Thursday, December 1, 2011

America in Pictures: The photojournalism of Life magazine

 Via BBC

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Rankin Rankin | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

I have always been a big fan of Life magazine.

For decades, Life was arguably the most important magazine in America.
It led the way with photojournalism, which had had a profound impact on the printed depiction of American society.

Rankin: photographer and presenter of America In Pictures
An American institution, the peaks and troughs of the magazine reflected the rises and falls of the country.

Only when television and celebrity culture took full force did Life finally depart for good.

Filming America in Pictures for BBC Four was a fantastic experience.

Meeting five of Life's photographers was incredibly inspiring, especially Bill Eppridge.
I was struck by his photographs - in particular, of Senator Robert F Kennedy's assassination.

We both choked up as he described the scene: the busboy who went from shaking Kennedy's hand to cradling his head as he was dying in his arms. It was very moving.

I also worked with one of my favourite directors, Jack Cocker, as part of this documentary.
Great at directing film... I wish I could say the same of his sense of direction!

Driving the crew home one rainy evening from a clam bake, he managed to get us completely lost. We eventually arrived home at 2am, with a 6am call time the next day.

Some of the photographers who worked on the magazine were, and still are, the most influential in the world.

Heroes to many, and certainly to me, they captured the most significant moments in American history, each in their individual style.

Of all the Life photographers, I was most influenced by W Eugene Smith.

In the autumn of 1986, I went to see his exhibition at the Barbican.

I was so awed by the show that, before starting my career in publishing, I had my heart set on being a documentary photographer.

W Eugene Smith has been referred to as the originator of the photographic essay, and you'll see in the programme that like many Life photographers, he would spend weeks immersing himself in the lifestyles of his subjects.

This wasn't reportage from the outside looking in, but straight from the inside, raw and beautifully intense, showing how individual lives created the patchwork of American society.
Working in the field, the Life photographers were repeatedly put in danger, and exposed to instances of life and death.

Hungry for - and committed to - truth, they prioritised the image over salary and personal safety.
Would I react the same way in those situations?

As a portrait and fashion photographer, the biggest hazard I face is changing light bulbs in my studio!

Those photographers would go to any length to get the shot, taking advantage of literally any opportunities they could.

Although the Life photographers loved and respected the magazine, they were not afraid to assert their beliefs and artistic vision, even if it meant going against the editors' wishes.

In fact, this rebellious behaviour gave the magazine its identity, truth and diversity of opinion. I really identify with this.

Photographers don't seem to have the same artistic free reign these days, and looking at the work of Life, that seems a shame.

Rankin is the presenter of America In Pictures.
America In Pictures is on Thursday, 1 December at 9pm on BBC Four.
For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Related: America in Pictures: the Story of Life Magazine, BBC Four, vidoe preview

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