“Vietnam War- In Color” photograph by Larry Burrows,
LIFE online (and World Press too)
LIFE magazine, 25 January 1963 as seen on Google Books
Magazines have been moving from print to web for more than a decade, but the addition of the archive of LIFE magazine’s complete weekly run (1860 issues, 1936-1972) to Google Books is a different kind of web-ization of print. LIFE followed in Vu’s footsteps (and was quickly followed by Look) and was for decades a crucial publication in the development of photojournalism, not just embracing the multiple double page spreads that had been pioneered in European picture press, but finding a way to place challenging stories about the enormous social changes the world experienced through the mid 20th century alongside reassuring features that normalized American middle class aspirations and comforts. (See Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism (Steidl 2002) for a very good survey of the picture press). LIFE’s strengths were not only its commitment to visual story telling but also its editorial confidence.
The archive of magazines on Google Books is nicely searchable, as is LIFE’s archive of photos that was made available on Google Images a year ago. Both make for great browsing and potentially useful research tools, particularly on the history of photojournalism. It’s all here, from Margaret Bourke-White’s essay on FDR’s American West in the first 1936 issue, through the work of W. Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, Bill Eppridge, and countless others, from the Second World War through the Cold War and Vietnam, Civil Rights, Equal Rights: it’s the world as seen from the heart of the American Century.
“Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West” photographs by Margaret Bourke-White,
LIFE magazine 23 November 1936 as seen on Google Books
The magazine archive offers a different experience than the image archive. The magazine pdfs are obviously scans of physical things. A two-page view allows you to see layouts but at this size the text is difficult to make out. Being able to customize the viewing options is nice but also presents an additional layer of interface decision-making that comes between the viewer and the content. I’m not complaining; I’m glad to see it and I’m sure the user experience will improve over time. But the experience of looking at an oversized magazine on a monitor only highlights the distance between that form of publishing and more recent efforts to present visual information designed for the web.
In the LIFE magazines, we see a portrait of a society’s aspirations, as new social roles are established and change, as new commodities are jigsaw-fit into a world view. Google’s Adwords appear alongside the archived magazine; as you scroll through the pages, the Adwords change to reflect the content of the page. These Adwords display a new array of needs and desires, automatically generated in response to the metadata on the LIFE pages. A magazine cigarette ad produces an array of smoking cessation ads. Pictures of students returning to school in 1941 brings out textbook and book publishing ads. There’s an unintended dissonance between old media and new that plays out in Google’s salvo of micro-payment ads.
Advertisement, LIFE magazine, 17 February 1941 as seen on Google Books
It’s also worth noting that this effort is part of Google’s larger effort to make archives freely available, which has been met with resistance by publishers and creators concerned about copyright infringement as well as by competitors troubled by monopolization. A lawsuit involving Google Books and the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers is still in settlement and will most likely result in a victory for Google with concessions.
“An armed guard provides both service and security to white Rhodedians on the golf course.”
World Press Photo 1978 News Feature First Prize: Eddie Adams (AP)
Another archive has just gone online: World Press Photo has announced an archive of all WPP contest winners since the competition began in 1955. The interface is simple and elegant, and information rich. Visitors can search by photographer, year, and category, as well as by nationality, award, and publication. (21 of the winners were made for LIFE). The contest has changed over the years as reflected in the change in categories and in the makeup of the judges.
The contest has occasionally courted controversy as photographers have sought to understand the basis for judging. This curtain was slightly pulled aside last year on Foto8.com by WPP judges Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin , who noted that “In the tradition of the World Press Photo awards, a photograph that relies on its caption to create meaning is impotent.” The separation of images from text is a strange divorce as Broomberg and Chanarin note, “every one of the images in the competition would have been accompanied by text in its original context.” Thankfully images are accompanied by substantial caption information.
The pictures stand alone and picture stories are presented as linear sequences, like the slideshows on which they were judged. Stories are told here not as layouts; without layouts we see the pictures in and of themselves, which is what the contest attests to judge. Pictures are rarely ever seen without context, though. World Press Photo recognizes this; the pictures having arrived in this archive by having been recontextualized as contest entries, details about the judging in the year each image won is conveniently a click away.