Pictures from an Institution
HEROIC AND USEFUL EFFORTS have clearly been made to put all these pictures into cohesive categories. The Table of Contents lists such topics as The Black Cause, The Soldiers, The Animals, The People, The Faddists, The Leaders, etc. Happily, in by far the largest grouping, the editors simply threw up their hands and called it The Moment Preserved. That, really, is what this collection of 700 great pictures from LIFE is all about. Readers, leafers-through, photography fans born and unborn, future historians, unabashed lovers of LIFE, nearly everybody's children, in fact nearly everybody, can sample one vast, extraordinary, accordion-pleated Miscellany spread.
Chronologically, the images stretch from the first page of the first story in the first issue—a Saturday night in Fort Peck, Mont., in 1936, where WPA workers are whooping it up at a local saloon—to a recent moment when Dick Cavett made fun of TV talk shows by interviewing Louis, his own poodle. The book embraces one Depression, five wars, five Presidents, and that picture of Rita Hayworth in a black-bodiced, white satin nightgown. Fiorello La Guardia appears, blowing smoke rings with bemused insouciance. So does Nikita Khrushchev, shaking his fist in the face of the U.N., and a dowager named Betty Henderson, hoisting a varicose-veined calf onto a table to celebrate the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in 1947.
Much has been written about the individual still photograph: how it delights the eye, engages the mind, and encourages the imagination to brood upon it. All true enough, as this book sometimes demonstrates. Not enough has been written about the cumulative effect of images, arranged for artful purposes, as in the great innovative LIFE picture essays like W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor" and "Spanish Village," Leonard McCombe's "Cowboy," and Mark Kauffman's mock-heroic epic of a Marine drill instructor going about his martial business.
Inevitably, working at the difficult task of choosing a little bit of everything from 1,864 issues of the magazine, the editors of The Best of LIFE have offered only a sampling from such candid-picture stories. The few they did include are, like the book itself, tantalizing reminders, perhaps of the need for another book, surely of the loss suffered when LIFE closed down.