From 1936 to 1972, Life magazine was in its heyday: The illustrated, general interest publication came out every week, and quickly became known for its photography. During these years, the magazine employed 101 photographers in total. Only six full-time photographers were women.
A New-York Historical Society exhibition has dug deep into the Life Picture Collection, now owned by Meredith Corporation, and uncovered a trove of works by these female photographers. The exhibition, on display through October 6, features 67 photographs. The images cull from six stories, one shot by each woman. A mix of published and unpublished photos, alongside contact sheets and other documents, are on display in the exhibition. A handful of those photos — some republished in many outlets, others exclusively published in The Lily — are also on display throughout this piece.
Three of the stories covered subjects of specific interest to women: female labor union members, shot by Hansel Mieth for a 1938 feature; members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), photographed by Marie Hansen for a 1942 feature; and “American Woman’s Dilemma,” a 1947 photo essay by Nina Leen on the various roles played by women in post-World War II American society.
Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Holmes and Lisa Larsen are the three other featured photographers.
Of all six, Bourke-White is the only well-known one today. She shot the cover photo for the Nov. 23, 1936, inaugural issue of Life; it was an image of Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Bourke-White received the assignment because Henry Luce, Time Inc.’s founder, had been familiar with her industrial photography for Fortune, a sister Time Inc. magazine.
We recently asked the exhibition’s curators — Marilyn Satin Kushner, head of the museum’s department of prints, photographs and architectural collections, and Sarah Gordon, a curatorial scholar at the museum’s center for women’s history — about their favorite pieces in the exhibition, the lasting legacy of these photographers, and more.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: What role did female photographers play in the era during which these women were shooting?
Marilyn Satin Kushner: Some of these stories, you can tell that a woman would do it. [In the case of Leen’s photo essay,] when there’s a story on the woman’s dilemma — what are women going to do after the men come back from the war in the late ’40s — they’re not going to send a man out to do that job. There’s another story about the WAACs; they’re not going to send a man out to do that job, either. Most of the women that were working on these [stories] were working as seriously and as intensely as the men.
The photographers had been asked in various interviews if they felt they were treated differently because they were women. Nina Leen once said, “I know I got some assignments because I’m a woman.” She’s the one [who took the photos] on the woman’s dilemma.
On the other hand, there are stories men would have done just as well: a lot of Margaret Bourke-White stories, but also the Lisa Larsen story, when she went to the Soviet Union. [We took] what Henry Luce wanted his magazine to be, and talked about how these women exhibited Luce’s vision through the various stories that they did.
TL: What challenges did these women face professionally and personally?
Sarah Gordon: They encountered the same challenges that women would have fought in a lot of different areas. They were a minority in their field. [In the exhibition, there’s a] page from an internal newsletter about what they would wear to work. Larsen and Holmes both liked to wear pants with huge pockets.
Nina Leen had special skirts made with pockets to carry everything. It’s charming, but that [Life magazine] chose to have that story in an internal newsletter shows [that the women] were a novelty. They weren’t running stories on what the men would pack, because that was assumed.
They also had to work with male editors — the editorial process is a big part of our story. So they had to have this back-and-forth with the editors. All the photographers would have to have an editor make those kinds of decisions, but you could make an argument that in some cases there was more tension because of the different choices that the editor would make.
TL: What are your favorite images in the exhibition?
SG: I just love Hansen’s portrait of the Russian woman, who’s clearly been taken out of her work. She’s got her work apron on, her hair is covered with a kerchief, she’s got these amazing hands holding what looks to me like some kind of eye-protection goggles. She’s looking straight at the camera with this perplexed but powerful look on her face. Right behind her there are all these women dressed up, [wearing] Sunday dresses and hats and purses. It’s a fantastic photo, both in terms of the era and aesthetically.
MK: It works [in both ways] for me, too.
TL: What was the lasting impact of these photographers on their field and on women’s history?
SG: Holmes’s photo of Billy Eckstine [hugging a white female fan] is just a stunning photo. The story behind it is that Holmes loved the photo, felt it represented the world as she wanted it to be. The editors see it and they’re concerned about running this photo [because of the race of the subjects], and they bring it to Luce. Luce says, “No, run it, this is the future we want.” So he loved this photo, too. And they ran it, and it impacted Eckstine’s career. After the story runs, Eckstine’s record sales start declining. There were also terrible letters, people write into Life — racist screeds on how could you do this, this white woman is hugging this black man. It offended readers intensely that this photo was shown.
MK: These photographers and women’s involvement in Life magazine have never been talked about before. Some of these women were unknown. [The exhibition] is going to raise lots of questions about what women’s roles were in photojournalism in those early years, how these women fit into it. Half these women fled Europe at this time — that’s another chapter in that story.
TL: What will this exhibition mean for the Instagram generation?
SG: It’s interesting to point out that this isn’t new, that Life magazine was so important as a source of visual information, that’s what Luce wanted.
He was part of that beginning. Now we look at photos all the time.
MK: People need to learn how to read images; you just can’t gloss over an image. I was thinking about this as Sarah was talking about [the photo of] the woman in the Soviet Union and the people behind her. You have to focus on the whole image. Henry Luce wanted a magazine where the words would support the pictures, [whereas] in previous American magazines, the pictures supported the story.
Taking that back to the Instagram generation, they have lots of pictures. I don’t know if they really know how to look at those pictures yet. One would hope that maybe something like that will develop out of all this, but who knows?