Princeton University Art Museum exhibition explores LIFE magazine’s storytelling process

J.R. Eyerman, Audiences Watches Movie Wearing 3-D Spectacles, 1952. Gelatin silver print, 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2018.3341

From its first issue in 1936 to the suspension of weekly publication in 1972, LIFE magazine told the stories of world events through photo essays. The popular magazine shaped how readers view themselves and the world, while also transforming modern ideas about photography.

A new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum called “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography” sheds light on how the stories of the magazine were shaped and told.

The exhibition was co-curated by Katherine Bussard of the Princeton University Art Museum, Kristen Gresh of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Alissa Schapiro, a doctoral candidate in art history at Northwestern University. The trio discussed their work on the exhibition at a special opening event on Saturday.

Curators were given unprecedented access to LIFE magazine’s photography and paper archives for the project, which they have been working on for about four years. They were also granted complete access to the LifenPicture Collection and were and among the first to delve into the newly available Time Inc. archive at the New-York Historical Society. 

The exhibition features more than 150 objects, including archival materials such as caption files, contact sheets, shooting scripts, photographer assignment notes, internal memos, layout experiments, original press prints, and issues of LIFE that provide new insights into the processes behind the magazine’s iconic images and photo essays.

Bussard emphasized the collaborative nature of work at LIFE magazine during the talk on Saturday and showed slides that illustrated the process that was used by photographers and editors at LIFE to assign, capture, select, crop, sequence, manipulate and prioritize photos in the magazine. 

The exhibition explores the work of photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith. It also explores the ways LIFE promoted a predominately white, middle-class perspective on politics and culture, shaping people’s ideas about war, race, technology, art and national identity.

On March 5, Henry Grossman, Bill Hooper, Irene Neves, and Fern Schad will be part of a panel called “Behind the Scenes at LIFE magazine.” They will discuss the operations of the magazine, in particular the role of photography. A reception in the museum will follow. The discussion will be held at 5:30 p.m. in 10 McCosh Hall.

Other exhibition tie-ins include a monthly film series in March, April, and May at the Garden Theatre on Nassau Street in Princeton.

The exhibition is free and is open during museum hours through June 21.