“Go ahead, make my day.”—Clint Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan in the film “Sudden Impact.”
“Who remembers Life magazine?” That question was my intro to a column a few years ago about a prized possession that still makes my day every time I pick it up.
Thinking about that first edition copy of Life magazine last week had more to do with the fact that it was a lack of website skills that relegated the piece to its own page instead of a post on my then newly launched blog. After ignoring its cyber solitude for too long, my question was again how to make my day moving it into the company of the other columns.
Pursuing first-issue publications, I enjoy. Studying web site “under-the-hood” maintenance, not so much.
Before blogs blew up the internet, a study of photojournalism at Stephen F. Austin State University on the way to a master’s degree in communication left me with an appreciation for two things. One was the amazing work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers documenting the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. The other was Life magazine’s pioneering contributions to photojournalism.
The weekly news magazine filled with phenomenal photos debuted November 23, 1936 and was an American staple for more than 40 years. Time magazine founder, Henry Luce, remade an existing publication to launch a revolutionary news magazine utilizing photos by the best photographers he could find. His hunch was that the story-telling power of photographs, more than text, would be a history-making move, and he was right. Today, the magazine’s photos are legendary in the annals of American photojournalism.
Distribution peaked at more than 13 million copies a week before tapering off and becoming a monthly in 1972. The magazine then struggled until ceasing publication completely in 2002.
While Life featured news makers from all walks of life, the first issue cover photo and feature story was not about any one individual. The subject was Fort Peck dam construction in Montana, or as history has revealed, more about the lives of workers building the dam.
FSA photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured the photos and when the magazine went to press, the cover featured her memorable photo of the dam. But the main attraction was the unplanned photo documentary of “frontier life” in the Northwest which was news to many readers as well as Life’s mostly Northeastern staff. The candid pictures of laborers at work and at home introduced a little-known way of life to Americans via pictures delivering much more impact than the previously printed word.
That historical first edition and my interest in photojournalism crossed paths some years ago at an antique shop stack of old Life magazines in a box bearing a handwritten sign offering them for sale at $10 each. After pulling several keepers, I found myself staring at the Peck Dam photo taken by Bourke-White. Astounded, I stared in disbelief carefully turning the pages and delighting in the distinct aroma of old paper.
Still heady on the unlikely find, I placed the historic issue on my stack and took the magazines to pay out. The proprietor picked up each one, tapping mechanical keys on his antique cash register six times concluding with, “Six at $10 each, that’ll be $60 please.”
“You are aware that one of those is a first edition, aren’t you,” I just had to ask? Without hesitation and with a smile, he replied. “I was going to ask you the same question.”
“And, you’re going to sell it for ten dollars just like the other issues?” He nodded affirmation adding, “I bought the whole box at an estate sale. Got the same money in all of them.”
I handed him a hundred with a smile plus a most appreciative, “thank you,” and turned toward the door. “Wait,” he said. “You’ve got change.” Raising my hand with a wave, I kept walking as I replied, “If you don’t want more for that first edition, then consider it a tip for making my day.”
Revisiting that memory again today brought a smile. Now, if I can just find someone to tip for showing me how to move that blog page to a post, that would really make my day.
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