The LIFE Photographers: What They Saw

Book Review
Timothy Foote
October 4, 2010


The LIFE Photographers
What They Saw

John Loengard, Ed
456 pp. Bullfinch Press, Boston. $35.00


Kneeling in a shadowy passageway to the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel
In the city of Los Angeles in 1968, photographer Harry Benson remembers
Thinking “Don’t fail now. This is for history.”

 Close in front of him Robert Kennedy lay dying, with his wife kneeling by him saying “I’m with you.”  Benson did not fail, but it happened that just a moment before, LIFE photographer Bill Eppridge, after a heartbeat’s pause during which he found it hard to bring himself to snap the shutter, had photographed the dying senator, producing a picture that speaks both to history and to the heart.

 Eppridge and Benson were working near the very end of the more than three decades in which the success of LIFE magazine photographers transformed both photography and journalism. As Henry Luce’s famous prospectus promised, for millions of Americans the magazine became a way “ To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows n the jungle and on the moon…”

 LIFE started in 1936. For many readers it remains the most immediate and indelible record of the Great Depression, World War II, the fight in Korea, the; postwar boom, including babies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of a President and his brother, the rise and fall of what was briefly known as the American Century.

 To create What They Saw John Loengard interviewed 44 of the staff photographers who for nearly forty years captured the world for LIFE in pictures. An acerb, apocryphal view of the fanatic professionalism of photographers involves a story about Alfred Eisenstaedt, who reported meeting ragged, starving tram in the park. “Gee, Eisie,” a colleague asked, “What did you give him?” “F-11 at a 60th,” Eisenstaedt replied. “It was hazy overcast.” These are splendid and revealing interviews, largely untechnical, candid, disarming at times eloquent, full of gossip, war (and peace) stories and anecdotes about how each one came to LIFE, their relations with Picture Editor Wilson Hicks, a minor villain throughout. There is some inevitable name dropping of the great and near great they photographed, from Hitler, Goebbels, Churchill, Stalin and FDR to Sophia Loren who posed diaphanously clad for an Eisenstaedt cover portrait because, she said” he reminds me of my obstetrician.” 

 Predictable, and happily, there is a good deal about how they got—or didn’t get—a famous picture.   Appropriately enough, LIFE editors and reporters, with their pesky picture scripts, get short shrift

  LIFE magazine’s pictorial archive has been repackaged several times. But the hundreds of photographs in the book, presented in the context of each photographer’s life, take on a new immediacy and intimacy, like a family’s summer snapshots revisited in winter. Arty books about photography are thick on the ground, but there has never been a book about  working photographers to match this one, and never will be again. Half of LIFE’s 88 staff photographers, Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa among them, had been subtracted from the world before Loengard began his interviews. Just since 1993, when he did the last one, 14 of the 44 in the book have gone  over the edge of history.

 Only a few of the 44 were formally trained to the lens—most notably included in this book John Florea, John Dominis and Mark Kauffman who graduated from the celebrated photography class of Clarence Bach at the Fremont High School in south Central Los Angeles. Many were refugees from the Europe of the 1930s. One, Andreas Feininger, was an established architect in Germany. George Silk, a 19-year-old New Zealander barely off the farm, was hired in 1942 by Wilson Hicks on the basis of just two pictures. Loomis Dean began doing publicity pictures for a circus. Dmitri Kessel had been a cavalryman in the Red Army.  Alfred Eisenstaedt, the most famous, began his professional life as a (very bad) and vastly bored button salesman who chanced to get a small camera. “ I did not know that you get paid for pictures,” he says.
 Watching for the first time as cloudy images emerged and sharpened while black and white film was being developed, many were hooked by the creative, almost magic possibilities of photography. And many had world-class technical skills. Some, like Feininger, worked at perfecting long lenses or, like Kauffmanamn, multiple-exposure cameras. What they all shared was an eye for pictures, and almost breathtaking amounts of energy and ingenuity in getting them. With no time to reshoot a picture if they missed it, and no way to control the torrential flow of events, for more than three decades, frame after frame, roll after roll, story after story, they managed to lay hands on the world—for pay, for ambition or to simply bear witness.

  Overseas, as this book shows, the world included The Battle of Britain, the convoy war against U-boats, Yalta, the signing of the peace at Compiegne and on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo harbor. At home it included the Army-McCarthy hearings, the astronaut moon program and, most enduring, the years of struggle over school integration. Photographer Joe Scherschel, working in Texarkana, Texas in 1956 recalls and angry mob yelling “Get the guy from the nigger loving magazine.” He became adept at fooling angry crowds by taking an unused roll out of another camera, ostentatiously exposing it and handing it over, remarking, “You can have my film, but I don’t want somebody else selling my pictures.”

