Constructing a Culture

Creating a Visual Culture through Print Media

Known as “The Show-Book of the World,” LIFE magazine played a major role in “representing and disseminating information and ideas, [while also] shaping meaning [for] consumers fluent in the language of pictorial communication.”[1] 

In 1936, Henry Robinson Luce (head of the Time Inc., mass media empire that included the weekly news magazine Time, and the business monthly magazine Fortune) had a new idea for a picture magazine.[2] Luce’s picture book was proposed to give people the ability:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers, and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.[3]

LIFE magazine ran for thirty-six years producing 1,864 consecutive weekly issues.[4] Luce’s LIFE magazine delivered both a ‘coherent story’ and a “particular historical vision that entertained, informed, and influenced millions.”[5] With a circulation of more than two million in 1939, LIFE had become “one of the most widely consumed magazines in America.”[6] In short, LIFE magazine reached the homes of millions, and catalogued, through images, “American society, [including] culture and politics [spanning] from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War.”[7] In the 1940s, the decade the article “Tulsa Twins” was published, LIFE reached “21 percent of the entire population [of people aged] over ten years old (around 22.5 million people).”[8]

LIFE was not the only pictorial magazine produced in America (competitors included National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Mid-Week Pictorial, Look, Ebony, Photo-History, Picture Post, See, Photo, Picture, Focus, Pic, and Click, and it did not always have the highest paid circulation, being surpassed in the 1940s by competing weeklies such as Collier’s, Liberty, and the Saturday Evening Post.[9] During the postwar era, specialized magazines such as Reader’s Digest and TV Guide swept LIFE magazine in regard to circulation numbers.[10] By 1970, LIFE was “America’s ‘favorite magazine’ with over 8 million subscribers.”[11] Furthering the data, LIFE had an estimated pass-along rate “of four to five people per copy; each issue reached as many as 40 million people.”[12] LIFE magazine seemed to take on a life of its own, and in time, became an icon in American social society.
[1] Erika Doss, introduction to Looking at LIFE Magazine (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 2-4. 
Ibid., 1.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., 2.
[5] Ibid., 2.
[6] Ibid., 2.
[7] Ibid., 2.
[8] Ibid., 2.
[9] Ibid.,3.
[10] Ibid., 3.
[11] Ibid., 3.
[12] Ibid., 1.

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