The Popular Front in the American Century
The Popular Front in the American Century
Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Partisan Objectivity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter describes Henry Luce’s call for American leadership. This involved a constantly shifting vision of American global citizenship that did not stop at U.S. borders. The parameters of this political project within Time Inc. is outlined here by focusing on Life, from its founding up until the entrance of the U.S. into the Second World War. The magazine’s practically uncontested status as a source of visual news in its early days, its innovative uses of photography, and its massive diffusion within the upper and middle classes, placed it in a unique position to transform modes of vision within the more privileged sectors of the United States. The representational strategies by which this mass magazine tried to forge the class, national, and consumer consciousness of its “people” is investigated here, as well as the explicit politics it yoked to its new way of seeing.
When vice president henry Wallace first articulated the idea of the people’s Century in 1942, it was in direct response to a vision of globality already in wide circulation—that of Henry Luce’s “American Century.” Before his assembled audience in New York City, Wallace exclaimed, “Some have spoken of ‘the American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can and must be the century of the common man” (193). That the vice president of the United States would have to struggle against a media baron such as Luce in a battle of the “centuries” should come as no surprise. By 1942 the culture industry was far better positioned to influence the public than the state, even amidst the emergency atmosphere of wartime. The magazines, radio programs, and newsreels of Time Inc. were no exception.
By early 1941 Luce commanded a media empire with unprecedented reach—and it had become clear to many that his success had finally gone to his head. His first magazine, Time, founded along with partner Briton Hadden in 1923, had revolutionized the news magazine by developing a narrative mode of news reportage that covered its subjects with both wit and concision. Time, with its unprecedented short news stories aimed at “the man on the go,” quickly eclipsed its stodgy, genteel rival the Literary Digest and established Luce as a public figure. Fortune, begun in 1930, extended his influence by providing a highly affluent readership with a more in-depth and even intellectual magazine of business and world affairs. And with the March of Time radio program and newsreel, founded in 1931 and 1935 respectively, Luce’s reach extended into (p.150) exciting new media. But it was an innovative picture magazine—Life—that took his company Time Inc. to new heights after it first appeared in November 1936. Whereas Time’s readership had been approximately 780,000 in 1939, and Fortune’s much smaller—around 130,000 in the same year—Life’s circulation was truly startling to contemporaries. By 1940 it had a circulation of 2.86 million and a high “pass along rate,” multiplying its actual audience (qtd. in Baughman, Luce 73; Baughman, Life 44). With his influence now firmly secured, Luce began to see himself as a man of destiny, imbued with both the power and the responsibility to mold the national mind single-handedly. Though he had laid claim to such powers before, many contemporaries saw Luce’s ego spinning out of control with Life’s success. A Time staff member recalled that he “began to entertain the delusion common among press lords: that he could control and direct the enormous influence his magazines exerted on public taste” (qtd. in Baughman, Luce 113).
With his newfound sense of purpose, Luce sat down to write his famous editorial, “The American Century,” in February 1941. In what came to be the most influential essay of his career, Luce synthesized a political project he had been developing since the late 1930s. Breaking through the contemporaneous political dichotomy over foreign policy that pitted a conservative isolationism against a leftist internationalism, Luce articulated an expanded leadership role for the United States that could be dubbed a corporate transnationalism. The United States had a mission to assume world leadership, he wrote, a mission that most Americans had yet to realize. Prefiguring the Cold War, this mission involved the spreading of American ideals of freedom and democracy around the world, and differed from the global vision of both Hitler and the left in that it was based on liberal “freedom and democracy” rather than “one-man rule.” But this transnationalism would be grounded neither on politics nor mere military might, but on a more subtle level—on the culture of consumption. According to Luce, “Once we cease to distract ourselves with lifeless arguments about isolationism, we shall be amazed to discover that there is already an immense American inter-nationalism. American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common” (65). Immediately generating almost five thousand letters, many of them glowing praises from influential citizens, the essay provided a foundation for those Americans who wanted to actively intervene in world affairs but who were looking for a different model than that offered by the Popular Front. Ultimately, it came to embody corporate America’s blueprint for the postwar world. Michael Denning sees it as the manifesto of what he calls “The Advertising (p.151) Front,” a historic bloc of conservative forces opposed to the New Deal and the Popular Front (43–44).
But this imperial consumer ethos would not create itself. To Luce, it had to be constructed—and constructed using specific representational strategies that Time Inc. had already been developing. In a speech given at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1937, he had already denounced the prevailing consumer model guiding the media, which he dubbed “Press-that-gives-the-people-what-they-want”— a philosophy employed by media professionals who rewarded a passive, uncritical audience with “vulgarity,” “tripe,” and “triviality,” consequently leaving audiences open for “the barbarous domination of the mass mind” (38, 41). Luce urged advertisers to instead take a position of cultural and moral leadership by supporting quality journalism (like his own) and by keeping out of editorial departments so that culture workers could fulfill their mission unimpeded. Ever conscious of fascism and communism, he instructed them, “You are the Commissars, you exist as an alternative to the People’s Commissariat of Public Enlightenment” (40). An unqualified faith in the common man would be misguided, he argued, as the “crowds” of modern society are irrational and impressionable. A mass media that gives them “what it wants and whatever it wants and more of it” might ironically deliver them to the first demagogue who came along (41). To counter this threat, not just any consumerism would do, but one that would accompany a political and cultural project designed to lift these crowds from the dangers of the modern world. The speech reveals Luce’s strange dance with fascism by the late 1930s, in which he abhorred it while proposing a rival form of elite leadership in its stead. But more essentially, it was one of Luce’s early calls for a new “common sense” antithetical to that offered by the left at the time.
While the articles in Time, Life, and Fortune did not collectively form a mirror image of their founder’s beliefs, Luce’s stated views were reflected in his publications to a stunning extent. In Life they would be translated into images of the people and its other that would rival both the New Deal and Popular Front pluralisms of “We’re the people” and “the People’s Century.” What was at stake in the battle of the centuries was not only the nature of American participation in the world, but also the more subtle contours of American globality: Who would be the agents in the twentieth-century world? Who was “us” and who was “them”? Luce’s call for American leadership involved a constantly shifting vision of American global citizenship that did not stop at U.S. borders. This chapter will outline the parameters of this political project within Time Inc. by focusing on Life, primarily from its founding in 1936 to the United States’ entrance into (p.152) World War II. I have chosen Life for a number of reasons. The magazine’s virtually uncontested status as a source of visual news in its early days, its innovative uses of photography, and its massive diffusion within the upper and middle classes (far more so than Time or Fortune) placed it in a unique position to transform modes of vision within the more privileged sectors of the United States. I will first investigate the representational strategies by which this mass magazine tried to forge the class, national, and consumer consciousness of its “people”—the agents of the American Century—as well as the explicit politics it yoked to its new way of seeing.
Much like its nemeses in the Popular Front, the representational strategy the magazine employed was an attempt to mediate the political and economic crisis of the 1930s for its readers. Yet, as a form, the modern magazine was born of crisis, and Life’s attempt to manage unrest for its audience placed it squarely within the history of magazines stretching back at least fifty years. Since the “magazine revolution” of the 1890s, magazine readership had been overwhelmingly middle class, and Life was no exception. Throughout its history, Life readers tended to be middle and upper middle class (Baughman, Life 44). But the world of the fledgling Life was quite different from the world of the first magazine revolution. By the 1930s, corporate managerial structures had long since been established and Americans were even more deeply entrenched in mass consumer culture than they had been at the turn of the century. At the same time, this entrenched corporate power was in the midst of a profound economic crisis of much longer duration than the crisis of either the mid-1880s or mid-1890s. Just as significantly, corporate power was threatened from the left by the dynamic new social movement of the Popular Front.
To the magazine reader of 1940, radical alternatives to bourgeois democracy such as socialism, communism, or fascism were quite tangible and to some seemed, under the demagogue F.D.R., to have found expression in the highest office of the land. The social upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s were palpable in a variety of forms in mass magazines of the period, and the authors of the articles generally pitted themselves against this newfound working-class power. Broadsides against the president and his policies were prevalent in their writings, the Popular Front social movements were parodied with regularity, and the rich were often presented as an embattled class fighting to preserve its way of life.1 Newspapers exhibited similar trends, with Roosevelt receiving less and less favorable coverage with each election cycle. In 1932 he had the editorial support of 41 percent of American dailies while enjoying 57 percent of the popular vote; when he coasted through the 1936 election with 60 percent of the popular vote, (p.153) he received the support of only 37 percent of dailies and approximately 40 percent of weekly papers. In 1940, in the largest gap between newspaper and popular approval since Thomas Jefferson, he won 55 percent of the popular vote yet received the backing of only 25 percent of daily newspapers (Winfield 127–28).
Life was no exception to this conservatism, and even gloried in being part of a larger, united press effort to unseat this popular president.2 Before the war it is difficult to find a single word of support for F.D.R., and the left social movements of the day are usually presented in its pages as a joke. Thus the innovative aesthetics Life deployed in its early years, which made intriguing connections between crowds, the Popular Front, friendly versus unfriendly peoples, and advertised commodities, were an attempt to forge a solution to the contemporaneous political crisis.
Significantly, this solution involved the incorporation of leftist aesthetics into the magazine format, aesthetics in which realism played no small part. The second intention of this chapter, then, is to suggest that the Popular Front and the so-called “Advertising Front” were not fully separable. Although the explicit politics of Life by and large followed Henry Luce’s imperial, capitalist formula presented in “The American Century,” the aesthetics of the magazine were stamped by those on the left, not least because Popular Front personnel were involved in its production. While some studies of Life have commented on various aspects of its conservatism, no study to date has looked at the influence of the left on the epistemology of Luce’s favorite child.3 My investigation of this influence will revolve around Life’s use of the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, a Popular Front figure who played a seminal role in defining the aesthetic of the magazine—a pioneer who stamped her brand of realism onto its pages. But while the presence of realism in Life is undeniable, I will also argue that when examining its photo-essays in the overall context of the magazine—the ads, the illustrations, the endless juxtapositions—it is hard to claim that Life is unequivocally realist. Rather, Life constitutes a mass-mediated realism, and thus an opportunity to explore the politics thereof, not only in an arena of visual popular culture unique to mid-century, but also one in which the Popular Front did not fully control its shape. Tracing the strands of realism within the pages of Life is one way of addressing the extent to which Popular Front modes of vision were absorbed into the dominant culture that would emerge after World War II. As with the previous chapter on the Popular Front and Asia/America, this chapter adds to the scholarship exploring the ways in which Popular Front and New Deal “structures of feeling” were incorporated (and left behind) within the Cold War consensus.4
An Introduction to Life’s Political Aesthetics
In the 29 January 1940 issue of Life appears a fascinating three-page photo-essay on Louisiana politics. It deals with the electoral battle between Earl Long (brother of Huey) and a slew of other candidates opposing him. The layout of page 1 is dominated by a single photograph in which Long, with the sharp gesticulation of a fascist leader, speaks before a sullen crowd. The crowd faces us—it is they who seem to be the real subject of the photograph. The viewer is challenged to look into their faces, discerning whether or not the magic of the demagogue has taken hold.