  There was plenty of adventure. In 1941 David Scherman set forth on a typically ambitious wartime assignment for LIFE, from Recife, Brazil by ship to Capetown; a story on the Capetown to Cairo railroad, followed finally by a report on the British Eighth Army in its desert war against Rommel. A few days out his passenger liner was sunk by the German surface raider S.S. Atlantis. The Germans took the passengers board and kept them for months, but Scherman’s film, stuffed into a toothpaste tube and hidden in a bandage was eventually smuggled ashore by a doctor .It made it home and was used in LIFE. Scherman’s photograph of the Atlantis, distributed throughout the allied navies, helped them identify and sink the German raider. Years later the German captain of the Atlantis said his ship had been “sunk by David E. Scherman of LIFE magazine.”
 In the later 1950s when LIFE and Time journalists still for forbidden to work in Moscow, Howard Sochurek arranged to import 100 Russian lenses into the U.S. and so got into the USSR on a business visa. He eventually lost $ 4000.00 on the lenses, but was able to photograph the famous slanging match between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the model of an” American Middle Class Kitchen.” To smuggle the film out of the country he went to the men’s room of the Moscow airport, sidled up to an (obviously) American passenger whose baggage would not normally be searched, and convinced him to take it to Paris where, Sochurek promised, photographer Loomis Dean would meet him. Dean did that. The pictures got to New York. The stranger kept insisting that Dean provide him with feminine companionship.

  The success of LIFE went beyond news to create long picture essays that became a memorable way of recording and commenting on American manners and morals. It is the great  virtue of the still photograph that they can appeal simultaneously to almost all levels of education, intelligence and imagination, and can be looked at carefully and relished at leisure. When television turned much of journalism into entertainment, the kinds of stories that LIFE used to run disappeared form the magazine world. The space was gone, and so were the money and time often needed to do them. John Dominis, for instance, had been given three months to do a story on Great Cats of Africa, including a famous picture of an angry baboon briefly standing up to a leopard. Bill Eppridge was able to spend weeks winning the confidence of a couple caught in the coils of heroin addiction; they ended by letting him photograph the grimmest aspects of their personal tragedy for an essay entitled “Panic at Needle Park.”

  When a photographer is taking a picture of people, Loengard notes, he is always asked what he wants them to do. “Those are the most frightening words in the English language,” he admits. “I want to say ‘Please, go over into a good light and do something interesting’.” Inevitably LIFE assignments tended to involve the artistic convention that the presence of a photographer does not significantly change the reality of the story. The photographers interviewed think this is true, or at least true enough, and most obviously prefer “candid” pictures. “You don’t have to pose things when they’re happening,” says Ralph Morse, describing an intimate portrait he took of astronaut Scott Carpenter and his wife talking about Scott’s chances of coming back from orbit.

 However, they all used varying degrees of enhancement of real situations, including faithful reenactment. One of the very best political pictures in the book is an example. It shows Republican Speaker of the House Joe Martin and his partisans awaiting election returns in 1946 and was shot by Allan Grant through the window of Martin’s newspaper, the North Attleboro, Massachusetts Evening  Chronicle. Grant saw the scene through the window, went in, put up a few lights, told Martin and everyone else to go ahead as thy were, then went back outside, waited for the picture and took it. "Fortunately my father was an electrician” says Grant. How real the picture is readers may judge for themselves.

  The large-scale arrangement of symbolic “point pictures" for some LIFE stories became legendary. Among them a post-war picture essay on how much work an American housewife does in a year which involved having all 4254 beds, she made and all the thousands of dishes she washed laid out on the street in front of her house. A striking, and quite different “set up” picture was Loomis Dean’s portrait of Noel Coward, done in 1954 when Coward was playing in Las Vegas. Dean photographed him wearing the tuxedo and carrying the elegant cigarette holder he used in his act, but (mad dogs and Englishmen!) out in the desert in 120 degree heat. Coward loved it. “Splendid! Splendid!” he said. What an idea! If only we had a piano.”

  Loengard, himself a late vintage LIFE photographer and picture editor, is skillful and low key as a questioner. But three set-piece queries that he tends to pose when the conversation lags get varying results. The loaded question “Is photography art?” rarely helps. Neither does the second, “What is your most American picture?” except in the case of Nina Leen who, as an escapee from Europe, did an essay on the distinctive “look: of American women circa 1945.  “For me,” she said, “America wasn’t usual.”

 When combat memories bring on the third question (“Is it worth getting killed for a picture?”) the answers are more interesting. LIFE’s greatest contribution to pictorial history is the record of World War II, ranging in this book from Carl Mydans’ work after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941, to John Phillips’ parachuting into Yugoslavia in 1944 to join a guerrilla raid on occupying Germans, to George Silk in Europe early in 1945.  At that time Silk’s idea of combat photography was to be out ahead of infantrymen crossing a German river under fire. To get the picture reproduced in the book Silk had to turn back toward a GI who has just been killed a few steps behind him.

