At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

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Seventy-five years ago this month, Henry Luce, who had launched Time magazine in the 1920s, created his third great magazine: Life. Over the coming years it would come to be known as the weekly with the most and the best photographs. It would show Americans what war and peace looked like. There were photographs in Life of the Spanish Civil War and of V-J Day in Times Square that are rare cases for which the term "iconic" truly makes sense. And there were dozens of others, too.

Of course, Henry Luce's magazines had their detractors. One line went, "Life is for people who can't read; Time is for people who can't think." But in the new, commemorative coffee table book, Life 75 Years: The Very Best Of Life, the pictures, in fact, make you think. And if you're old enough, they make you remember, too.

The very first issue of Life, reprinted in its entirety in the book, told readers about the black widow spider, the actress Helen Hayes and the new actor Robert Taylor. But the cover story is full of lessons about pictures and competitive journalism.

The story, shot by one of Life's original four photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, covered the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a Works Project Administration endeavor to build the largest earth dam in the world during the Great Depression. Luce had read a story by about the raucous frontier lifestyle in the shantytowns surrounding the construction. As Bob Sullivan, managing editor of Life Books explained, it was kind of a sensationalistic piece. "Luce was taken by it," Sullivan says. And so Bourke-White was sent out to Montana to capture the story for Life.

The people of Fort Peck were dismayed to find that of the 17 photos that ran with the story in the first issue of Life, eight were taken inside ramshackle saloons. "It just shows the power of the editors because Bourke-White was a a great photojournalist. ... She went out there and got the whole story, brought it back to New York, Luce looked at it — and he wanted half the story. ... The editors, I'm sure at Luce's instruction, only ran the sexy stuff."

And so began Life's legacy: It lived for decades as a generalist magazine for politics, culture, news and entertainment. From salivating scenes of Hollywood to gruesome sights of war, all walks of life could be found in Life. "It was an American Idol-sized hit overnight," says Sullivan.

At the end of the anniversary book, the Life editors revisit the story of Fort Peck and deliver the other half of the story: "It was about hard-bitten people during the Depression, working themselves dog-tired while trying to survive and raise their kids," the text reads.

One of the very last photos in Life's anniversary book is a contemporary photo of 96-year-old Becky Powell Sterley. She recalls what life was like at the Fort Peck Dam in 1936, when she was a 20-year-old newlywed. But she doesn't recall what it looked like in Life. "We were too poor to buy a magazine," she is quoted as saying. It's a loaded way to end a book about Life's wide reach.

The magazine ran as a weekly until 1972 and as a monthly until 2000, when it fell victim to the economy and finally folded. For decades its pages were home to some of the best photography in the industry. Books like this one provide the last hope for Life photos to remain in America's living rooms. Today, much of the photography has a new home via Life's newest lifeline, the Web.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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