Arts, On Campus

New Exhibit at MFA Unpacks the Process and Artistry of ‘Life’ Magazine’s Photos

The walls of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, adorned with the iconic pages of Life magazine, are brimming with rich American history and cultural significance. Each compelling photograph tells a story and transports the viewer to a time before modern accessible photography.  

The exhibition features many of the groundbreaking works of photojournalism published weekly in Life magazine between 1936 and 1972, giving viewers an inside look at the magazine’s publishing process and the stories behind the acclaimed photographs. The exhibition, which opened on Oct. 9 and runs through Jan. 16, also features three contemporary works that offer provocative insight on media today. 

Walking into the gallery, visitors can read about the founding stages of Life magazine by Henry Robinson Luce. Some of the first mock-ups—called “dummies”—for Life are displayed beneath a document titled “A Prospectus for a New Magazine.” The page lays out the original purpose, need, and opportunity for Life magazine. 

The next room captures the process of creating these revolutionary photographs and illuminates the many talents that went into the production of each unique image. Descriptions beside the photographs explain the combination of photographers, editors, and reporters that went into the creation of each. 

One section of the room emphasizes the importance of hiring skilled photographers and focuses on the work of Margaret Bourke-White, who was one of Life’s first salaried staff members. Bourke-White shot the magazine’s first-ever cover—a historic photograph of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana—which hangs on the museum’s wall. 

Visitors can then enter a hallway that is completely black, save for a single line of white text stretching across the wall. The text describes photographer Alfredo Jaar’s experience photographing the Rwandan genocide, introducing the upcoming display of his work. 

The next room features the installation titled “The Silence of Nduwayezu,” a light table with one million slides of the same picture of a young Rwandan boy’s eyes. The adjoining room displays black boxes that completely hide Jaar’s graphic images of the Rwandan genocide. The only visible element is writing on top that describes the content of each image. In an interview playing in this room, Jaar explains his decision to hide these images in order to not add to “the pornography of violence that surrounds us.”

The following room features Alexandra Bell’s series “Counternarratives,” which examines reworked New York Times articles and highlights continual racial prejudice that is present in the American news media. Multiple sets of drafts and final editions of New York Times articles hang beside each other, one with edits in red pen and the other with the resulting finished article. 

The process of making captivating photo essays is next laid out on the walls of the gallery. Supplemental photographs and news stories tell the story of a labor-intensive process that involves crafting layouts, aligning images with text, altering images, and working with harsh editors. 

Julia Wachtel’s work holds a prominent place in the exhibit. The installation features two perpendicular walls creating a corner, each wallpapered with an image of Japanese American people in an internment camp during World War II. 

The right wall contains the original photograph and is adorned with oil paintings of Douglas MacArthur, an American military leader during World War II, by Wachtel. The left wall features a slightly blurred version of the same Life image and Wachtel’s pixelated painting of the Japanese American 442nd Regiment. 

Through the work, Wachtel aimed to represent the distortion of information in the media with this installation as she juxtaposed information given to the public against the reality of important events. 
The exhibition finishes off by honoring the brand and legacy of Life magazine, which stopped production in 1972, highlighting the impact that its images had throughout the world. It displays photographs from the magazine that are relevant to this day, including images from the Holocaust, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the first moon landing.

October 29, 2022