But by reading the text at the side of the page, introduced with the headline, “Long Machine Crippled in Louisiana Primaries After Twelve-Year Rule,” we find that Long’s magic is not working that well after all. In prose both dramatic and entertaining, the article tells us that the “corrupt and tyrannical rule” of the Long machine has been finally challenged by the erstwhile “submissive electorate.” In this three-paragraph block of text—the longest, most sustained verbal narration the article provides—we hear the curiosities of the election: how Long was cut off the air for the “hells,” “damns,” and other profanities that filled his speeches; how another candidate named Noe broke his fist in a fight; and how Long was parodied by a spectacle of parade floats. But it halts the curious anecdotes to latch on to one thing its authors take seriously: the candidacy of Sam Houston Jones, a conservative lawyer with the backing of the business community. We read that, “barring vast chicanery,” he would be elected imminently.
A true visual explosion begins, however, when we turn the page over. The two-page spread immediately following consists entirely of photos, ordered in three neat rows, with brief, scarcely noticeable captions underneath. The top row shows masses of people gathered around parade floats satirizing Long; the middle consists of three photos, each illustrating the activities of an individual political candidate; while at bottom are close-ups of individual floats, their clearly legible messages allowing us to take part in the entertainment vicariously. The photos immediately communicate one central message: action. The photos of candidates eschew the static conventions of portraiture to show their subjects in motion, and the massive crowds suggest that, someplace where we are not, something big is happening. More basically, we are dimly aware that this whole spectacle is a political election.
I describe at length this moment of coverage because it contains a whole constellation of representational strategies in Life highly significant to the formation of American mass culture and the reproduction of middle-class consciousness in the 1930s and 1940s: (1) Luce’s concept of partisan objectivity, a fundamentally realist practice in which blatantly partial claims are embedded in the seemingly unauthored, “real” nature of the photograph; (2) a sensational, melodramatic mode of address (both visual and verbal) that bears witness to the decline of the great genteel project of the nineteenth century; (3) a mode of reading amenable to consumerism, based on simultaneity, titillation, and what Raymond Williams calls “total flow”; and (4) a political project that attempts self-consciously to intervene in the formation of crowds, altering the ties that bind them together. This project only slightly modified an older Anglo-Saxon consensus on who constituted “the people” and was linked to a transnational worldview in which fascists, communists, and populists, at home and abroad, were essentially united by the mindless crowds they drew together. Sometimes racialized, such crowds became the synecdochal representations of much larger political bodies united against American bourgeois notions of freedom, democracy, and property. None of Life’s major competitors in the world of magazines approached such a combination. Neither Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, nor Saturday Evening Post featured photography as a central part of their content, employed realist representational strategies as intensely as Life, nor offered significant news coverage. The bulk of the content in Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post consisted of light fiction illustrated by drawings, while Ladies’ Home Journal featured short stories, tips on everyday life, and lots of ads. At the time of its birth, Life’s only real rival in the visual presentation of news were the newsreels (the largest of which, March of Time, was also part of the Luce empire), and even these presented news less in terms of realism and more through the obvious artifice of dramatic re-enactments.
A look at Life’s partisan objectivity is in order, for it illuminates the brand of realism the magazine employs. Through her insightful book Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism, Wendy Kozol asserts that Life merged traditions of documentary objectivity with sentimental modes of address to give its photographs the authority to transparently represent “reality.” She labels this process—visible even in the early days of the magazine—realism (10). While her work remains a groundbreaking study of the aesthetics of the magazine, it relies on a poststructuralist critique of realism to challenge Life’s representations, and in doing so misses much of what is historical specific to its form. Kozol at times conflates realism and objectivity, two terms that are not synonymous. The desire for objectivity was not a consistent goal of the realism of the late nineteenth century, but rather of naturalism in particular.5 Further, her primary grounds for labeling Life’s news practices realist is that they produce a “transparent” visual language that does not call attention to its status as representation. In other words, its articles are not self-referential; they offer a picture of reality by obscuring the fact of authorship from a definite subject position. This claim is true; Life does not call attention to authorship and rarely provides hints that photographs are constructions (by contrast, its Popular Front competitor P.M. regularly instructs its audience on how to “read” photographs).6 But again, there is much more to realism than this. It is much more helpful to ask, “What kind of realism does Life create, and how does it differ from the realism of its political opponents (if at all)?” Insisting too much on Life’s tendency to employ unauthored discourse—i.e., representations that appear as objectively “real,” with no author putting them forward—avoids a central feature of Life’s philosophy and practice: blatant and conscious partisanship. Its photographs most definitely lay claim to the real, and may have received the authority to do so by the documentary traditions Kozol traces, but when viewed in context of the layout, text boxes, and captioning, we find that Life is making no attempt to conceal its position. This has important implications for its hybrid brand of realism, which I will discuss momentarily.
My description of Life’s coverage of the Louisiana primaries attempted to demonstrate that the magazine was quite open in its endorsement of Sam Houston Jones over Earl Long. But one does not have to look far for other examples of partisanship. Popular Front social movements receive a blatant, dismissive form of scorn throughout the magazine. An article from 23 September (p.158) 1940, entitled “Young Pink,” provides a suggestive example. The article is an exposé on a young “radical” activist named Bud James. Bud is depicted as a spoiled dilettante from a well-to-do Protestant family. The author relates: “Bud belongs to and helps lead the celebrated Youth Congress whose members, many conservatives scathingly insist, are a rebellious pack of malcontents, whiners and complainers with a bad case of the ‘gimmes’” (the radicals are not allowed a rebuttal to this charge). Bud James is as dangerous as he is comical, however, because he has the power to mobilize the gullible mob. Recounting a speech he gives before a crowd of largely African American munitions workers, the article states that the mass “believes him because he is convincing … and they punctuate his address with cries of ‘Yas Suh, Yas Suh, Sho’ is right’ and ‘That’s just beautiful!’” (82). This portrait thus represents the Popular Front as constituted by spoiled leaders and a sheeplike rank and file, the latter of whom are all the more dangerous for their racial difference (it also positions the reader as an independent thinker not subject to mass thinking). A head shot of Bud takes the depiction a step further. In the photo he appears stiff and unshaven, mouth firmly closed and eyes darting away from the camera, making him look both cowardly and slightly deranged.
Equally dismissive is the coverage of Popular Front culture. Brett Gary has argued that Life was relatively easy on the left during the Popular Front period and even “progressive” in its coverage (particularly in relation to its coverage of fascist movements), but shifted to a more unequivocally negative treatment with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 (79). My own examination of the periodical, to the contrary, has found negative portrayal of the left fairly consistent even before that event. For example, a review of an exhibition of Mexican art touring the U.S., appearing on 14 March 1938, fires a number of barbs at now canonical Mexican artists with left sympathies. Under a reproduction of a Diego Rivera painting a caption instructs the reader, “Notice the small meticulous signature of this big fat artist who is now host to Leon Trotsky.” The caption next to a Carlos Orozco Romero painting reveals its creator as a man “who does not always practice what he preaches,” and we learn that in order to make a living, the artist Jesus Guerrero painted tanks, billboards, and railroad cars “like Adolph Hitler.”
Life’s partisanship was aimed not only at the left but also at the most mainstream representative of the New Deal—Franklin Roosevelt. With the exception of its first issue, which featured an optimistic photo-essay by Bourke-White and Luce on the government’s construction of the Fort Peck Dam, the magazine’s portrayal of both F.D.R. and the New Deal is consistently negative (writers even declared the dam project a failure in a 1941 follow-up article).7 On 4 April (p.159) 1938, a photo-essay entitled “The President’s Album” begins: “Whom or what does Franklin Roosevelt blame for the 1938 Depression? He does not blame himself—although he might, because for five years he had more power than any other peacetime President, and he took all the credit for rising prosperity in 1936 … He [instead] blames ‘selfish’ businessmen.” An incredible example of the magazine’s treatment of F.D.R. comes from 18 April 1938. Entitled, “Speaking of Dictators …,” it juxtaposes photos of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Mussolini all engaged in similar types of activities. A photo of Roosevelt holding his arm outstretched with his hand cupped during a speech is placed next to a photo of Hitler and Mussolini in an almost identical pose. A text box at center reads, “Dictators charm the opposite sex and shake their fingers at audiences. So does President Roosevelt … Dictators make dramatic gestures, shake hands with their admirers, pat animals. So does Roosevelt.” Such depictions comport with Luce’s personal views; he was supportive of much of the legislation of the more cautious “First New Deal” (1933–34), but broke with the President after his rhetoric became markedly hostile to business in 1936 (Herzstein, Portrait 79–82).
Bud James with his gullible mob, Jesus Guerrero painting like Adolph Hitler, F.D.R. as totalitarian dictator—in all of these examples, Life anticipates the Cold War conflation of fascism and socialism, wherein both appear as structurally equivalent threats to a pluralistic “American Way.” But there is a slight difference in the magazine’s treatment of the right and left. On 22 May 1939, for example, Life farcically portrayed the Communist Party’s attempt to appear more “American” in an article covering a communist-organized swing dance. Entitled “Young Communists ‘Get in Groove’ at Party Rally,” it reads, “Lest anyone confuse them with sobersided Nazis, [the communists] turned jitterbug and continued to stomp vigorously even after the jitterbug began to decline in public favor.” Earl Browder, head of the CPUSA, is shown scowling in a photo directly underneath; we read that “he watched the young antics solemnly.” The representation of the Communist Party, then, is not that of a genuinely fun-loving organization as opposed to solemn Nazis, but rather, the comic spectacle of a grim organization attempting to be “fun” and in tune with American popular culture—and failing miserably. Life’s captioneers deflate the attempts of the Popular Front to be American by displaying those attempts as a joke for middle-class readers. The caption underneath a young woman held up by a man during a dance reads, “Marxist interpretation of dance tableau below: the woman symbolizes capitalist society, supported by the worker, who in turn is crushed in scissors-grip of greed.” If the magazine presents fascists as grim and brutal, it presents the Popular Front as grim and comical—a difference to be sure, but (p.160)
I am not attempting to claim here that impartiality is somehow possible, and that Life has erred simply by straying from constructed notions of journalistic objectivity. I do claim, however, that its partiality is quite brazen. When one looks at the most widely circulated newsmagazine before the explosion of the Luce press—The Literary Digest—one sees a conscious attempt to stay above the fray by not taking sides in areas marked as culturally contested.8 The fact that Life strays from this impartial structure is not coincidental. Henry Luce and his partner Briton Hadden defined themselves against the journalistic standards of the Digest as they conceived Time in the early 1920s. Unlike the Digest, Hadden and Luce imagined the articles of their fledgling publication not as quoting from various voices but as authoritatively speaking from a single voice. They would not merely break from the dry, distanced tone of the Digest’s prose; they would overturn its entire pretense to objectivity. “The Digest,” they wrote, “gives little or no hint as to which side it considers to be right. Time gives both sides, but clearly indicates which side it believes to have the stronger position” (Baughman, Luce 31–32). The promise to give both sides was never followed up; but aversion to the ideas of impartiality and objectivity within journalism stayed with Luce his entire career and was implemented in his subsequent publications Fortune and Life. Defending the practices of his press at a convention for Life staff in May 1939, he stated: “Never, at least with my knowledge and consent, did Time ever claim impartiality … Impartiality is often an impediment to truth. Time will not allow the stuffed dummy of impartiality to stand in the way of telling the truth as it sees it” (“Causes, Causes!” 56–57).
