Who remembers LIFE magazine?
The weekly news magazine was an American readership staple for more than two generations dominating the market for more than 40 years. It pioneered photojournalism in America at a time when most news accounts were comprised of little more than type.
The cover date on the first edition of LIFE magazine was November 23, 1936—79 years ago Monday. Among my scattered collections of all things that I treasure most is an excellent copy of that first edition of LIFE magazine.
Admittedly, you’d have to be knocking on 50 to remember the history-making periodical when it was on newsstands and in mailboxes. However, its iconic covers and photos have allowed it to live through another two generations introduced through antique stores and resale shops.
I grew up reading LIFE, but for me, the hook was set when I entered the newspaper trade as a photographer more than 40 years ago. But, I was mesmerized when, at the age of 40 with 15 years or so experience, I decided that adding a master’s degree to my wall was something I just had to do.
What I learned from a portion of those studies was that LIFE magazine was a humor and human-interest weekly from 1883 to 1936 before Time magazine founder, Henry Luce, purchased it. Already established and recognized in the publishing business, Luce wanted the LIFE nameplate to launch a revolutionary news magazine on his hunch that the power of photographs to tell stories, more than text, would be a history-making move. Little did he know how right he would be.
When Luce bought LIFE in 1936, he assembled the best team of photographers he could find. The Luce version of LIFE was more than a success, it was as Luce had envisioned, “history making.” A publishing success from day one, many of the magazine’s photos are legendary in the annals of American photography, and the magazine’s role in pioneering photojournalism is considered its most important contribution to publishing.
Distribution reached more than 13 million copies a week at its peak, and the publication is considered by many to be the best print documentary of American life. Its weekly success ran from 1936 to 1972, after which it produced as an intermittent special until 1978. Between 1978 and 2002, it shifted to a monthly publication before ceasing publication completely, falling victim to the pressure of economics and changing tastes.
The magazine featured newsmakers from all walks of life, from John Kennedy to the Marlboro Man, from the first men on the moon to Marilyn Monroe, and more.
The first issue cover and feature story of LIFE was not about any one individual however, it was about the building of the Fort Peck dam in Montana, or as fate had it, more about the lives of the workers who were building the dam.
Well-known photographer Margaret Bourke-White took the cover photo for a story on the multi-million dollar project on the Columbia River. According to most accounts, Luce (who was very hands-on during the magazine’s early years) was expecting outstanding and unique pictures from Bourke-White.
When the magazine went to press, it featured phenomenal photos of the dam all right, but its main attraction was perhaps the unplanned photo documentary of “frontier life” in the Northwest, a way of life that was news not only to many readers, but also to the magazine’s mostly Northeastern staff. The numerous candid pictures of workers, on and off the job, brought a little-known way of life into homes and businesses across the country, “painting” pictures that were much more dynamic and telling than the heretofore printed word.
Margaret Bourke-White, in addition to taking the first cover photo for LIFE, was also the first female photographer for the magazine, the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry, and the first American female war photojournalist.
As a photographer in general and particularly as a news photographer, learning about the role of LIFE magazine on photojournalism instilled in me a desire to own a first edition copy of LIFE magazine. Therefore, I set out to find one.
The first revelation of this search was that a miniature version of the first edition was also produced. It measures six by eight inches, and details of its origin are sketchy. Best assumptions are that it was produced to promote the introduction of the magazine, but no one seems to know how.
I scored a copy of the miniature version at the Canton, Texas First Monday Trades Day late one Sunday afternoon when I was still teaching journalism at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. A quick pass down a few remaining rows of tables as I was preparing to leave discovered it lying on a table with a variety of other magazines.
I wasn’t even sure what it was, or if it was legitimate, but for $10, I took a chance. History of Journalism Instructor Ben Hobbs at SFA, who kindled my interest for the search of LIFE number one, knew nothing about it either. None-the-less, I stuck it in a drawer and hung on to it.
Then one day in Boerne, Texas where I later published the newspaper in the mid 90s, I was wandering around town during lunch prowling the antique shops. Main Street Boerne is a historical district, abundant with antique shops and restaurants. One such establishment offered a box of old LIFE magazines in good shape adorned with a handwritten sign offering them for sale at $10 each.
I flipped through about 15 or 20 looking for a memorable or interesting cover before I found myself staring right at the Peck Dam photo taken by Margaret Bourke-White. I stopped and stared in disbelief. A fake, I thought. I carefully turned the pages and the age along the edges registered immediately. The distinct aroma of old paper filled my nostrils. It was the real thing.
Stacking up the four of five 40s and 50s issues already earmarked for addition to my collection, I placed the November 23, 1936 issue on the stack and finished going through the box.
Looking at the first edition one more time, and still heady on the unlikely find, I took my handful of magazines to the counter. The older gentleman and proprietor picked up each issue with care, hit $10 on his cash register for every magazine and concluded with, “Six magazines at $10 each, that’ll be $60 please, sir,” as he slipped the magazines into a sack.
Before paying him, I just had to ask. “You are aware that one of those is a first edition, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir,” he said without hesitation, but with a smile. “I was going to ask you the same question.”
“And, you’re going to sell it for ten dollars,” I quizzed him, “the same as the issues from the 1940s and 50s I’m also buying?”
“Yes sir,” he said again. “I bought the whole box at an estate sale. Got the same money in all of them.”
I handed him a $100 dollar bill, picked up my sack of magazines, and offered my best smile and most appreciative, “thank you,” as I turned toward the door.
“Wait,” he said as I walked away. “You’ve got $40 in change coming back.”
Raising my hand with a wave, I kept walking as I replied, “Enjoy it. If you don’t want more for the first edition, then consider that a tip for making my day.”