ArtSunday: “…to see and be amazed”: The LIFE and times of technology in America, 11/23/36-12/29/72

Part one in a series.

During its 36-year run, LIFE Magazine traversed a period of technological innovation and peril unsurpassed in the recorded history of humanity. As the first issue was released in November of 1936, a resurgent Germany was constructing the most awesome war machine the world had yet seen, a development that literally threatened the very future of the hemisphere. LIFE’s final issue went to press at the end of 1972, roughly three weeks after NASA’s last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, closed the books on a program that proved — theoretically, at least — that humanity was not inevitably bound to this planet.

The technological distance between these two moments is mind-boggling. German engineers working on the development of rocketry could perhaps, just barely, envision a trip to the moon, but for most everybody else such an idea remained the stuff of pulp science fiction. Nonetheless, human technology did cover this distance, and it did so in the almost impossibly brief period of 36 years. LIFE Magazine, a publication designed to depict American life at this particular moment in history, could therefore hardly have avoided becoming a mirror for our vast, and often troubled, technological agenda.

In its fascination with and portrayals of technology through the middle decades of the 1900s, LIFE was inextricably immersed in a larger historical dialogue over the character of scientific endeavor in the West. Enlightenment scholars in 16th and 17th Century Europe had first challenged as baseless superstition received modes of knowledge that had dominated society to that point, ordaining in their stead the superior powers of reason. Intellect was privileged over intuition, and rational, objective science usurped the traditional authority of the Church as ultimate arbiter of truth in the world. Of course, this was the beginning of the argument, not the end.

For purposes of the present discussion, though, the critical concern is how LIFE, one of the most influential publications of the last century, reflected the complex and subtle cultural debate over the potential science and technology held for improving the quality of human life in general, and American life in particular. Western society has traditionally imbued science with both messianic and demonic characteristics, alternately seeing technological innovation as holding the keys to both salvation and self-obliteration. The older messianic view has dominated our public rhetoric, but the demonic view of science first encountered in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus has nonetheless survived, and it finds expression at certain critical points in LIFE’s history.

There is probably no such thing as a comprehensive or definitive analysis of LIFE Magazine, but a close examination of how it portrayed the century’s more important technological moments suggests that LIFE’s view of technological progress was consistent with the views of the American society it served.

LIFE and Its Readership: Reach and Influence

LIFE occupied a privileged place in the popular mind through the middle of the 20th Century. With an average circulation peaking at 8.5 million, it was the most widely disseminated publication of its kind in history (van Zuilen 1977). LIFE’s pass-along rate is difficult to compute, but Wendy Kozol (1994) estimates its total reach in the 1940s and 1950s to have been around 20 million. Figures compiled by Antoon J. van Zuilen (1977) afford a reach estimate that is a bit higher, perhaps even exceeding 25 million readers during the mid-1950s.(1) If accurate, these figures suggest that during its postwar peak LIFE probably reached better than 20% of the population aged 15 and older each week.

The extent of the impact LIFE exerted through its editorials and photo-essays is impossible to estimate, although ample evidence indicates that the magazine was influential among its readers. The editors and photographers employed by LIFE clearly took their mission seriously, tackling the major issues and events facing the U.S. and often risking their lives in the process. We can safely assume that devoted readers of such a publication would share its ethic, and countless letters to the editors support this assumption. LIFE readers routinely took the editors to task for various decisions and policies, but the tone of such correspondence usually acknowledged, at least implicitly, the significance of the event in question. The essential concern was that the stories in question be covered “properly.” We have no way of knowing if the letters LIFE published constituted a representative sample of all the letters the editors received, nor can we assume that the letters written provided a fair sample of overall public opinion. However, a publication that did not fairly reflect the interests of its readership could hardly have posted LIFE’s three-plus decade record of success, so we must believe that some measure of accord existed between the magazine and its readers.

Second, anecdotal evidence indicates the anxiousness with which subscribers anticipated LIFE’s weekly arrival and the degree to which they cherished its pictures. Former subscribers talk with fondness about specific issues they remember and the pictures they hung on their walls. Baby Boomers recount photo-essays that helped attune them to the Civil Rights Movement or “The ‘60s” — and this seems especially true for those who grew up in “culturally remote” areas, far removed from places like Berkeley or Selma, the places where “things were happening.” These readers use words like “community” to describe how the magazine drew people together, establishing through its words and pictures the centrality of particular cultural issues in the life of the society. These stories speak to a compelling mystique about LIFE’s relationship with its readers and the culture generally.

Finally, van Zuilen (1977) cites market research suggesting that magazines contributed significantly to overall knowledge and provided “usable ideas” to “the nation’s citizens and consumers” (74). These findings are of indeterminate value, though, since they seem to focus exclusively on the “consumer” half of “citizens and consumers.” Whether magazines were equally influential on political and cultural ideas remains unclear.(2) Still, as with the anecdotal and speculative evidence above, a degree of influence is indicated.