Objectivity was not a long-established standard within journalism when Luce was railing against it in the 1920s and 1930s. Michael Schudson has persuasively argued that the modern notion of objectivity within journalism is a relatively recent phenomenon that began to take shape after World War I; it was born of journalists’ frustration over state and corporate attempts to control the flow of “facts” through governmental propaganda agencies during the war and the new public-relations agencies emerging in the 1920s. In the view taking shape in the 1930s, facts did not speak for themselves and were increasingly seen as something separate from value judgments; as such, they required some authoritative form of interpretation and evaluation to give them validity. Interpretive reporting was one path to objectivity beginning to take shape in the 1930s, and partisan objectivity shared some of the epistemology behind this style of reportage. Interpretive reporting acknowledged that facts had to be contextualized via an evaluative framework in order to speak the truth, but (p.162) held that this truth had to be approached through an admittedly subjective lens. Reporters who practiced this kind of journalism sometimes acknowledged their subjectivity but, at the same time, often possessed a specialist’s expertise in the area on which they were reporting that gave them some authority to speak. Interpretive reporting, in short, was primarily available to those whose authority had been already established in some sense (Schudson 144–49).
But what gave these photographers, writers, and editors the authority to make interpretive claims on the world? Life did not advertise itself as possessing a specialist’s knowledge, nor did it attempt credibility by placing its claims in the mouths of established journalists (such journalists did in fact work for Life, but since bylines were either difficult to find or nonexistent, authorship was murky at best). Instead, it grounded its authority on the mimetic quality of the photograph. The credibility of a Life photo-essay resided not in its authors’ overt claims to objectivity, nor in its flouting the expertise of its authors, but instead, as Kozol has shown, in the constructed notion that the photograph had the power to transparently represent the real. However partisan the captioning of a photograph might have been, however blatantly subjective the text might read, partiality would always be anchored by the presence of photographs—and more specifically, by the sense that the subject within the photo frame actually existed on some level (the “indexical” quality of the photograph). As I mentioned above, the photo-essays lent themselves to a transparent reading by refusing to call attention to the constructed nature of photographs. Additionally, Life would often caption its photos with phrases such as “Here is … ,” “Here are pictures … ,” or “These are … ,” as if it were the mere exhibitor of found objects.9
The realism of Life’s photo-essay resides not in the lack of self-referentiality within their photos; rather, it lies in the relationship of photo, caption, and text. It is ultimately the captions, not merely the photographs themselves, that make Life’s photo-essays approach something akin to realism. But how can realism be defined in a manner relevant to journalism, and to Life in particular? Much of twentieth-century journalism shares some of the traits common to realism that I identified in the beginning of this book—an attempt to use a transparent, accessible form, an impulse toward social significance—and Life is also known for its focus on “ordinary” individuals in specific, contemporary contexts (or for making public figures into ordinary individuals through its innovation of the “candid” shot). Terry Lovell’s Pictures of Reality, which outlines the tenets of realism as both an epistemology and an aesthetic, elaborates a quality of the form quite germane to journalism and objectivity. As Lovell argues, realism shares with science the belief that representations of reality should be grounded in empirically (p.163) observable facts, but breaks from empiricism in holding the immediately observable to be an insufficient picture of reality. A larger social network exists beyond what we can immediately see and hear; and since a language of observation unmediated by theory does not exist, some kind of theory must inevitably accompany one’s observations if one is to effectively articulate reality (18–20). Realism does not allow theory to encompass reality entirely and push out any place for the empirical, but at the same time does not privilege the empirical to the extent that empiricism and positivism do. As William Dean Howells asserted in his famous manifesto “Criticism and Fiction,” “When realism becomes false to itself, when it heaps up facts merely … realism will perish too” (15).
If, as Lovell argues, realist epistemology holds that reality is to be apprehended through an inevitably subjective interpretive frame, but one with an empirical grounding, then the realism of the photo-essays within Life actually derives from the relationship between the captions and the photos. The photos represent the immediate—they provide the empirical base for the partisan observations in the text. But without the captioning they are nothing, for the captioning provides the larger theory that ultimately leads us to reality. This realist relationship between caption and photo was stated rather clearly in Life’s famous prospectus, in which the layout of the magazine was definitively theorized:
Pictures are taken haphazardly. Pictures are published haphazardly. Naturally, therefore, they are looked at haphazardly. Cameramen who use their heads as well as their legs are rare. Rarer still are camera editors … And almost nowhere is there any attempt to edit pictures into a coherent story—to make an effective mosaic out of the fragmentary documents which pictures, past and present, are.
The mind-guided camera can do a far better job of reporting current events than has been done. And, more than that, it can reveal to us far more explicitly the nature of the dynamic social world in which we live.
(Luce, “Prospectus” 35)
To construct a coherent narrative out of seemingly transparent fragments, to believe that such a narrative can and should transcend the immediacy of fact, and to hold the goal of representation to be the unraveling of a larger social matrix using both the mind and empirical document—these ideas embody most incarnations of the realist spirit. Life’s prospectus was in effect a blueprint for realism within visual mass culture, and, at times, the photo-essays it engendered remained loyal to these founding intentions to the best of their creator’s abilities.
The imaginary community Luce cultivated in Life through partisan objectivity— his version of “the people,” as it were—was highly complex. I have noted how the writers and editors showcased photographs of crowds, and how they often depicted the crowd as a passive body directed by a malign, irrational head such as Bud James, Earl Long, or President Roosevelt. An examination of the body politic that Luce attempted to create should begin here because, through the representation of crowds, Life invited its readers to imagine themselves as part of certain collectivities, and to exalt themselves above others. Life’s representation of the masses, in other words, viscerally attempted to define the form of collectivity appropriate to the transnational ideal of the American Century.
Luce was deeply influenced by José Ortega y Gasset’s book The Revolt of the Masses, which held that modern technology and media had created a barbaric “mass man” who was naturally drawn to the totalitarian systems of fascism and communism. To Ortega y Gasset, the only hope rested with people of “excellence and superiority” whose agency was most pressingly needed to counter this new threat to civilization (Herzstein, Portrait 83). Luce explicitly referenced this book in his speech to advertisers in 1937, suggesting to them that, thanks to consumerism, the crowds epitomizing mass man were to be found not only overseas: “[Ortega y Gasset] begins by making you face the great new physical reality in society—crowds. Not merely Hitler’s crowds, or Mussolini’s, or Stalin’s, or Hirohito’s, but the crowds on American beaches, the crowds in the movies—the even vaster crowds you advertisers yearn for—mass circulation. These crowds, he says, will destroy civilization” (“Address” 41).
But the crowds displayed in Life photographs were not always presented as fearful. They could be composed of slavish mass men gathered around the likes of Earl Long, but they could also be rational or harmless expressions of a democratic/market culture. The synopsis of the 25 July 1938 issue underscored the varied nature of crowds by announcing, “Crowds made the picture news of the week—crowds which varied in mood and appearance with the sights and the heroes which brought them forth” (14). The issue depicted essentially harmless crowds gathered around the spectacles of major league baseball, Wimbledon tennis, and the landings of the aviator Howard Hughes. In all of these stories, photos of fun-loving crowds were used to underscore the newsworthiness of an essentially benign event, even though these assemblies seem little different from the sinister masses at American beaches and movie theaters that Luce cautioned against. In general, the magazine’s editors presented all manner of nonpolitical (p.165) consumer spectacles as harmless, and by passing on celebrity gossip the captioneers even positioned Life as part of the fun.10 Some of the apparent disconnect lies in the fact that Luce did not control every day-to-day choice made by his editors and staff. But the coexistence of Luce’s deeply held belief in The Revolt of the Masses and the innocent representation of cheap amusements in Life is not completely contradictory. If the “American Century” essay posited American consumer culture as an important basis of U.S. global leadership, linking people in Chicago with people in Zanzibar and Hamburg, then Americans could and should be conversant in the mass-culture language that defined them and enabled others to recognize their leadership. More specifically, recurrent readers of Life had earned the right to be part of such crowds: they implicitly consented to the magazine’s global agenda by repeatedly coming back to it, and thus were inoculated from a devolution into mass man.
Articles featuring political candidates endorsed by Time Inc. also showcased crowds, but these photo-essays offered Life readers, through words and images, the acceptable terms under which they could belong to a mass. The magazine’s ten-page article on the Wendell Willkie campaign offers such an example. Like Luce a moderate, interventionist Republican, Willkie tactfully slipped through an isolationist Republican Party apparatus to become a major contender against Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, and Life supported him wholeheartedly. Robert Herzstein has even suggested that Willkie got through the primaries because of Luce (Crusade 4). Life’s coverage of the campaign in its 30 September 1940 issue featured a two-page spread with panoramic shots of massive crowds at Willkie rallies in Illinois and Kansas. Shot from the perspective of the speaker and looking down into the countless faces of the assembled throng, these photos are virtually indistinguishable from other Life images of crowds. One notable difference, however, is that in two photos the speaker has his arms outstretched in an open, embracing gesture, rather than the sharp, up-and-down gesticulations Life associated with dictators. But other, more significant differences make these crowds acceptable compared to those assembled to hear Long. First and most obvious are the explicit politics of the speaker, which are clearly spelled out by the magazine’s partisan objective writers. “I Shall Go Up and Down This Land Preaching the Doctrine of Democracy” is the headline over the crowd shots, and the adjacent text blocks specify that “democracy” means intervention, a faith in self-reliance, and an opposition to centralized executive power, especially in regard to the regulation of markets. Second, and linked to these explicit politics, is that crowd shots are de-emphasized, occupying only two of the article’s ten pages. As in literary realism, ordinary individuals are used to tell the story of a larger social movement. Seven of the ten pages focus on the (p.166) selfless, devoted work of individuals—campaign professionals, leading citizens, and ordinary people working through “Willkie Clubs”—who were volunteering their time and money to propel the campaign. Most of the photos are framed around single individuals whose names are given in captions, such as the smiling “Willkiette” Bess Weiner whose job is to pass out buttons, and the serious, determined campaign advisor Harold Stassen. The individual volunteers all appear affluent, and are disproportionately female. While a few men in suits strategize over the selection of images, a larger number of attractive women are engaged in making signs and handing out buttons—the grunt work of the campaign. There is a surprising moment of inclusion: in a movement otherwise rendered as completely white, one Willkiette—Rosetta Burton—is black, and her photo occupies the center of one page. The real “other” in the article is two white workmen (one of them dirty, with muscular arms exposed—a classic Hugo Gellert proletarian icon) who hassle a fresh, smiling Willkiette.
