Presented over 600 pages, The Great Life Photographers is a chronicle of the mid-20th century as recorded by Life magazine photographers between 1936-1972, the beginning and end of the publication’s first incarnation.
In total, the work of 88 of the 90 Life staffers is documented, many of them celebrated – Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and W Eugene Smith among them – but lesser-known snappers’ records of people, places and events are also presented. It is a bold egalitarian move by the editors that is backed up by the alphabetisation of the photographers’ work, rather than putting the big hitters up front for maximum impact.
Each photographer is introduced with a short biographical paragraph, followed by a selection of images presented over ten pages, others six, and a few across just a double page spread. Many of the photographs are rendered full page, but most are half and quarter size in duo tone and colour – with sometimes both on the same page.
The format is effective if one uses the book as a reference tool but inherently it causes chronological problems, not to mention thematic ones.
In quick succession celebrity portraits are followed by reportage which in turn is succeeded by wildlife photos, often within one photographer’s chapter and frequently from one to the next.
As such it demonstrates the versatility of the individual snappers and Life’s scope, but due to space limitations and the breadth of each photographer’s body of work, more often than not the overall feel is one of a book of single images rather than of stories.
In truth, the editors undertook a Herculean task. Imagine the editorial meeting: OK, edit Robert Capa’s life’s work to a maximum of 15 images over 10 pages; and do the same for Anthony Link, and Bob Landry and 85 others. Oh, and don’t forget to look through over three decades of archives too.
Ultimately, as a digest of Life magazine and its snappers, The Great Life Photographers is an honest, hard-working introduction to the men and women who documented last century’s seminal moments for one of the most respected magazines of its time.