. Luce described photography as “a new language, difficult, as yet unmastered, but incredibly powerful”—the most important machine age communications medium. Yet Life’s pictures were mastered and managed by photo editors who manipulated gesture and nuance. Before television no other medium reached as many individuals at once; and for decades no magazine stamped the collective consciousness with as many bigger than life images.
Life was not an original idea. Even the title belonged to a fifty-seven-year-old New York humor magazine whose publisher held on until declining sales forced him to sell the name for $92,000 in 1936. The buyer was thirty-eight-year-old Henry R. Luce, cofounder of Time and Fortune. By the early 1930s the idea of starting an American picture magazine was percolating. Condé Nast contemplated his own and the Cowles Brothers published Look a month after Life’s premiere. Luce aspired to publish a theater for photographs long before he founded Life. Fortune was the rehearsal. Luce wanted to make the “most beautiful magazine in the world,” not a photography magazine per se, yet Fortune’s visual personality was its striking photographs by Margaret Bourke White, Erich Salomon, and Edward Steichen.
The first unprinted dummy of what would become Life was finished in February 1936, designed as a sixteen-page picture supplement for Time. The contents included features on skating champion Sonja Henie, Mexican politics, Czech president Eduard Benes, young Katharine Hepburn, the queen of England, and other features.
The dummy was a disappointment. Paul Hollister, an advertising executive at Macy’s and self-described graphics expert, thought the design was a failure. When he received a copy he wrote a harsh critique: “It is inconceivable that even an avowed dress-rehearsal just for ‘fun’ should have turned out so far short . . . Great God—that a magazine should make even a tentative peek looking like this. . . . The dangerous thing is you have good raw material; it must not be butchered.”
Hollister’s candor earned him the job of revamping the dummy. “My task,” he later related “was to make a better pattern of each page, conforming to a total ‘basic format’ character: to ‘sell’ each page for itself, each picture within that pattern; to suggest changes of pace; to clean up margins and gutters; to eliminate sloppy disturbances and tricks from the page.” After spending the ten days of his vacation cutting and pasting, he delivered an accordion-folded dummy that when spread out revealed the entire format at a glance. Luce did not respond for two weeks, but when he did he invited Hollister to lunch and reportedly said in front of his executives: “Good! Now we have an editorial prospectus! Now we have a basic format. . . . Now what do we do?” Here is Hollister’s reply:
“What you do is get an art director and put him at a drawing board. Put tire tape over his mouth, because whatever he has to state should drain off through his fingers onto paper. Never let an art director talk. On a table at his left put your basic format dummy for reference. On a table at his right feed him batches of photographs, with a note saying you want one, two, four, eight—any number of pictures you need, for each batch, and any suggestions you have for playing up any particular angles of the picture story. So he makes layouts from the pictures. If they are right, you pat him on the head. If they have strayed from the mood of the basic format, you take a small hammer, which you have chained to the wall for the purpose, rap him smartly over the skull, point severely to the basic format dummy—cry “No, no, no! Naughty!” He then repents and makes the layout right, or you get yourself a new art director.”
At Hollister’s urging Macy’s chief designer, Howard Richmond, became the first art director of Life. With Richmond on the layout board, the second dummy was published for the week ending September 25, 1936. The content and design were closer to what would become Life’s trademark design until the 1960s. It was a loose grid noted for varied gothic typography. There appeared to be a conscious rejection of design nuances in favor of a jumbled tabloid look. And yet the layout was appropriate for the stark black-and-white photography on disturbing subjects, such as: “Hitler Speaks,” about the pageantry of a Nuremberg Rally; “Cotton Pickin’,” about the squalid conditions of Southern black laborers; and “Seen in Catalonia,” about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Reviews came in quickly, and many were harsh even within the Time ranks. One executive wrote a memo to Luce saying that if the potential for a picture magazine existed this dummy was not it. “I found that I knew no further facts nor had I added to my visualized sense of the scene. . . . I think any reader would finish the dummy in half an hour or less.” Another lashing came from Dorothy Thompson who called the magazine “unmodern,” adding that she expected something that would burst upon the eye “with the sort of inevitableness which has always been your [Luce’s] genius.”
Luce was not deterred. Yet it was not Richmond but a freelance illustrator, Edward Wilson, who suggested that the cover always be a black-and-white photo, a full bleed on all sides. Richmond added the sans serif logo dropped out of a red rectangle positioned in the upper left corner of the cover. After much discussion among Time’s executives it was decided that a stationary logo was best and it became the most identifiable design element of Life along with the red band at the bottom of the page.
The first issue of Life was more a photo album rather than a well-paced collection of photo essays in the tradition of the great Berlin or Munich illustrated weeklies. This changed within the next two years as Life’s picture editors and photographers became more confident. The stories became tighter, yet the quality of the design did not to rise above basic functionalism. It could be argued that the matter-of-fact format allowed the photographs the room to breathe. That the no-style design style was actually consistent with Life’s style of photography, which rejected artifice (i.e., photographers like Edward Weston or André Kertész were never to be found in Life). But it could also be argued that Life’s graphic neutrality was an impediment to its being a truly superb magazine.
Life’s influence on America was greater than anyone, even Luce, ever imagined. Life’s mix of remarkable photo essays by masters of photojournalism and terse writing style proved to be a winning combination. Life’s editors understood the importance of packaging a picture story with the right balance of words. Life’s caption and headline style—clear, simple facts—made Life a paradigm of truth-news.