This piece is emblematic of the kind of collectivity Life invited its readers to create and share. Members of this community are animated by an unambiguous set of interventionist Republican politics. They come together in crowds, but are not defined by crowds—rather, they are active, individual citizens with names. This body of agent-citizens is affluent and well dressed, consists of both men and women with clearly defined roles, and is ever-so-slightly racially diverse. If Luce began to dislike Roosevelt for making it seem as if industry was “not part of America,” this article put images of the managerial class and its devoted allies squarely back into the national frame (82). But Life’s imagined community was not always constructed around images of crowds, nor did it lie exclusively within U.S. borders. The boundaries of this community, shadowed by the image of the dirty workman, could be rigidly drawn, and in drawing such boundaries an image of individuals could just as easily suffice to exclude whole groups.
The inclusion of an African American in the vaunted Willkie campaign signifies the baby steps taken by Life toward a more positive role for African Americans in the American Century. As a moderate, Northern Republican, Luce detested the repeated blocking of anti-lynching legislation by southern Democrats, and was supportive of attempts to abolish Jim Crow. In the 1950s and 1960s, Life would become generally favorable to the civil rights movement. But while the magazine exalted a number of “exceptional Negroes” like George Washington Carver and, surprisingly, Paul Robeson, ordinary African Americans were largely missing from its photo-essays before 1945.11 When they did appear, it was most often in the advertisements, where they were depicted as comical rubes or smiling servants, as was typical in other mainstream media at the time. Sometimes, this racism could work its way into the photo-essays (p.167) too, as in a light story on the southern watermelon market from 9 August 1937. Here, a caption reading “Nothing makes a Negro’s mouth water like a luscious, fresh- picked melon” appeared beneath a photo of an African American woman in a shanty, a baby nursing in one arm and a watermelon in the other (52). More often than this, in a tentative nod toward civil rights, black Americans appeared in the photo-essays as lynched or incarcerated bodies. But they were at best pitiable victims, not agents, within articles that refrained from condemning the perpetrators with Life’s usual partisan bluntness.12 In addition, the magazine employed no African Americans as full-time researchers, writers, or photographers until Gordon Parks came on staff in 1948. Even then, Parks recalled that when he came to work he felt like “a pepper seed in a mountain of white salt” (qtd. in Doss 233). But if African Americans were underrepresented, other American people of color were virtually absent from both the professional staff and the pages of the magazine. So while Life at least acknowledged the existence of ordinary African Americans within the American Century, it generally reserved a marginal or downright inferior place for them, and thus constructed the real agents of its political project as not only affluent but white.
But if Americans were to intervene in world affairs to an unprecedented degree as called for by Luce’s most famous essay, they had to have a sense of connectedness to peoples across their borders—an investment in their fate, as it were. This connectedness could not be achieved by representing other cultures in terms of absolute ethnic or racial difference, especially if a shared mass culture was to be an important basis of hegemony. Life’s photo-essays thus tried to bridge the gap between its American readers and those others around the world whom Luce perceived as willing, capable participants in the American Century. In its representation of certain overseas populations, Time Inc. was thus a forerunner of what would become a more pervasive Cold War strategy identified by Christina Klein: the middlebrow project of getting Americans to shed outmoded notions of racial superiority in order to forge sentimental bonds across borders. But Life erected as many barriers as bridges. According to its photo-essays, peoples who subscribed to leaders or ideas deemed threatening to U.S. interests did so out of some cultural or racial deficiency, while others were depicted as lacking the innate capacity to effectively participate in the Americanled global order envisioned by the magazine’s founder. In both cases, Life fell back on vicious, long-established stereotypes to render such people in terms of absolute difference.
Who was “like us” and who was utterly alien was rarely stable in the pages of the magazine; they shifted depending on Luce and his confidants’ perceptions of U.S. foreign policy needs. Providing a detailed map of all of its cultural (p.168) representations is beyond the scope of this chapter, but a synopsis with a few emblematic examples will impart a sense of Luce’s pluralism. From its founding in 1936 up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Life notably singled out Jews across the world and the Chinese (particularly Chinese nationalists) for sympathetic treatment, and also generally sided with the British in its struggles with its subject peoples. In this same period a larger number of cultures were written off as hopelessly backward: the Arab world, the cultures of the Philippines, and Latin and South America. The peoples of Japan and the U.S.S.R. were cast in a sinister light, but were not yet seen as credible threats. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S.S.R. and the Philippines were portrayed with much less hostility, though Luce’s alliance with the Soviet Union was short-lived. Shortly after the war, the Soviet Union and the Chinese communists would emerge in the pages of Life as the greatest threat to the American Century, and its assaults on them would be relentless and shrill.13
When building bridges across cultures, Life’s photo-essays enacted a number of consistent strategies. Its partisan objective writers claimed a power to generalize entire ethnicities, regions, nations, and cultures with a degree of un-subtlety that is stunning to the uninitiated (for example, a sub-headline in the watermelon article referenced above reads “All Southerners Like Watermelons”). When using such generalizations to form bonds, one strategy (more commonly used with European allies) was to elide cultural difference altogether and to stress that another people was almost “just like us.” For example, in its remarkable special issue on the U.S.S.R. from 29 March 1943, Life stressed that the diverse people of the Soviet Union were brought together in a “melting pot” by “the race of Great Russians, a prolific, gregarious, talkative, aggressive, and friendly mass of blond Slavs who have conquered and colonized a sixth of the earth’s land surfaces.” In case the reader did not catch the allusion to the rugged frontiersmen of American mythology, the writer added: “To a remarkable degree, they look like Americans, dress like Americans, and think like Americans” (23). A more common strategy, however, and one used most often with regard to Asia, was to acknowledge some degree of cultural or racial difference, but to posit the people in question as becoming more “like us” through Western tutelage and the teleology of progress entailed by that tutelage. This was the case with the Chinese and, after Pearl Harbor, the people of the Philippines as well.
China occupied a particularly special place within the media of Time Inc., a fact that has not gone unnoticed by scholars. Henry Luce’s parents were both missionary educators in China, and he was born in a missionary compound in the Shandong peninsula, where he lived until his teenage years. From this upbringing grew a sense that the United States had a Christian responsibility (p.169) to help build Asia, a notion that formed one of Luce’s core beliefs (Herzstein, Crusade 1). The media baron developed a blind adoration for Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in particular, and in 1942 was dismayed that Americans were paying too much attention to Europe and not enough to the war in China and the Nationalist efforts against the Japanese (39). Almost since its founding, Life had been trying to redirect the American gaze away from the Atlantic and toward the Pacific, and it did so by depicting a courageous ruling family in China leading a nation at war with itself toward the American way of life. An article from 16 August 1937, titled “Mei-Ling (‘Beautiful Mood’) Helps Her Husband Rule China” emphasizes the American education of Soong Mei-ling, who was dubbed Madame Chiang by the American press. A prominent photo shows her holding hands with a white American classmate at Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Georgia, and noted how Methodist Mei-ling “thoroughly charmed” her later Yankee classmates with her “Georgia accent” (18). Readers were told that this Christian woman with an elegant southern twang married the “crude, brash warlord” Chiang Kai-shek in 1926, setting up a narrative of a virile despot tamed and civilized by the influence of his Christian wife (a predecessor to the Cold War musical The King and I, with Madame Chiang in the role of Anna). Thus Americanized, subsequent articles demonstrate how these leaders, working along with their Western allies, were in the process of making the rest of China more American.
Unlike Edgar Snow and Pearl Buck, however, who converted the Chinese into Americans through the trope of the yeoman farmer, Life used modern Western market culture to enact this transformation. (Standing on opposite sides of the Chinese civil war, Edgar Snow and Henry Luce also selected very different groups within China to Americanize.) Life’s exposé of what it considered an emblematic Chinese town demonstrates its editorial view of market modernity as agent of Americanization. Published on 24 November 1941 and titled “A Chinese Town: Little Market Towns Make China Unconquerable,” the article suggests that the Szechwan town of Lung Chuan I is “unconquerable” because the government of Chiang Kai-shek has linked it to Western culture and innovation. It is emblematic not because it is the statistically average Chinese town, but because it is typical of a larger, nascent process of social struggle and transformation—in other words, it is typical in the Marxian realist sense of “typicality.” Lung Chuan I is shown to be in the midst of a cultural war between new and old values: the “old” is visualized as quaint handcrafts, a primitive medicine man, and decrepit elders who oversee an outmoded, Confucian “family system.” This China, readers are instructed, lacked “the Western man’s drive to become the master of his environment,” which explains its crippling lack of technology (86). (p.170) Other captioned photos illustrate the “new” as a Chinese Christian pastor and his wife, an “able” Nationalist officer, smiling women who use Western medicine by weighing babies, and a government-sponsored reading room that connects the townspeople to a world outside their “Confucian morality.” A photo of an athletic club director holding a basketball is most striking, however. The text reads, “The educated Chinese shown at right with a basketball is actually a revolutionary apparition in China. … What he teaches, even more than physical exercise, is team effort, to a China now engaged in the greatest team effort in its history” (89). Whereas the pluralism of Snow and Buck conflated China and America, but in doing so at least assumed the spirit of resistance to come from the Chinese themselves, Life makes clear that the Chinese will to fight has been cultivated from the outside. It is not class warriors who make the Chinese fight so “un-Chinese-like,” but rather the agency of the West, embodied by the education of Madame Chiang, technology, the spirit of ambition, and last but not least, U.S. popular culture. The Chinese are embraceable, Life instructs its American readers, not because they are you, nor the noble agricultural heritage you have lost, but because exemplary American institutions have helped them lift themselves to your level.
