Life.com Chronicles the 20th Century
Life magazine’s online photo archive enables teachers to bring a range of subjects into vivid focus.
"One picture is worth a thousand words." As a writer, I've never been fond of that hackneyed adage. It implies that no matter how carefully I choose my words, each one is only worth a couple of measly pixels.
Today -- when cell phone images and videos destined for YouTube dominate the media -- it might be hard to recall that only a few decades ago, photographs made by an elite corps of gifted professionals working for weekly magazines were the way America got its visually arresting images. One of the must-see publications was Life magazine, a large-format illustrated weekly that provided generations of Americans with a carefully crafted view of the world's heroes and villains and events that shaped history.
The staff and freelancers whose work appeared regularly in Life were among the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century. Before the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972, they were as celebrated as their counterparts in the glamorous world of fashion photography. Life's varsity players, quick on their feet and tireless in the hunt, produced images that have become icons emblematic of the tenor and tempo of their times. Think, for instance, of Robert Capa's blurred photos of the first wave of soldiers to wade ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day, or the classic W. Eugene Smith 1948 picture of a just-elected Harry Truman, holding up a Chicago Tribune with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Unearthing a Treasure
Earlier this year, the power of these iconic photographs became available at Life.com. The Web site, created in partnership with Getty Images (now the world's largest photo agency), places thousands of pictures from the magazine's archive and Getty's seemingly limitless holdings at your fingertips. Life.com organized these visual treasures into nearly 900 thematic sets (called galleries) of 12–20 photographs, grouped by topics such as civil rights, nature, the space race, and celebrities. Users click on the opening image and view a slide show with explanatory captions.
Teachers can use this online resource to give students an emotionally provocative window into another world. The breadth and depth of this photographic collection will easily inspire a lively classroom discussion, whether the subject at hand is history, civics, social studies, science, math, English, or language arts.
"When we began to put the archive together, we found rolls and rolls of undeveloped film and thousands of negatives and prints that never made it into the magazine," says Bill Shapiro, the editor responsible for creating the Web site. "Almost 97 percent of the photographs have never been published before."
One of Life.com's goals, Shapiro says, is to provide information and context for the photograph as an artistic effort and also for the broader historical event the photograph documents. These two points of view found within a single gallery make the site a potent tool for teachers. For instance, let's say a social studies or history class is studying the civil rights movement. Along with the slide show of images, the site includes a text excerpt from photographer Anthony Karen's recent book, Invisible Empire, capturing the activities of the Ku Klux Klan today. Shapiro says he used these Life.com resources to give a history lesson to his two young children.
"I explained to my kids what it was like before the civil rights movement," he recalls. "When I showed them photographs of 'Colored Only' signs and police dogs and hoses being used against demonstrators, and then pictures of the KKK taken just a few years ago with young children in white robes, they understood the material in a far deeper way."
Too Much of a Good Thing?
The sheer abundance of photos available at Life.com might seem overwhelming at first. Teachers, therefore, must act like photo editors and select images that best lend themselves to class discussion.
What are the exact qualities that mark the difference between a good picture and a great picture? A few characteristics do stand out: A great photograph has dramatic impact, emotional resonance, and instantly recognizable, indisputable power. Notable French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term "the decisive moment," by which he meant the precise time when the shutter should be tripped to get the maximum visual effect.
A word to the wise: It's helpful to spend time learning how to navigate the site before sending students on a search for images. "There is a useful search box on the site, but it's more efficient if you know something about what you're looking for," says Sean Callahan, a former Life editor who teaches at Syracuse University. Callahan suggests researching the names of key photographers and pertinent related keywords.
In this fidgety age when no medium remains still for more than a few seconds and concentration spans are a shrinking resource, the study of photographs gives students a chance to concentrate and see -- at thoughtful length -- what the great photographers have seen. Such images have the power to imprint the meaning of the past on the montage of the present.
Owen Edwards is a contributing writer for Edutopia and blogs for Edutopia.org.
Go to "Online Photography Archives Enable Teaching with Primary Sources."