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Slices of Life

From Hollywood to Buchenwald, and Manhattan to the Kalahari, the magazine pioneered photojournalism as we know it. A new book shows how

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In its photojournalism, the magazine had a symbiotic relationship with radio. Radio's nationwide audience heard the news but could not see it. Life filled that void—as quickly as was possible.

Later, when radio got pictures and became television, the largely black-and-white Life had a problem. In the 1960s, at great expense, the editors decided to combat television by using more color. Burrows, in Vietnam, began the first extended coverage of war in color. Eliot Elisofon, for one, had been exploring the emotive qualities of color for years and had advised movie director John Huston on its use for the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. As a result, he became the color specialist, often called when the editors were seeking more color stories.

That sort of pigeonholing happened all the time. Dmitri Kessel once used a colleague's experience—and his own—to explain: "[Eisenstaedt] took a picture of a dog lifting his leg. Then, because he took that famous picture, when they have a story about Niagara Falls, they say, ‘Ah, water,' and they think of him." For his part, Kessel had photographed Hagia Sophia, the famous basilica in Istanbul, in 1949. "They came again to a church, and they said, ‘Ah, Dmitri Kessel'....Whenever there was a church, I would do it."

The photographer as artist? Well, most photojournalists see too much of the world to take themselves that seriously. Ed Clark, who unforgettably captured a nation's sorrow over the wartime death of Franklin Roosevelt, put his journalistic success this way: "I don't know what made a good picture. I never did know. I made a lot of them. But I never did figure that out." At Life, it wasn't necessarily the photographer's job to produce pictures that were artistic, but to make ones that were striking, even unforgettable. If they were beautiful too, so much the better.

And often they were. The best work of any one of the photographers who worked for Life is remarkable. The best work of the best of them is as good as any photograph ever made.

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