But Life’s coverage of China and the Philippines also shows how its imaginary imperial project of cultural assimilation was never far from hard racism and the construction of absolute difference. Its representation of Filipinos serves as a case and point. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Filipinos were portrayed as embraceable, like the Chinese under Nationalist governance: as in the previous example, this was because of their willing acquiescence to Western cultural and military leadership. Appearing shortly after Roosevelt’s declaration of war, the photo-essay “We Shoot Down the First Japs” pictured Filipino troops, trained by General MacArthur, operating sophisticated radio equipment with a caption describing them as “bright, capable, willing soldiers” (30). A prominent photo atop the opposite page visualizes American tutelage even more clearly; it shows a white American woman carrying a Bible and marching at the head of a Filipino infantry unit. However, when the editors of Life did not deem the Philippines to be acquiescent to American leadership (or, did not give priority to the creation of sentimental bonds), their representation of Filipinos emphasized the very same racist stereotypes of tropical primitives Bulosan combated in his work. In its report from the colony on 13 February 1939, for example, it announced that American colonization had made its people “the luckiest in the Orient,” yet depicted them as so backward as to be unable to appreciate U.S. beneficence. Its two-page spread on the culture of the archipelago used the Igorot highlanders as the quintessential Filipinos, and its most prominent photo (p.171) presented a quite literal image of their partial assimilation: it exhibited a group of Igorots wearing Western shirts and hats, but completely naked from the waist down. The accompanying text stated that Filipinos “are still incredibly lazy and incompetent, spoiled and quarrelsome. Accustomed to nakedness, the Igorots, like those below, put on shirts and shoes when they come to town, but no trousers. For all the fond belief that the Filipinos have learned democratic ways, they will inevitably slide into dictatorship” (53). Like so many other peoples it deemed fundamentally deficient, Life saw no reason to include Filipinos in the American Century in 1939, nor to move its readers to a more positive view of them. A similar fate would befall the Chinese after the revolution of 1949.
Thus Life’s American Century reached beyond American borders to include some of those formerly held to be racial aliens, and took very tentative steps to highlight southern injustices against black Americans. But it was not guided by a consistent antiracist philosophy, nor did it generally put forth a relationship of equality between white Americans and “the darker races” at home and abroad. At its worst, Life perpetuated the hard racism within American culture; at its best, it exhorted its affluent white readers to recognize their agency, to lift themselves out from the crowd and embark on a global mission of capitalist uplift, one that sometimes brought them into imaginative contact with racial others whom they had been reared to view as threats.
The Dangerous Playground
Life and Fetishized Reading
The consumerist basis of Luce’s imagined global community—visually rendered by the Chinese athletic director holding a basketball—meant that the cultivation of consumer desire among readers of Life was fully in keeping with its political project. In its drive to generate a culture of consumption—and, more immediately, to remain viable as a profit-driven publication—the magazine and its advertisers turned to aesthetics other than realism. Realism was not the only means of bringing about the American Century within the pages of Life, while it was a powerful force within the photo-essays, it was not the only representational mode within the magazine. The photo-essays were only a part of Life—they were wedged between mazes of advertisements that grew more complex as the magazine aged. The overall layout defined the way in which the reader would experience the realism within the photo-essays; as a result, it cannot be conveniently bracketed off. When we examine other elements of the magazine, we find that the overall effect of Life can hardly be described as (p.172) realist, for juxtapositions between advertisement and photo-essay undermine the ideological coherence (necessary to realism) the essays work to create. Some of the advertisements, when viewed independently, do operate under a realist mode, as they tell stories of ordinary people with everyday problems, using a linear, frame-by-frame technique reminiscent of comics (sometimes the frames are even numbered to make the sequence abundantly clear), and they tell such stories with photographs to boot. Much more often, however, they are nowhere close to realism, and instead display an advertised object within a stylized setting using a single image, often a drawing—a classic instance of commodity fetishism. But whether creating linear narratives or not, the ads were generally in keeping with the hard-boiled advertising style of the 1930s, when copywriters rejected the elegant lines and colors of the 1920s in favor of a more ugly, blunt aesthetic (Marchand 300–306). This made the ads more seamlessly blend with the black-and-white, photograph-based layout of Life.
In a magazine reading experience familiar to the modern reader, one must navigate one’s way through a maze of advertisements in order to find the articles. In my investigation, the proportion of ad to article in the early days of the magazine hovered around 43 percent. For instance, of the ninety pages in Life’s 22 May 1939 edition, thirty-nine pages are composed of ads.14 Whereas the news articles are bracketed off relatively clearly, its lifestyle, culture, “women’s interest,” and curiosity articles are not. In these categories, photo-essays are juxtaposed with advertisements featuring photos, often on the same page, which has the effect of blurring the line between article and ad. Furthermore, Life’s innovations of the oversized photo and the photo-narrative are employed by both article and ad, making the line even less clear. A photo-essay about the movie star Joan Wanger in the 9 September 1940 issue, for instance, is juxtaposed by a facial soap ad providing a linear photo-narrative of a glamorous, feminine world much like that of the movie star herself. The woman in the ad resembles the actress in the article—both are brunettes with the exact same hairstyle, both have patrician features and wear luxurious clothing. Both article and ad are set in elite social worlds: the article tells us that the actress has a personal secretary and a daughter who attends the same school as Shirley Temple, and the ad relates through both captioning and photos that its protagonist attends fancy debutante balls. Further, both photo-essay and ad are laid out using the standard Life formula in which a large, prominent photo is followed by a series of smaller ones that tell a narrative. In this instance, ad and article reflect each other on the level of both form and content.
This scattered, discontinuous reading experience is not only a function of the overall layout in Life; it seeps into the photo-essays as well, undermining their realism. Though the essays use photographs in a series to create a narrative, seldom does this narrative attain anything resembling linearity. In the exposé of Louisiana politics, the photo of Earl Long that spans almost the entire first page establishes a kind of beginning by providing us with a villainous backdrop soon to be heroically transcended by the conservative opposition. But as one turns the page, all sense of beginning/middle/end is lost: the top and bottom of the two-page spread illustrate different aspects of the same event (the satirical parade), while the middle depicts simultaneous political bids against the same opponent. Similarly, in a two-page photo-essay in the 6 September 1937 issue covering the court battle between the C.I.O. and Weirton Steel, the layout does not lead us down a chronological path in which X happens, then Y, then Z; rather, it shows us simultaneous shots of the same event. An enlarged photo on page 1 shows us the courtroom from the perspective of the balcony, while a smaller photo underneath shows us the façade of the courtroom from the outside. Flipping the page, one sees a total of four pictures representing the inside of the courtroom: on top, a relatively large photo of the balcony shot from the perspective of the courtroom floor; in the middle, two smaller photos of the attorneys; and at bottom, a photo of the spectators on the floor level. Rather than choosing to represent various moments of the trial, the photo-essay provides us with different visual perspectives of what seems to be the same slice of time.
It is tempting to reach into the world of film and apply the label of “suturing” to Life’s storytelling mode. A practice already common among filmmakers in the 1940s, suturing creates a narrative by shooting roughly simultaneous fragments of the same event and splicing them together in a series (the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho stands as a famous example). The layout of Life is even more radical than this, for even though suturing works with seemingly disassociated fragments, it ultimately depends on linearity. In a film we see one shot follow the last, and the nature of moving pictures forces us to view them in the order the director desires. In the magazine, however, no one can tell us where to (p.175)
As a reading experience, simultaneity is not necessarily bad—poststructuralist critics have pointed out how the older, linear modes of reading produced (p.176) within realism can work to reproduce oppressive systems of thought, and how more synchronic, playful modes of reading and analysis can work to undo these oppressive systems.15 But the simultaneity within Life, unanchored by a discourse that could help us navigate a world with less hierarchy—and consequently without articulation along the lines of a genuinely emancipatory mode of desire—forms a dangerous playground, ultimately creating the disassociated, chaotic reading experience Stein describes. I would argue that it consequently works to create a fetishized mode of reading.
If we agree that a fetishized reading experience is one in which pleasure is attached to commodities, and in which the layout works against our attempts to imagine a world with less privilege and hierarchy, then Life certainly works to create such a reading experience. Advertisements relentlessly work to attach pleasure to commodities, which should come as no surprise. Not only was Life a for-profit part of Time Inc., but if one thinks back to Luce’s “American Century” essay, the building of global recognition for American consumer goods was tied to the political project of the magazine. And as I have argued, an anti–Popular Front ideology provided the larger organizational principle driving the quasi-realist photo-essays, one that imagined affluent white Americans as leaders of a new global order. Meanwhile, endless juxtaposition of these conservative photo-essays with advertisements creates a flow of information that works against any attempt by the reader to question the emerging capitalist culture. Hence Life works to push the explicit politics of Luce’s “American Century” using semirealist photo-essays, but the overall thrust of the magazine is to create a more subtle agenda of the American Century—consumerism—in a manner that undermines the realism used to convey its explicit politics. Viewing Life’s realism within the larger context of the magazine ultimately points to the fate of realism within the new mass culture Time Inc. was creating in the 1930s and 1940s. In the emerging mass-culture template designed by Luce and Life’s editors, realism was unable to continue serving the oppositional function it had often served in the past (more on this in a moment), and had severe limits placed on its ability to act as the emancipatory force desired by its proponents in the Popular Front.
Margaret Bourke-White, Life, and the History of Realist Journalism
I have attempted to describe in detail the representational strategies Life used to further the political intentions of its founder and to create a bulwark against the (p.177) Popular Front. But the question remains as to how these strategies got there. Of all the elements Life brings together, realism is the key to tracing the paradoxical presence of the Popular Front in the magazine. To reiterate a foundational assertion of this book, realism had been the form of choice for several generations of cultural producers who wished to uncover social contradictions, and in the 1930s, Popular Front writers and artists displayed a clear preference for the genre. The presence of trace elements of realism in Life’s pages would not be sufficient evidence of a Popular Front influence—earlier mass publications had employed the form as well, and Life arose from an earlier relationship between realism and journalism. The possibility of a Popular Front presence here rests on who was bringing realism through its door.
In the late nineteenth century, realism had a stronger foothold in journalism than in other areas of mass culture. Three transformations took place in and around American mass periodicals in that century’s last two decades that were relevant to the relationship between realism and journalism: the innovations of the Pulitzer press; the aforementioned magazine revolution of the 1890s; and the realist turn in still photography. Beginning in the 1880s, the innovations of the Pulitzer press were increasingly diffused throughout American newspapers, dramatically expanding the use of illustrations, advertisements, and even realism in journalism through what has been labeled “sensationalism.” Sensationalism, often held to be the use of emotionally laden and stimulating appeals in order to sell stories, had been around since the penny press of the 1830s and 1840s. The Pulitzer press revolutionized the style rather than the content of sensationalism by dramatically increasing the number of ads, increasing the type-sizes of headlines, and expanding the number of illustrations in order to achieve sensational effects. Realism would seem to be far removed from such publications, but according to Michael Schudson, the reigning ideal among journalists working at this time was a realist one. He suggests that reporters in the 1890s saw themselves as scientists discovering the facts of industrial life more “realistically” than anyone who had come before them, and notes that most of the famous turn-of-the-century realist authors wrote for newspapers, including Dreiser, Crane, Cather, London, Bierce, and Norris. Not only did they bring their styles into the pages of the newspapers, but their experience of working for newspapers helped define their fiction (70–71, 95–96). If this is the case, then the boundaries between literary and journalistic realism had always been somewhat blurred; each facilitated the emergence of the other.
