As befits its title, the magazine LIFE has undergone multiple transformations, enjoyed successes, suffered failures and seen the world change beyond recognition over its years in existence. Founded first in 1883 as a light entertainment periodical, in 1936 it was purchased by publishing pioneer Henry Luce, who wanted only the rights to the iconic name. Under his ownership, and led by his belief that images could sell stories better than words, it was reinvented as America’s first photography focused weekly news journal, going on to dominate the market for more than 40 years.
The pages of LIFE were filled with images that enshrine moments of history, science, culture and the most basic joys, humour and banality of human experience. The instant of death on the front line in the Spanish Civil War, Hubble at his telescope, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s celebratory 1945 shot of a nurse clutched in a sailor’s arms on a New York street, Picasso playing with a light pen in 1950, the wedding of JFK to Jackie, girls sunbathing, students flinging blankets out of windows to mark their graduation. Leaders, filmstars, criminals, sportsmen, authors, children, the wounded, the angry, the trailblazers, and those whose names no one can quite remember – they all passed through the pages of this pictorial record of American, and international, society. Throughout, the magazine and its photographers remained true to Luce's publishing manifesto, “To see life. To see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see strange things … to see and be amazed.”
LIFE as we knew it is no more. Yet, true to form, it has taken on a new and no less interesting shape as an online archive and tumblr, publishing unseen works that never made it onto the pages of the magazine and memorialising key events with their inimitable resources. Here, we speak to Amy Lombard, social media editor for both TIME and LIFE, and doyenne of the LIFE tumblr, about the inspirations to be found in this treasure trove of history, and ask her to pick her favourite oddities from the collection.
How did you start doing the LIFE tumblr? Was it already established or was it your idea?
I've been managing LIFE's social media presence for two and a half years. I was offered the position after working in the photo department for a year – I knew the brand, content and LIFE's history well, so it seemed like a natural fit. I did not launch it myself, but LIFE's tumblr was one of the first things I took on in its very early days.
What excites you about LIFE Magazine - it's amazing how its content ranges from the global - wars, presidents, Hollywood celebrities – to the innocuous and human – kids signing year books, theatre, balloons in a nightclub… is this the appeal?
I'm glad that you say that. There is a huge misconception that LIFE magazine solely covered war, politics and Marilyn Monroe – which couldn't be further from the truth. What I love about working with this incredible archive is the range in content. LIFE managed to cover, well, all walks of life – from a snail-watching society and a socialite mannequin to a fashionable squirrel.
"LIFE managed to cover all walks of life – from a snail-watching society and a socialite mannequin to a fashionable squirrel."
Who is your favourite photographer from the LIFE alumni?
Without question, Nina Leen, who was one of LIFE's early female staff photographers. There's a strange quality to her work that I love. Plus, she photographed animals often – who doesn't love that?
What is the weirdest thing you've discovered in the archive?
Two things come to mind: Firstly, an entire photoessay on a cat who enjoyed eating corn on the cob. It really needs no further explanation – it is just generally weird in the best way possible. And I recently came across a set of photos that illustrated a story on color contacts. In the set there are also photos of a woman wearing two different color contacts, it's very trippy.
What are your five favourite posts?
When I first started at LIFE a few years ago my roommate bought me this issue on teen pregnancy from 1971. It has always been a favorite and we recently published the photos on LIFE.com.
While looking through past issues I discovered we photographed Hillary Clinton as she was graduating from college in 1969. Those days she opted for striped bell bottoms instead of the pant suit, it made for excellent photographs.
A cringe-worthy LIFE headline, because you have to poke fun at yourself every once in a while: "Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like."
I am insanely afraid of heights, so this undoubtedly excellent John Dominis photograph of a female performer skipping rope above Chicago gives me anxiety.
Text by Tish Wrigley