The female gaze behind life magazine

NEW YORK — From the depths of the Depression to the height of the Vietnam War, the photo essays in Life magazine told Americans how to see themselves. But in the 36 years that the magazine was published as a weekly, only six of its full-time photographers were women.

The female gaze behind life magazine

A mix of published and unpublished shots and the contact sheets from exactly one photo essay by each of these six make up “Life: Six Women Photographers” at the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History.

On the face of it, it’s a slender, though worthy enough, premise for an exhibition: half an excuse to air some historically accomplished and gorgeous silver gelatin prints from the Life archives, many never before published, and half a broad hint about how much talent we’ve lost to discrimination over the years. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that all six, though otherwise a fairly disparate group, were white.) But the dissonance between the kind of stories Life published and the images that the curator, Marilyn Satin Kushner, chose to highlight (and the female bylines that accompany them) make a more thought-provoking point: that the actual mechanics of discrimination tend to be more complicated than they may appear from a distance.

Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of Montana’s then-new Fort Peck Dam, in which giant concrete pylons recede into the distance like so many Egyptian gods, deserves the fame it won as the cover of Life’s first issue in 1936. Her pictures of the Public Works Administration personnel who built it, and of the town that sprung up around them, are equally good. Wheeler, Montana, looks as gritty as an old penny, but the workers, caught socializing in a local bar, are as monumental as the dam itself.

Hansel Mieth, a native of Germany who adopted her unusual nickname to pass as a boy while traveling with her future husband in the 1920s, produced lush and alluring views of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s summer retreat to the Poconos in 1938. In 1956 Life sent Lisa Larsen, who had fled Germany after Kristallnacht, to document Marshal Tito’s visit to Moscow, and she produced some genuinely astounding crowd shots. Neatly coifed heads fill one unpublished photo like so much black caviar, while “Crowd in Station (Tito as Soviet Hero),” in which people climb girders for a better view, transmits both the heroic scale of Moscow’s Kiyevsky station and what it feels like to be dwarfed by it. It’s the perfect metaphor for being present as a bystander at a historic event.

But the show’s real conceptual action is provided by two stories about women joining the workforce: Marie Hansen’s images for the 1942 story “A WAAC’s Work Is Never Done,” about the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and Nina Leen’s “American Woman’s Dilemma,” from 1947.

Hansen followed a former paper factory employee as she had her hair shortened by a civilian hairdresser, presented her stocking seams to a male superior for inspection and otherwise prepared to join the American war effort.

Leen asks whether it’s better for a young woman to work outside the home, missing her children’s earliest days, or to stay with them and risk leaving herself intellectually unprepared for the idleness she’ll face once they’re grown.

While Hansen plays it straight, shooting with verve and a sense of fun, it’s hard not to read some amusement in Leen’s immaculately constructed photographs of women vacuuming or reading a book at a milk bar. But knowing, in both cases, that these carefully nonthreatening stories about working women were constructed by women who were themselves successful professionals makes one wonder just whose reality was being depicted.

Martha Holmes’ famous shot of singer Billy Eckstine in an interracial embrace amplifies the point: It caused him, and the magazine, no end of trouble when it was published in 1950 — but her colorblind image also demonstrates that neither Eckstine nor his young white fan saw anything remarkable about it.

‘LIFE: Six Women Photographers’

Through Oct. 6 at New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-873-3400,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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