 LIFE photographers regularly risked being killed to get pictures during World War II and after, among many others Robert Capa who was killed in Viet Nam, and Ralph Morse whose account here of the sinking the cruiser USS Vincennes off the Solomon Islands, and helping throw life-jacketed wounded overboard while trying to take pictures is the stuff of compelling nightmare. Like Capa, Larry Burrows was killed covering the war in Viet Nam. But being of sound mind and august years when interviewed, none of the survivors recalls a willingness to die for a picture, though a number of them seem in accord with the comment of Vernon Merritt who was wounded in Viet Nam: “Is it worth dying for a picture?” Loengard asks. “Probably not,” Merritt replies. “But in those days we were children.”

  “You know,” John Phillips tells Loengard, “you have a high or a low threshold of pain. I had a high threshold  of fear.” Most photographers in the book blame their cameras for whatever personal courage they showed. David Scherman gives himself low marks for boldness in Life.  But during his coverage of the American advance into Germany in 1945 (it eventually included taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub), he writes, “fear did not happen when I had a camera in my hand.”  Fittingly, the last word on the subject seems to belong to Carl Mydens. The “camera was a certification against personal fear,” he says, but adds, “ you had to believe that what you’re doing is important.”

 Competition between photographers was fierce. Most cooperated, more or less keeping their distance on overlapping assignments. A startling exception in the book concerns John Florea who was assigned to cover the advance of the U.S.Third Army into Germany in 1945. When he found Silk outside Cologne Cathedral, photographing on what he saw as his turf, he fired a warning shot over Silk’s head with a carbine. “I wasn’t trying to kill him,” Florea told Loengard.  "If I’d wanted to kill him I’d have shot him in the head.” Florea later took memorable and horrifying pictures of Nazi concentration camps, but after differences with Picture Editor Hicks, quit the magazine to direct and produce popular, long-run TV series. Yet he conceded,“ the only thing I’ll be remembered for is what I had done for LIFE magazine.”

 Most LIFE photographers believe that what they were doing was important, not merely during the war when the issue was clear, but afterwards, as the book shows in proud recollections of such things as Civil rights reporting and Co Ringmaster's expose of the appalling treatment of Viet Nam paraplegics in a Veteran’s hospital which led to dramatic reform. Gordon Parks’ story about the boy Flavio in the slums of Rio de Janeiro stirred compassionate help from around the world. When Bill Eppidge was trying to get the two heroin addicts to let him do a story, he told them “this was their chance to do something for society.” And, Eppridge concludes, they did. “Their story made them public figures and had a significant effect on the way we think about drug addiction, and heroin addiction in particular.”

  The most humane and thoughtful interview in the book belongs to Cornell Capa who, after the death of his brother Robert, spent years promoting what he called “concerned photography.”  People would see these picture stories, he hoped, “and as a result would revolt against inhumanity.” To some extent, he thought, still photographs did that, but he sadly concluded that television doesn’t, perhaps because there is so much of it, perhaps because it goes by so fast. Today, he said, “We’re witnessing whatever happens in all different places, but instead of awakened conscience, there’s indifference.”

  “People are always asking me if it’s art,” says Eisenstaedt. “I say I’m only a photographer. Let other people say whether it is or not.”  Persistently asking that question Loengard gets only a grudging response; the LIFE photographers simply weren’t interested. The best answer, perhaps, comes from Howard Sochurek. A time came when he was shooting complex hi-tech images of fighter jets at 40,000 feet. Such pictures had never been taken before and while shooting, the jet’s canopy blows off, and he has to decide whether to risk an aborted ejection or stick with the plane. He sticks with the plane, the jet crash lands—but safely. At LIFE he learns his pictures are to be used as scrap for an illustrator. He argues LIFE Editor Ed Thomson into running a  huge picture story instead. “Was that art?” Loengard asks. Comes the reply: “Well, if you can’t ever do it again, maybe it is.”

 Photographing the world on its own terms, mostly under pressure with no time to try again, has almost nothing to do with the kind of leisure that often allowed Henri Cartier Bresson  to wait for hours, days, years for a “decisive moment.” One of the most famous photographs of this century, though far from the most aesthetic is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day. At the office next day an editor exclaimed over his great picture. “What picture?” Eisenstaedt asked. He had been grab shooting in the jubilant crown all day against a deadline, and didn’t remember.  The wonder is how many decisive moments, how many thousands of clear and beautifully composed and significant images the LIFE photographers brought home.

   Walker Evans was never a LIFE photographer. But what he said about his work on the sharecropping family for James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men  may say it all. “Was it art? Who cares? It was life.” Or maybe not. Give the motto of the Photographic Society in Paris the last nuance: “Nothing is so beautiful as the truth; but one must choose it.”