From the Archives: Stories From Life Magazine's Greatest Photographers

Life magazine was known for its large format photojournalism. In 1984, filmmaker David Hoffman made this not-to-be-missed television documentary about the history of Life, which included interviews with some of their greatest photojournalists. It's just as interesting today, if not more, than it would have been back then.

At the height of its popularity, Life magazine was one of the most widely read publications in the United States. Its success was propelled by its unique blend of photojournalism, captivating human-interest stories, and in-depth coverage of major world events. At its peak in the late 1960s, Life's weekly circulation reached more than 8.5 million copies.

Most readers received the magazine through subscriptions delivered to their homes. The magazine's wide distribution made it a staple in American households. At a time when television was still in its infancy, Life brought images from around the world into American living rooms. The magazine's 11×14 inches format provided an expansive canvas for its photographs. Life covered significant events including World War II, the civil rights movement, the space race, and the Vietnam War.

With the rise of television in the 1960s and changing reader habits, the weekly publication of Life magazine began to struggle. The magazine shifted formats several times, from weekly to monthly and then to special editions, before finally ceasing regular publication in 2000. Still, its legacy in photojournalism and its contribution to American culture remain significant.

A number of prominent photographers were interviewed for this fascinating look back at the iconic publication, including Nina Leen, who was one of the first female photographers for Life, and Gordon Parks, who, with his ground-breaking civil rights documentation, became the first African American photographer on staff at Life.

Life's dominant position in the American media landscape began to decline by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Competition from television, changing reader habits, and rising postal rates contributed to its challenges. The weekly edition of Life ceased publication in 1972, though it had several reincarnations in the subsequent decades as special monthly editions and then later as occasional special issues.

Kim Simpson's picture

Kim Simpson is a photographer based in the West of Scotland. Her photographic practice is an exploration of the human experience, with a particular emphasis on themes of identity and belonging.

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Not sure people realize that light meters were vague, lenses were primes, focus was on the fly and manual, and you only had 36 shots before you stopped to reload. Plus you probably only a a few rolls for the day. Then you’re done. The skill set to even get these images was remarkable. Which is why they are so rare and special.

Absolutely true. It was a different beast altogether back then. I was so pleased to find this documentary.