The first magazine revolution also occurred at the turn of the century, when circulation figures increased so dramatically that magazines for the first time merited the label “mass.” These magazines published the stories of now canonical (p.178) realist authors, albeit to a relatively small middle-class audience, and did so as they changed in the 1890s from a genteel to a consumerist orientation. Christopher Wilson has argued that, even in their consumerist reincarnation, realism was fundamental to the form of turn-of-the-century middle-class magazines, and could be seen in their use of everyday, accessible language, their “practical” content, their attempt to convey authority and expertise, and through its editorial intervention between reader and content.16 Also at the turn of the century, a decisive realist trend developed within American photography, which was significant for periodicals in that they were using an ever increasing number of photographs. While the less politically inclined photographers of the turn of the century were drawn to pictorialism—an attempt to turn photography into a fine art, in part by eschewing everyday subjects—more socially conscious camera artists such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine emerged who were drawn to the realist mode. Riis and Hine were among the first in American photography to break with the deliberate artifice of portraiture and art photography, and they used their work to critique the public neglect of the nation’s underclass (however misguided Riis’s critiques could sometimes be). In the 1930s, Popular Front photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and—most important for my purposes here—Margaret Bourke-White drew upon this brief history of photo-realism with renewed attempts to make the nation’s forgotten subjects visible, reversing the 1920s tendency toward abstract modernism embodied by Edward Weston and Edward Steichen.
The newsmagazine as developed by Luce and the personnel at Time Inc. was a new form that built upon, deepened, and made more visible the long relationship between realism and journalism. I have argued that Life’s format was novel among its predecessors and competitors in that it brought together the increasing use of photographic images within journalism, the disconnected reading experience of an ad-driven publication, a content devoted predominately to news, and a partisan objectivity aligned against the Popular Front. I have also noted how Luce’s partisan objectivity, which in Life was grounded in the indexical quality of the photograph, was a kind of realist revolt against the emergent goal of objectivity within the profession of journalism. As such, its presence in the publications of Time Inc. meant that the new form of the newsmagazine was stamped with a significant aspect of realist epistemology. But this novel form was not exclusively the brainchild of Henry Luce. Others also developed and implemented the founding ideas of his news empire, and they transmitted into the magazines the aesthetic ideologies of the period in which they were grounded.
(p.179) Henry Luce maintained friendships with a number of individuals who did not share his politics, and it was no secret that he hired people with left and liberal sympathies at Time Inc. At least in part, his hiring decisions were driven by a practical impulse to capture the best creative talent available, and in the 1930s at least, much of that talent had aligned itself away from the established order. When asked why he employed “Reds” at his business magazine Fortune, he responded on a number of occasions with “damned Republicans can’t write” (qtd. in Herzstein, Portrait 80). Accepting the basic principle of collective bargaining and even endorsing the landmark Wagner Act, he was also tolerant enough to offer no major objections when his editors, writers, and researchers at Time Inc. organized through the A.F.L.-affiliated Newspaper Guild in 1936, though he voiced concerns about individual contract demands. (In general, Life’s coverage of labor disputes was not as anti-union as one might expect.) By 1939, there was a critical mass of actual communists at Time Inc., enough to publish their own anonymous broadside called High Time which thrashed the positions put forth by the Luce press. Luce’s tolerance did not extend this far, however, and after he hired a private detective to find the source of this dissident publication, it simply vanished after three issues (86–87).
Unlike at Fortune, however, the sympathies of trade unionists and communists at Life were prevented from consistently congealing into cohesive Popular Front narratives within the photo-essays. But significant elements of their aesthetic were incorporated into the magazine, particularly in its initial phases. And, at moments, they did win narrative control. While evidence of the political sympathies of most managing editors reveals little in the way of Popular Front sensibilities, it is clear that major figures in the early conceptualization and operation of the magazine were deeply steeped in the left social movements of the day. Left-liberal playwright and poet Archibald MacLeish helped write the famous prospectus in which Life’s use of photography was definitively theorized. Though the extent of his contributions are unknown, the prospectus was a product of collaborative writing between Luce and MacLeish; and while he was never employed on Life’s staff, the poet remained a friend of Luce, retaining a warm respect for him into his later years (Wainwright 32–33; Drabeck 122).
An even more foundational influence was Ralph Ingersoll, general manager of Time Inc. in the mid-1930s.Though a shrewd corporate manager, Ingersoll had clear Popular Front sympathies, as manifested by his staffing of Fortune with a talented left-liberal crew, a “curiosity” about communism that led to his membership in a communist reading group in the mid-1930s, and his later establishment of the decidedly Popular Front tabloid P.M. in 1940. Ingersoll (p.180) biographer Roy Hoopes persuasively argued that the idea for a “picture magazine” within the Luce press was hatched by Ingersoll. The left-leaning general manager pushed the idea of a photographic newsmagazine to Luce as early as 1934, and persisted so relentlessly that Luce finally gave in. Ingersoll was heavily involved in designing the layout as well. Office memos reveal that Ingersoll was largely responsible for the final decision on the size of the magazine and helped craft the layout formula. The layout of the famous first photo-essay in Life’s premiere edition in November 1936, which enthusiastically covered the New Deal public works project the Fort Peck Dam, was personally put together by Luce, Ingersoll, and MacLeish out of photos supplied by Margaret Bourke-White. This layout would serve as a rough blueprint of photo-essays to follow. Although Luce was managing editor of Life in its early days, Ingersoll’s position within Time Inc. gave him the power to choose editors of all sorts, and his proposed tree of managing directors was approved in 1937. His persistent appeals to Luce on behalf of the Spanish Loyalists even carved out a space for a Popular Front, antifascist position on the Spanish Civil War within the pages of Life (Hoopes 96–97, 136–40, 145, 148, 155; Goldberg 177; Herzstein 98).
But perhaps the most dramatic Popular Front influence at Life was photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who made a name for herself in the 1920s in advertising, shooting highly aestheticized pictures of heavy machinery. She underwent a major shift in her political consciousness in the mid-1930s, however, and soon was producing documentary photography for countless left-wing political groups. She was intimate friends with New Masses editor Joseph Freeman, made murals for the Soviet consulate, worked with the communist Film and Photo League, and actively promoted aid for refugees of the Spanish Civil War. Her political activities gave her the honor of being cited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities thirteen times (Goldberg 155, 157, 328). Bourke-White was hired at Life as one of the original four photographers on its staff, and saw her position in the new picture magazine as a continuation of her political activities. She wrote to a friend in 1936: “People don’t realize how serious conditions in this country are … The new job [at Life] will give me more opportunity to work with creative things like this … I am delighted to be able to turn my back on all advertising agencies and go on to life as it really is” (183).
Her enthusiasm for the political promise she saw in Life continued well past the first edition, and in her time on its staff she influenced Life’s photographic practice enormously. Her biographer Vicki Goldberg argues that Bourke-White effectively “set up the Life labs, practices, and standards” (185). She hired the magazine’s first film editor, Peggy Sargent, and taught her how to define a quality photograph. Sargent, in turn, was put in charge of editing all (p.181) the photographers’ film, which meant that any film shot by a Life staff member had to first pass her approval before being sent on to the layout editors. Bourke-White’s direct influence on the others on staff was recalled by Life photographer Carl Mydans: “her effect on all of us is incalculable. It was from her that I learned to workshop the quality of a photographic print” (qtd. in Goldberg 185). Her impact seemed to be acknowledged by her superiors as well, for she remarked in her autobiography that it always made her proud when editors referred to a photo-essay as “the Bourke-White kind of story” (Portrait 147). Bourke-White had become famous immediately preceding her employment at Life by the publication of You Have Seen Their Faces, a now classic work of photo-realism that marked a decisive shift away from the abstract modernism of her earlier advertising work, and she is generally known as one of the great social documentary photographers of the United States. One can conclude that all of those hours of training and teaching by example was showing her colleagues how to edit and shoot as realists.17
But what was the fate of Bourke-White’s brand of Popular Front realism within the pages of Life? To what extent was her desire to show “life as it really is” rewarded? I have already traced a definite move away from Popular Front sensibilities within the photo-essay template she established, so to reveal that Bourke-White eventually left the magazine in deep frustration should come as no surprise. Political and professional disillusionment over the promise of Life caught up with her by 1940, when she quit Time Inc. and began work at a new Popular Front tabloid, the New York–area P.M. A brief survey of her photo-essays within Life helps illustrate the roots of her frustration; in addition, a comparison of how a specific set of Bourke-White’s photos were edited within Life to their editing in a publication in which she had much more control—You Have Seen Their Faces—fully brings out the ways in which Life co-opted Popular Front journalistic realism.
Published in 1937, You Have Seen Their Faces (hereafter, Faces) was a collection of Bourke-White photographs depicting southern life, punctuated by narrative interludes of about five pages in length written by her then-husband Erskine Caldwell. The captions underneath her photos—all of which were fictionalized quotes from the people represented—were also written by Caldwell. The bulk of the photos were of destitute tenant farmers and farm workers, both black and white, and of the environments in which they lived. At moments the book replicates stock images of the region and its people; the second photo in the book, for instance, shows four African American men quietly reclining on a bench by a river above a caption that reads, “Just sitting in the sun watching the Mississippi go by.” Reminiscent of Caldwell’s novels, another photo shows an (p.182) old white man contentedly smoking his pipe from within a shanty that has only three walls. He appears to enjoy the view provided by the absent wall, and this is confirmed by a caption reading, “I spent ten months catching planks drifting down the river to build this house, and then the flood came along and washed the side of it off. Doggone if I don’t like it better the way it is now.”
Taken alone, these images would convey a stereotypical shiftlessness and comic fatalism; but they are juxtaposed with a much larger number of images that clearly contradict them. We are shown angry faces such as the close-up head shot of an African American man with a grim expression, shot at eye level, accompanied by a quote through which he relates his exploitation in the fields. We also see evidence of a strong work ethic, as in the head shot of an African American independent farm owner coupled with a quote revealing the relative affluence of his family’s “homestead.” The southern work ethic is also highlighted in the first photo of the book, which shows a white child pushing a plow alongside a caption stating he must work rather than go to school, since his father insists that the family do all the labor of the farm by themselves. It must be added that almost all of Bourke-White’s photos in the collection are shot either at eye level or from underneath the subject: the latter is a classic method of exalting the person photographed, and the former a way of creating empathy by putting the viewer on the same plane. Despite this unifying technique, no single image sticks as one flips the pages—the faces are alternately pitiful, proud, grotesque, angry, stunned—nor do the captions attached to these faces point to a single sentiment that unifies the exploited.