LIFE at the Outset: The Construction of Technology

Montana’s monolithic Fort Peck Dam dominates the cover of LIFE Magazine’s inaugural issue. This image serves as an apt and prophetic commencement, for over the next three and a half decades LIFE would catalogue, through photographs, diagrams, technical drawings, artist conceptions, and editorial commentary the steady forward march of technology, both at home and abroad. Just as the Fort Peck Dam towered over the landscape and people beneath it, so would LIFE’s vision of progress tower over the imagination of wartime and postwar America.

Many readers may not even have initially recognized the picture for what it was — the rampart-like architecture is more suggestive of a citadel than any dam most Americans had ever seen.(3) However, the perspective of Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph powerfully conveys two important things. First, the minute human figures at the dam’s base signal the immensity of the structure. The photo is intended to inspire awe, and probably succeeded. Second, the photo signals human agency. What the figures are doing is unclear, but their posture suggests that they are inspecting something at the base of one of the tower-like segments. They are bent at the waist, both to approximately the same degree, and would appear to be focused on the same point in the structure. Obviously the edifice is manmade, but the aspect of examination assumed by the two figures emphasizes the act of construction, centralizing the role of the builders in the photo’s narrative. Hence, in the most literal sense, LIFE’s very first impression was of the immensity of technology, and the first humans depicted by the magazine, the two anonymous figures inspecting the Fort Peck Dam, were conspicuously dwarfed by their own (we presume) creation.

To what degree was LIFE’s use of this image deliberately geared toward the glorification of technology, and more broadly, to what extent were LIFE’s portrayals of technology and science through the years the result of an editorial agenda, either explicit or implicit? These questions, like those above concerning LIFE’s influence, are difficult to answer. As Kozol (1994) suggests, LIFE defies categorization. Trends and tendencies can be identified and examples can be produced in support of innumerable hypotheses, but in the end the magazine’s inherent heterogeneity confounds even the most patient scholar. Cultural truths and textual themes revealed in one issue and supported by close readings of several others are dispensed with the following week, almost as if the editors were intent on contradiction. And in a sense perhaps they were, for LIFE set out to depict American society, which is nothing if not richly complex and frequently self-contradictory. It is therefore with great trepidation that this or any other study of LIFE Magazine goes searching for themes.

Still, some of LIFE’s identifiable tendencies are stronger than others, and despite the contradictions we occasionally find evidence of what might be characterized, if only cautiously, as an agenda. One such example occurs, appropriately enough, in the editorial introduction to the first issue.

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White had been dispatched to the Northwest to photograph the multi-million dollar projects of the Columbia River Basin. What the Editors expected — for use in some later issue — were construction pictures as only Bourke-White can take them. What the Editors got was a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.

Having been unable to prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine pages, the Editors thereafter returned to the job of making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense (11/23/36, 3).

A clearer and richer statement of an editorial agenda is hard to fathom, especially where the elusive LIFE staff is concerned. Several points are worth noting. First, before LIFE ever published a single page, it had assigned one of its crack photographers the task of shooting construction, indicating the exceptional newsworthiness of these projects in the minds of its editors. Second, the editors make clear that they dispatched Bourke-White with certain expectations — they knew what they were after, and were fully anticipating that she would deliver the goods. The significant point here is the degree of foresight to which the magazine explicitly admits. Substantively, if not literally, a story has already been written about these construction projects, and the editors only need their photographer to fill in the pictorial details.

Third, while the real story Bourke-White uncovered was, in the editors’ estimation, a “human document,” they nonetheless graced the cover with a technology photograph that was thematically at odds with the photo-essay inside the covers. That story concerns life in Roosevelt’s New Deal boomtowns, an existence which the magazine depicts as dirty and degenerate, and which is typified (in the editors’ view) by a toddler sitting on a bar as the Saturday night bacchanalia rages around him. The decision to put the dam on the cover despite its irrelevance to the more compelling “human document” perhaps reflects the editors willingness to privilege their admitted “expectations” over the substance of the field photojournalist’s findings. Their insistence on the prefabricated agenda hinted at in the editorial quoted above ought to give the reader pause, however; what is thus implied is that truth resides, a priori, in LIFE’s New York offices, and the remainder of the vast global landscape exists merely for purposes of illustration.

Support for this assertion is found in the closing words of the passage — “making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense.” The pictures only make sense when compelled to, and it is the job of the editors to make the pictorial document “behave.” Order and sense are sought after, and the editors alone possess wisdom sufficient to define the record — in other words, the truth is not as self-evident from the photographs as the reader might have suspected. The tone of the comment is light, almost joking, but the words remain, and can be read as a surprisingly honest acknowledgment by the editors of the inherently constructive process involved in the production of a LIFE-sized photographic record.

