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Erika Doss (ed): Looking at Life Magazine (Washington DC and London:Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 272pp., ISBN: 1-56098-989-0 Hbk. US$29.95

Reviewed by Eva Vieth


This collection emerged from a conference called ‘Looking at Life: Rethinking America’s favorite Magazine 1936-1972’, and focusing on “how Life magazine, perhaps the single most important general weekly magazine from the late 1930s until its demise in the early 1970s, shaped and influenced ideas about class, ethnicity, gender, and race in America, and throughout the world” (xiii).

The introduction, which locates Life within the national and international mediascape, is followed by two articles examining Life’s relationship to American modernity in general (‘Life-Style Modernity: Making Modern America’, Terry Smith) and the validity of considering Life as the ‘Voice of America’ in particular (‘Who read Life? The Circulation of America’s Favorite Magazine’, James L. Baughman). The rest of the collection loosely follows the aim of the conference and, in best eclectic magazine style, examines Life’s role in wartime representations of the Chinese (Kelly Ann Long), exposure of American extremists (Brett Gary), and its take on the Atomic Age (Peter Bacom Hales). Also included are Life’s influence on corporate America (Roland Marchand), religion (David Morgan), race (Wendy Kozol, Erika Doss), and gender (John Ibson, Rickie Solinger). The last part of the collection focuses on the representation of class conflict in Life’s reports of entertainment (Neil Harris) and on the ‘two Americas’ of the 60s (John Gennari).

From the beginning, Life gained an iconic status as the popular voice of America. The magazine offers an almost unlimited archive of the different movements and events that shaped American lifestyle and politics from the second world war onwards. For scholars exploring processes of meaning and society ‘in the making’, Life opens a direct window onto core aspects of American public identity.

Nevertheless, as the authors of the articles are well aware, this archive has to be examined with a knowledge of its own limits and particular biases. Two aspects especially need to be considered. First, the magazine’s engaged house-style and its claim ‘to see life; to see the world’ for all the family, must be questioned in terms of ‘Who is doing the looking?’ interrogating the makers’ political and ideological orientation. Secondly, Life must be understood not only as a voice within the public sphere, but also as an economic entity subject to financial interests; it is necessary to ask how these interests were served when Life took part and even took sides in any given quarrel of opinion.

Taken together, the articles allow an understanding of Life’s role in the complex chain of meaning-making processes linking the kitchen tables where Life was read to the world of events it portrayed. For example, in his analysis of homoeroticism, Ibson takes Life as an agency that ‘charted and promoted the change’ of the perception and portrayal of masculinity before, during and after the war, emphasising its role as a reflection of public opinion. In contrast, Solinger’s article on representation of women as 'Babes' highlights the active role and the commercial interest Life had in such forms of representation. Going even further, Baughman’s analysis of Life’s circulation and audience charts the construction of Life’s claim to represent that imagined community ‘America’, thus offering a modern-day addendum to Ohmann’s study of class construction within the early illustrated magazines of the late 1800s. Yet whether interpreted as passive reflection of public opinion, active shaper of a particular position, or even as creator of an America of Life readers, Life proves to be up to the challenge - an engaged and engaging magazine that gave and continues to give its readers, ‘ordinary’ as well as ‘scholarly’, a feeling of being ‘near the heart of things’.

It was this aspect of Life, the curious resonance of ‘being there’ and ‘being exciting common sense’, as far as that is no contradiction, which gave the magazine its particular status - and which warrants this book’s review in a journal of cult media. Life - its outlook, its style, its excellent photography - is cult (if there can be a mainstream ‘cult’ of the Everyman). Anyone who has ever attempted analysis of an illustrated magazine like Life knows that it is almost impossible, and maybe not even desirable, to resist the charm of its attitude; to question its proud and self-celebratory claim, in the words of Life’s editor, ‘to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed’; not to accept its ‘mission’ to be ‘The Show-Book of the World’ according to ‘the will and new expectancy of half mankind’ (p. iv). This attitude, more than specific themes negotiated within its pages, made Life the exponent of the ‘true’ America that it represented and called forth, the Everyman America of ordinary people who wanted to see and know.

It is the discussion of this attitude that draws my only criticism. While the articles in combination give an enriching overview of how Life shaped America and its perception of the world, it is only mentioned in passing that this particular perspective itself was not exclusively American. Life belongs to the family of modern photojournalistic magazines which originated in the Germany of the Weimar Republic, was spread to France, Britain and America through refugees fleeing the National Socialists’ ascendancy, and peaked in the almost parallel creation of Life (USA, 1936), Match (France, 1938) and Picture Post (Britain, 1938), all literally identical in design and attitude. Though Life was the first, it can only be taken as the result of a development moving through Germany, Hungary, Russia, France and Great Britain before settling in its final shape. The ideas realised in the magazines, the themes negotiated, and the staff employed, all draw on the same background, a background unique to a particular moment of modernity, but not tied to national frontiers.

The problem with interpreting Life as purely American is a significant omission. There is a tendency within the cultural sciences to interpret processes of popularisation and democratisation - and what else is Life’s ‘ordinary people’ perspective? - as necessarily American, thus emphasising the gap and the power conflict between the US on one hand and ‘cultured’ European perspectives on the other. If, instead, what happened between Life and the public sphere is taken as one instance of the generation of a Western consensus on ‘ordinary life’, the analysis of magazines within a national framework loses none of its relevance. What is gained is the possibility of addressing present-day questions of globalisation, ‘culture-clashes’, and the possibility of creating consensus in an increasingly post-national world. A clearer acknowledgement of the international origins of the national voice of Life would have completed this otherwise excellent collection.


Eva Vieth, PhD, won the Tom Hopkinson scholarship of the School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wales in Cardiff. Her doctoral thesis compared German and British photojournalistic magazines before and during World War II. With John Hartley and Roberta Pearson, she co-edited the American Cultural Studies Reader (OUP, 2001), and she has published on early photojournalism, images of America in WW II and beyond, and on a German cult TV science fiction series.

 

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