Taken together, the captioned images of the book suggest to the reader that, if one wants stereotypes when looking at the South, one can find them. But— much like W. E. B. Du Bois, who decried the view of the “car window sociologist” that saw only “shiftlessness” when looking at Black Belt tenant farmers—Faces reveals idleness or comic fatalism to be mere moments within a much larger, more complex reality of suffering, grueling labor, and exploitation (314). The text definitively announces on the first page that “Twice a year [the South] takes life easy. … The rest of the time it works harder than everybody else, chopping its cotton and sawing its wood from dawn to dusk.” The narrative interludes by Caldwell thread together the seemingly fragmentary images in order to link class and racial formation: they illustrate how the unholy merger of the sharecropping system and the southern racial order are the absent causes behind the various expressions represented in the photos. The people of the South have reacted to their condition, the reader is told, in ways both revolutionary and self-destructive, with both racism and righteous anger. The system is to be removed through both government intervention and the militant action of the sharecroppers themselves. (p.183) If the text makes one thing clear to the reader, it is that a storm is brewing among the oppressed, one that may wipe away the suffering on the faces you have seen. But the photographs by Bourke-White take the politics of the text a step further to reveal a tension within Faces. They depict women as often as men, supporting Paula Rabinowitz’s argument that Bourke-White, despite her class difference and the problematic means by which she sometimes obtained her photos, at least made the suffering of poor women visible (Represented 73–74). The text, on the other hand, consistently examines the problems of the South from the perspective of the male household head, obscuring the visibility of working women within the master narrative that ties the work together.
But in its re-editing of Faces, Life elided the gendered nature of working-class suffering by avoiding suffering altogether. The editors of Life constructed a photo-essay out of these same photographs and captions for the 22 November 1937 issue, but with a very different effect. Photos and text from Faces were excerpted and arranged in a five-page spread that distinctly recast their meaning in the Life magazine style. The first page is dominated by a single Bourke-White photo showing a poor woman and her child sitting among the massive columns of a ruined plantation house, suggesting a southern gothic narrative to follow. Instead, what comes after is a series of photos and captions representing the southern poor as comic or irrational simpletons. The main text block announces that of the two motifs animating Faces—bitter exploitation and “strange sardonic humor”—Life has decided to reproduce the latter, as the misery of the sharecroppers has already become “tiresomely familiar to the U.S. public.” Consequently, the excerpted photos depict what the editors describe as “the sharecroppers’ peculiar fatalism and bitter laughter.” A photo showing two men picking a guitar in a shanty is accompanied by a caption reading, “It never felt like Sunday until I plucked the guitar some.” Beneath this is the photo and text described earlier of the man enjoying the view from within his three-walled home. Turning the page, one sees a full spread depicting a very emotive, backwoods religious ceremony in a tiny wooden church with singing and dancing. The caption underneath one of these images reads, “Religion, Mr. Caldwell finds, is to the sharecroppers a ‘release and escape’ from drudgery, often takes [sic] the form of hysteria” (in actuality, Caldwell presented their religious faith not as pathology, but as an understandable choice that anyone in a culture without usable political discourses would make).18 Comic primitivism develops into its close cousin minstrelsy on the final page, which shows an old African American woman cooking something in the fireplace of another decrepit house, with a caption reading, “What my menfolks have a powerful gnawing for right now is a slab of sowbelly to eat with this cornbread.” (p.184)
(p.185) A number of contrasts stand out between this article and the collaborative book from which they were taken. First, absent Caldwell and Bourke-White’s juxtaposition of these images with more numerous figurations of social conflict and anger, the lives of the subjects become local-color entertainment for a middle-class readership. The presentation of white tenant farmers is not dissimilar from that of Snuffy Smith in Barney Google, a popular comic strip in circulation since 1934. And the image of the African American woman presented on the final page creates an association between African American women and “home-style” cooking consistent with the advertisements of the magazine. The lives of the subjects, in other words, are reformatted to be amenable to consumption. Second, whereas Faces often attempts to bridge the distance between viewer and subject by shooting the faces from close range, and many times with the subject looking directly into the camera, the effect of the Life issue is to create distance. Not a single one of the Bourke-White photos selected by the editors of Life features rural southerners looking directly into the camera, nor do any of the images contain faces in close-up. What we find in the Life article, to the contrary, is a set of subjects fundamentally othered, whose “hysteria” marks them not only as comical but as potentially susceptible to totalitarian ideologies. Like many of their brethren abroad, they cannot be true citizens of the American Century. The same issue features a piece on fascism in Brazil, which not only conflates Roosevelt with the fascist Brazilian president Vargas, but also represents the Brazilian people as unfit for resistance. It shows a poor man sleeping atop sacks of coffee beans under the shade of an umbrella, with the caption “Taking It Lying Down.”19
Finally, on the level of form, Faces is based on linearity, as there is only one photograph per page that the reader must digest before proceeding to the next. The bulk of the Life article, however, presents the readers with a collage of multiple images per page, creating the fragmented reading experience described earlier in this investigation. Also, Faces foregrounds its fictional quality. The opening passage of the book reads: “The legends under the pictures are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons.” The Life article, however, stays consistent with the magazine’s practice of exhibiting its photo subjects as found objects. Nowhere does it clearly state that the captions are fictionalized, and its editors add an original caption underneath one of the religious revival photos stating, “Dancing such as this is a common form of worship.” It is not enough that we are to see the culture of the rural South as entertaining and consumable; we are also not to question the referentiality of the images that convey this presumably self-evident viewpoint.
(p.186) Some of Bourke-White’s very early pieces for Life are linear narratives that exhibit the Popular Front politics of her work in Faces. This can be seen in the editing and captioning of a photo-essay on the “Common Steel Worker,” which appeared on 15 March 1937. Mirroring the form of Faces, the photo-essay begins with a single close-up shot of the smiling face of Andy Lopata (the title character) enlarged to take up almost the entire page. The editing constructs a chronological, visually simple story of Andy Lopata as he wakes up in the morning, walks to work, and comes home exhausted. His wife appears in almost every photo—preparing his meals, helping him rinse off in the backyard, seeing him off—which establishes her role in the reproduction of his labor. He and his wife are identified as “Slavic.” Both text and photos place his life in a concentric ring of larger and larger contexts—from his simple (positive) image, to his daily routine, to the local labor politics that have affected this routine, to the national politics of labor-management relations. Rather than a Popular Front praise of union power, the piece is a tribute to responsible labor-management cooperation: it instructs that the organizing of the C.I.O. as well as the “far-sighted statesmanship of steel tycoons” have improved Andy’s life. Nevertheless, in its praise of the C.I.O., its linear form, its placement of the ordinary individual in social context, and its positive image of a probationarily white worker and his wife as emblematic Americans, the piece comes rather close to many Popular Front realist representations.
Her early work for Life’s pieces on Muncie, Indiana (10 May 1937), and Jersey City’s despotic Mayor Frank Hague (7 February 1938) also remained relatively close to the politics and form of Faces. By 1939, however, the editing of her work for Life reflected the consumption-oriented editing that was coming to mark the magazine’s photo-essay format as a whole. The earlier co-optation of her work in Life’s 1937 piece on the rural South was now consistent. In addition, she was given less serious sociological topics and apolitical fluff assignments such as “Aerosol Makes Even Ducks Sink” (27 February 1939) and “Life Cycle of the Praying Mantis” (21 August 1939). But those knowledgeable of her work can still detect a coded critique in her photographs even in this final phase of her employment at Time Inc. This can be seen in a laudatory piece on A.T.&T. in July 1939 that used her photos. The article defended the “fair, benevolent, and public-minded” telecommunications company from meddlesome New Deal attempts to castigate and regulate it. The text states that “people run its machines,” not “robot” equipment, and that most of its workforce is composed of young women. A girl hired by A.T.&T., notes the writer, must not be “more than 10 percent lighter or heavier than normal weight for her height and age” (“Telephone” 61). A reader familiar with the context of Bourke-White’s work, (p.187) however, might recognize her attempt to visually undermine the idea that such practices are “benevolent.” The only image of the young female employees that actually shows their faces depicts them as grim and emotionless, undermining the text’s claim that the company is not run by robots. In the other images of the women, shot from behind and above their heads, they appear small among mazes of wires and office directories, a classic photographic means of emphasizing alienation. And her close-up shots of telephone equipment stand in contrast to the modernist industrial photography of her pre-political period, which de-familiarized industrial sites to make them appear futuristically beautiful. Accompanied by text explaining how the telephone is a “marvelous mechanical instrument,” these close-ups instead render the machinery as a bewildering, ugly, and sometimes even dirty labyrinth of wires and gadgetry. Most Life readers were not familiar with Bourke-White’s oeuvre; thus, while dimly perceptible, her attempt to make the alienation of working women visible here, as in the Popular Front Faces, stands as a message in a bottle.
I have argued that Life put in motion a conservative bid for hegemony at a moment of history when the left was making deep inroads into American common sense, and that these leftist inroads made their way into the form of even this anti–Popular Front magazine. Life put forward its way of seeing using realist photo-essays lost within a confusing maze of advertisements, and its ad-heavy layout undermined even the attempt of its pro-business brand of realism to construct a coherent and transparent portrait of the world. Its incorporation of oppositional forms could also be seen, in many ways, as reflective of the political syntheses of its founder. The particular conservatism of Luce—based on an unevenly inclusive form of transnationalism—was a new ideological amalgam (which very likely grew out of conversations with his many Popular Front friends and associates) combining the left’s politics of international integration with the culture of consumption.
Life was indeed a magazine, and as such, it boasted of its circulation figures within a medium that had the smallest audience of all mass media. Even when figuring in pass-along rates the reach of newspapers, radio, films, and, later, television went much further than that of magazines (Baughman, “Who Read” 43). That said, however, the novel blend of representational practices Life brought together carried great weight well past World War II. Its high circulation figures made it one of the main sources of visual news for mass audiences well into the postwar years. It is tempting to conclude from this, and from the death of the New York left’s great picture tabloid P.M. in 1948, that conservative forces simply hijacked Popular Front aesthetics and used them to dominate the world. (p.188) In this reading, Popular Front modes of vision merely linger on as ghosts in the machine through decades marked by McCarthyism and consumer euphoria.
