On this day in 1936, with the depression turning the corner, the first-ever issue of publisher Henry Luce’s “Life” appears on newsstands. Luce and original partner Britton Hadden had been newsmen together since high school, continued collaborating at Yale, on to the Baltimore News, and in 1923 they launched the iconic news weekly “Time.”
Whereas the original mission of Time was to tell the news, the mission of Life was to show it. In the words of Luce himself, the magazine was meant to provide a way for the American people “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see things thousands of miles away… to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed… to see, and to show….”
Life proudly emphasized photography, with gripping, superbly chosen news photographs, amplified by photo features and photo-essays on an international range of topics; indeed, many cite Life as the womb of modern photojournalism. Its photographers were the elite of their craft and enjoyed worldwide esteem. Life’s war coverage of World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and numerous regional wars was consistently vivid, authentic, and moving.
Gradually, Life began to admit more writing to its pages, carefully choosing its writers and text editors. Life ceased publication largely because the costs of preparing, printing, and mailing each issue outstripped its revenues from advertising. It reappeared in several special issues after 1972 and then, in 1978, on a reduced scale and on a regular basis as a monthly. In March 2000, Life’s parent company, Time Inc., announced that it was abandoning its monthly publication and would use Life’s name for special features and books.
Luce set the tone for the inaugural issue with Margaret Bourke-White’s stunning cover photograph of the Fort Peck Dam, which has since become an icon of the 1930’s and the great public works completed under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The structure itself was the amalgam of beautiful design and function, much like the publication which graced coffee tables across the US and the world for much of the 20th century.