The “later issue” in which Bourke-White’s Columbia Basin construction photographs were to be showcased finally arrived almost eleven months after the Charter Issue. Entitled “Roosevelt Builds the Biggest Dam And Envisions a New Society” (10/11/37, 34-39), the photo-essay detailed the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam near Grand Coulee in central Washington. Roosevelt was called “one of the greatest builders of all time” and the dam, “his mightiest work,” was “the world’s biggest building job.” This essay was replete with specifications, capacities, dimensions, and six pages of majestic photography — as Bourke-White’s pictures stretched toward the horizon, they demonstrated how aggressively the dam was expanding to fill the landscape, leaving the reader little room to doubt the sheer magnificence of the undertaking.

LIFE characterized President Roosevelt’s project with a startlingly utopian vocabulary, centering on his “vision of the new society which he expects [the dam] to help create,” (35) and wondering aloud whether “Roosevelt the Builder laid in Grand Coulee one of the foundation stones of a new society, or left behind him a monument as colossally wasteful as Cheops’ pyramids” (39).

Immediate purposes of the Grand Coulee project are two. One is to generate nearly 2,000,000 kilowatts of power per year which, added to the production of Bonneville Dam further down the Columbia, will electrify the homes and farms of the Pacific Northwest, spur the industrial development of its vast natural resources. Other is to turn Grand Coulee into a 23-mile reservoir from which waters will sluice down on the 1,200,000 rich but arid acres of the Columbia River Basin to the south, creating new homes for 30,000 drought-stricken farm families.

Beyond these aims lies President Roosevelt’s long-cherished vision of a whole new U.S. society based on Power. For when drudgery-relieving Power is almost as cheap and abundant as sunlight, he believes, free citizens will have leisure and dignity enough to make democracy really work (35).

The Grand Coulee Dam was expected to electrify the Northwest and spur industrial development, presumably resulting in higher employment and an improved standard of living; allow the irrigation of currently unproductive land, boosting agricultural output and providing work for thousands of Depression-sacked families; and most importantly, it would afford through “Power” the “leisure and dignity” necessary to engender a genuinely successful democracy. In short, the general condition of the nation would be improved as direct result of technology — here manifested in the dam project — which is depicted not as a panacea for the country’s ills, but rather as a representative piece of F.D.R.’s larger technological agenda.(4)

Lest anyone doubts the significance of the Grand Coulee project in the American debate over technology or LIFE’s framing of that debate, note how in the passage quoted earlier the mundane, lower-case “power” of line two has been mystically transformed by the second line of the following paragraph into the personified (deified?), upper-case “Power.” Even if this shift is read as sarcasm on the part of an editorial staff that didn’t especially like Roosevelt or his progressive politics, it nonetheless signifies the reverence with which some in the society approached technology. Whereas “power” denotes the simple application of electricity, “Power” confers agency, imbuing applied electricity with will and purpose and charging it with the task of ending the Depression, providing for the economic welfare, advancing agricultural productivity, and enabling at last the full, utopian realization of democracy.

The centrality of technology to LIFE’s cultural mission was thus firmly, if implicitly, established in the first year of the magazine’s existence; the fact was made explicit by the editorial decision within a few months of the launch to offer a weekly Science and Technology section. LIFE’s treatment would not be unitary, predictable, or unproblematic, but it recognized the importance of technology to the country’s future. Founder Henry Luce also recognized that, in another sense, LIFE itself was “based on technology, paper technology, photographic technology” (van Zuilen 1977, 264). It is understandable, then, that the publishers of a magazine based on one form of technology might be unusually cognizant of the ways in which their culture was dependent on other forms of technology.


LIFE and Technology series


1: This number is speculative, and is based on the extrapolation of readership rates from a decade earlier. There’s no evidence before me to suggest that these rates would have varied significantly — in fact, the numbers seem to indicate that the decades were fairly similar, demographically speaking.

2: Additionally, this research is the product of methodological approaches of which I am highly suspicious. Add to this an explicitly stated marketing agenda, and there is ample reason to see these numbers as “optimized.”

3: In fact, one anecdote has an elderly man remembering vividly the cover of the first issue, with its photograph of “that castle in Spain.”

4: If LIFE was willing to cast the project’s potential in grandiose terms, it also provided F.D.R. with the potential for failure on an equally grand scale. Its invocation of Cheops suggests that failure to engineer this new society would mark the President as one of the greatest wasters in recorded history.


Kozol, W. (1994). LIFE’s America: family and nation in postwar photojournalism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

van Zuilen, A. (1977). The life cycle of magazines: a historical study of the decline and fall of the general interest mass audience magazine in the United States during the period 1946-1972. Uithoorn, Netherlands: Graduate Press.


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