But it is too easy to close the matter here. A brief reflection on Look magazine, Life’s copycat that began publication in 1938, casts a whole new light on the evaluation of Life and its epistemology in the postwar world. The layouts of Look’s photo-essays were very similar to those of its progenitor (albeit with a bit more linearity) and, like Luce’s publication, advertisements were inescapable within its pages. But one primary difference stands out: a decidedly liberal, pro–New Deal stance in Look from its very inception, which translated into more unqualified support of the civil rights movement in the years to follow. “Prizefights, Pugs, and Profits,” its concise articulation of the Popular Front boxing narrative outlined in chapter 2, illustrates the nearness of the magazine to that social movement in sensibility. While Look’s circulation figures trailed far behind those of Life in the 1930s and 1940s, they began a steady rise in 1948 and by 1960 were beginning to match those of Life (Leonard 16). The existence of Look and its later success raises the question as to whether there was anything innately “reactionary” about the elements brought together in Life. After the war Life also moved closer to the anti-racism of the Popular Front, particularly in regard to African Americans. It published the “Joe Louis Story” in a two-part series in November 1948, in which it granted the prizefighter a space to describe his struggles against Jim Crow. Gordon Parks, hired that same year, would also struggle to present a complex portrait of black life in America from an African American position within the magazine; over the years he would experience a cycle of narrative control and narrative perversion that in many ways echoed that of Margaret Bourke-White. Significantly, the photo-essays that most reflected his politics followed a more linear narrative akin to realism, marking the survival of “the Bourke-White kind of essay” into the postwar years of Life.20 Like mass-mediated, Popular Front realism in general, the new visual form pioneered in the U.S. by Luce, Bourke-White, and others became a terrain upon which multiple ideologies vied to establish their own ways of seeing. Also like other Popular Front realisms, the picture magazine retained the signature of its oppositional origins. The American Century had indeed begun, but its shape and implications were something ultimately beyond Henry Luce’s control.
A detailed examination of the overall postwar fate of Popular Front mass-mediated realism is admittedly beyond the scope of this project. In this book, I have suggested that the realist forms advocated by the movement and reformatted for mass culture are still ubiquitous, though their political legacy has been uneven. The relevance of this body of work can be more definitively articulated here by putting aside, for a moment, the sociopolitical and aesthetic landscape (p.189) of the second half of the twentieth century and turning instead to the cultural archeology of Walter Benjamin. In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin viewed consumer culture as constituting a dream world, and he held that the goal of any emancipatory project was to free mass-culture artifacts from the spell of capitalism, rescuing their power of enchantment for the purposes of social awakening. One way to do this was to critically examine them when they became ruins—that is to say, when their novelty in the marketplace had faded, revealing the unfulfilled promises they embodied. Despite their oppositional politics, the novels of Erskine Caldwell, Carlos Bulosan, Richard Wright, and Nelson Algren; the Hollywood adaptations of the work of Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets; the visual innovations of Margaret Bourke-White in photo-journalism; and the creative work of so many others in the Popular Front nonetheless were commodities. But as commodities circulating in U.S. mass culture, they helped their audiences awaken, luring them into a dream that began to question some of the oppressive structures in their everyday lives. Following Benjamin once again, perhaps the most ascertainable legacy of this Popular Front cultural work, and the core of its didactic value today, lies in its legibility as ruins, and in our ability to unearth the potential that its fusion of realism, mass-culture modes, and progressive politics reveals.
(1) . For a few examples, see “Some Like It Here” and “You and the Next Administration,” Collier’s, 12 August 1939; “The Court is Now His,” by Wendell Willkie, Saturday Evening Post, 9 March 1940; review of film “The Grapes of Wrath,” Time, 29 January 1940; “Let Me Call You Comrade,” Collier’s, 10 February 1940; and “How About Taxing the TVA?” Collier’s, 27 January 1940.
(2) . In an article clearly supportive of Roosevelt’s Republican challenger Wendell Willkie, Life joyfully reported figures from Editor and Publisher showing that far more papers backed Republican presidential candidates than F.D.R. in 1936 and 1940 (30 September 1940, 84). However, there were left and liberal reporters on the staff of papers with conservative editorial boards, struggling to and sometimes succeeding in airing their views. That deep divisions between publishers and staff existed in newspapers is evidenced by the organization of the American Newspaper Guild in 1933, which met with vehement opposition from newspaper publishers. See Charles Dale, “An Integral Part of Journalism: the Newspaper Guild.” With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist. Ed. Walter Brasch (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 3.
(3) . The three main book-length studies of Life today are Loudon Wainwright, The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life (1986), Wendy Kozol, Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism (1994), and the more recent collection of essays Looking at Life Magazine, ed. Erica Doss (2001). James Baughman’s Henry Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (1987) also provides essential, behind-the-scenes information about the operations of the Luce empire, without which this study would be nearly impossible. See also Aden Hayes, “The Spanish Civil War in Life Magazine.” The Spanish Civil War and the Visual Arts. Ed. Kathleen Vernon (Ithaca, NY: Center for International Studies, 1990), and Robert Herzstein, Henry Luce, a Political Portrait (1994).
(p.210) (4) . In addition to Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, examples include James Cronin, The World the Cold War Made: Order, Chaos, and the Return of History (New York: Routledge, 1996); Nikhil Pal Singh, “Culture/Wars: Recoding Empire in an Age of Democracy.” American Quarterly 50 (1998): 471–522; and Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
(5) . American writers on the left at mid-century inherited a strand of thought from the earlier Soviet Proletkult movement, which peaked in influence between 1917 and 1920. The Proletkult called on proletarian writers to tell their own stories, to reveal authentic, revolutionary working-class life through their subjective experiences. Mike Gold continued this trend in 1930, when he admonished proletarians to “write with the courage of our own experience” (“Proletarian Realism” 207). The Proletkult was formally dissolved in 1932, but the subjective tendency never quite died in the U.S., taking on a life of its own in a number of proletarian autobiographies narrated in a first-person, realist mode, including Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth (1929), Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited (1933), Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946), as well as others written in a modernist vein, including those by Tillie Olsen, Meridel LeSueur, and by Mike Gold himself.
(6) . For examples of self-referentiality in P.M., see “How Hitler Deceives His People—A Picture Analysis,” P.M., 22 September 1940, 35–38; and “Camera Reveals How Campaigning Has Altered Willkie’s Personality,” P.M., 22 October 1940, 47–49.
(7) . See “Speaking of Pictures … LIFE Looks Back 5 Years to See How its 1st Big Story Has Changed.” 1 December 1941: 10–11. It should also be noted that Henry Luce even condemned Roosevelt’s leadership right after Pearl Harbor in his editorial “Day of Wrath” (22 December 1941: 10–11). Life also embraced F.D.R.’s Republican opponents in the 1940 and 1944 presidential elections.
(8) . To illustrate, in elections, the Digest simply reports basic or flattering information about each contender as if the candidates themselves wrote them, and such courtesy is even extended to the Socialist candidate (7 July 1900, p. 8). But in covering subjects not marked by the authors as “contested,” such as British imperialism in China, it takes a clear position by assuming the righteousness of the British presence (21 July 1900, p. 81). Further, news articles in the Digest are composed largely of a series of quotes strung together from newspapers around the world, which, when added together, generally form a rough consensus on what “actually happened.” The individual quotes appear subjective and local, but when added together by the invisible editorial hand of the Digest, they appear as fact. In other words, while the quotes are traceable to a definite authorial source, the Digest itself appears as unauthored discourse in its purest form. Its practices, incidentally, stay consistent from the turn of the century up until the late 1920s.
(9) . Some examples of the “found object” quality of Life captions include “The people of Mexico sell to the people of the United States things like these,” 14 March 1938, 41; “These are Modern Tintypers,” 20 September 1937, 17; “Here are pictures …” 11 April 1938, 5; “This is a picture of a courtroom scene,” 6 September 1937, 19.
(10) . For an example, see “Lily Pons Sings Before Record-Breaking Crowd of 175,000 in Chicago.” 13 September 1937: 28–29. The writer tells us that the singer “hates bread (p.211) [and] fills up on potatoes. She once owned a pet jaguar. Her favorite number is 13 and her car license is LP 13.”
(11) . See the editorial by Luce entitled “Negro Rights,” 24 April 1944, 32. See also “Robeson in Moscow,” 11 January 1937, 49; “Slave-Born Negro Scientist is Honored in Alabama,” 22 March 1937, 37–38.
(12) . See “Out of the Deep South: A Lynching, Oil and Feathers, The Ku Klux Klan and Mr. Justice Black,” 23 August 1937, 30–33; “Scottsboro Boys Once More on Trial,” 19 July 1937, 29–31.
(13) . My claims here are drawn from a number of secondary sources as well as my comprehensive research on Life from 1937 to 1945. For Life and the Chinese, see Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, Time, and the American Crusade in Asia (2005), and Kelly Ann Long, “Friend or Foe: Life’s Wartime Images of the Chinese” in Looking at Life Magazine (2001). For representational patterns vis-à-vis the Japanese and the U.S.S.R., see Herzstein, American Crusade (38, 42, 44). For the struggle over anti-Semitic representation within Time Inc., see Herzstein, Henry Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century (1994), chapter 8. For an example of British support and Arab vilification, see “Emir Abdullah: the Smart Little Arab Ruler of Trans-Jordan is No. 1 British Pawn in the Middle East,” 1 December 1941, 67–70.
(14) . I found no definite increase or decrease in this pattern between 1936 and 1941. The 5 April 1937 issue featured thirty-seven pages of ads out of a total of eighty-six pages (43 percent ads); 22 May 1939 contained thirty-nine pages of advertisements out of ninety (43 percent), and in the 23 June 1941 issue, forty out of ninety-four pages consisted of ads (42 percent).
(15) . Examples of the poststructuralist critique of realism include Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), and Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (New York: Methuen, 1980).
(16) . Christopher Wilson, “The Rhetoric of Consumption: Mass Market Magazines and the Demise of the Genteel Reader, 1880–1920.” The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980. Ed. T. J. Jackson Lears and Richard Fox Wightman (New York: Pantheon, 1983). Richard Ohmann provides the most comprehensive look to date at the magazine revolution in his Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (London: Verso, 1996).
(17) . This is not to say that Bourke-White turned her back on modernism entirely. For instance, in some of her work for Life’s first photo-essay on the Fort Peck Dam in 1936, she defamiliarized and glorified the construction project with images that broke it down into its elemental lines and shapes, reminiscent of modernist design. And this chapter will reference a few more examples of her continuing modernism for Life. But the vast majority of her 1930s photographs bear more in common with American realism than they do the various strands of mid-century modernism.
(18) . Within a culture that does not offer any viable political choices, Caldwell writes: “religion fits his needs and fulfills his desires. Usually he is a man, who, under other circumstances, might have found religion a comforting thought, but not a panacea” (39). You or I would be dancing before the altar, too, he suggests, were it not for our relatively privileged lives.
(19) . “The Camera Overseas: Brazil Presents the Bogey of Fascism to the Americas,” 22 November 1937, 98–99.
(p.212) (20) . See “Harlem Gang Leader.” 1 November 1948, 44. Particularly in his early career (which began in the F.S.A.), Gordon Parks can also be considered a realist. He told Ebony that his job was to report “the ugly and the beautiful,” and “to report accurately the truth as he sees it” (qtd. in Doss 227). He shared the general epistemological tenets of partisan objectivity by stating a desire to both fight for racial justice and be “objective.”