Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.
--Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson
* * *
Analogue is better. Paper, ink, typewriters, LPs. Film. I've been rediscovering this simple truth as I look through the 18 September 1950 issue of Life magazine. Digital may be more convenient, but it's almost never as good.
This particular edition of Life is on my desk because contains a powerful, yet largely forgotten photo essay about South Africa by Margaret Bourke-White. (At the time, she was probably the most famous photojournalist in the world.) The essay was the first visual exposé of apartheid, South Africa's system of white supremacy, to appear in the mainstream American press. It was a surprisingly hard-hitting condemnation of racial oppression and labor exploitation. I spoke about it at the winter 2012 meeting of SERSAS/SEAN. Now I'm turning the talk into an article for the journal Kronos: Southern African Histories.
Until this point, I've been looking at the magazine on Google Books. That's been useful. And convenient. But I knew that to do the essay justice, I needed to see, and hold, the real thing -- to come as close as I can to experiencing the magazine as people did in 1950. Ebay to the rescue.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 110 and 111. [Click on the image for a larger version.]
Without a doubt, seeing Bourke-White's essay in the magazine has changed the way that I'm thinking about it. Here are a few random (and not particularly profound) thoughts about Life that arise as I turn the pages.
The thing is big. Really big -- about 10 and 1/2 by 14 inches. I'm old enough to have seen the magazine when it was still being published in the '60s and '70s, but I'd forgotten how large it was. And it's heavy, all 172 pages of it. The size and weight give the magazine a real presence.
The magazine might have a presence, but it's by no means an aesthetic object, like a book of fine photography. While it's more substantial than a newspaper, it's clearly sometime that's meant to be disposable. A couple of weeks on the coffee table or a couple of months in a barber shop, and it's done it's duty. (Thank God for people who thought otherwise.) Bourke-White probably couldn't have imagined that anyone be paying attention to her essay 62 years after it was published.
Nobody could possible have read the thing cover to cover -- not in a single sitting. It's too big, too long, and it contains an almost overwhelming onslaught of words and images. The South Africa essay almost gets lost. It begins on page 111, and it's preceded by hundreds of ads -- 1/8th page, 1/4 page, 1/2 page, full page, double truck -- for movies, cars, toothpaste, tires, women's hosiery, fountain pens, shoes, clock radios, TVs, cigarettes, spark plugs, girdles, dog food, candy, sport coats, coffee makers, life insurance, baby strollers, vacuum cleaners, bourbon, and Vitalis hair cream, for "That Clean Groomed Look." I could go on, but you get the point. The magazine makes the internet look tidy. Sure, I could see all of this on the Google site, but the physical act of turning the pages slows you down and heightens the impression of information overload.
The editorial content is almost as much of a mish-mash as the ads, ranging from "This is War," David Duncan Douglas's still moving photo essay about American marines fighting in Korea, to stories about a woman mayor in Virginia, a typhoon in Japan, Russian female athletes ("The Stronger Soviet Sex"), begonia breeders, Ethel Merman's new Broadway show, and an University of Wichita graduate student who invented eyeglasses that turned the world upside down. All of this is accompanied -- or, more properly, lead -- by the prodigious use of photographs. Once again, the act of turning the pages shapes the experience. When you start a page one, page 111 is a long way off -- and, given all the distraction, you might not get there at all.
As important as Bourke-White's essay was to the magazine's editors -- with 31 photos spread over 16 uninterrupted pages (no ads), it was one of the longest and densest essays Life ever ran -- it was something that readers could have skimmed or skipped altogether.
All of this helps me understand something about Bourke-White's style. Her photos were never subtle, never ambiguous. She seems to have always been aware of the clutter that would surround them in the magazine, so she made images of power and clarity that were designed to stop readers in their tracks and to tell them immediately exactly the photos meant. This is something the magazine's photographers did routinely. Holding Life in my hands has made it easy to see why they did it.
I'll have some more substantial things to say about the essay itself in a later post.