Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Images from Life

Life was a weekly magazine published from 1936-1972 renowned for the quality of its photo-journalism. While the magazine ceased publication some time ago, Time-Warner Inc. has retained rights to its image archive. In collaboration with Google they have recently made a sizable part of their image archive available to view online.

Two million images have so far been scanned out of an eventual ten million. Naturally, historical events are well-represented, especially those of that time period. For the connoisseur of photographs, however, one of the primary attractions of this resource is the access it provides to work of the great photographers of the 20th century, many of whom worked for Life. Cornell Capa, Andreas Feininger, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Carl Mydans, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Hansel Mieth and Peter Stackpole are all well-represented.

Of course there are many photographs of celebrities as well as public figures of all kinds. Unfortunately the database lacks a librarian’s hand—the only indexing is by keywords, and the words used to describe the images are not always accurate or helpful. The shortcomings of the indexing and organization of this resource makes access to many of its wonderful and significant images almost serendipitous. Furthermore, each database query only brings up a maximum of 200 results even when the digital archive contains many more images. There are other quirks to the database. A search for Eugene Smith brings up no results, while a search for W Eugene Smith does; a search for Gordon Parks (without quotes) brings up no results, while a search for “Gordon Parks” (in quotes) does.

To search this resource visit the Life Photo Archive, or go to the image search page in Google and add the words source:life to your query.

This online effort considerably supplements the best printed index to images in Life magazine, Art in Life by Jane Clapp published in 1959 and its 1965 supplement. Art in Life has a different approach than the online resource. The author of this work is only interested in “provid[ing] immediate reference to reproductions of paintings and graphic arts in Life.” It includes images of architecture, decorative arts like jewelry and furniture, mythological figures, and portraits.

Art in Life does not index the spectacular photojournalism described above. It does, however, lead one to many important artistic images throughout the ages. It is particularly helpful in locating reproductions, often of the fine arts, by subject. Because very few of the images that Clapp has indexed have yet been scanned in online Life image database, Art in Life remains a valuable reference source.

Below are links to headings in the San Francisco Public Library catalog to monographs of works by Life’s famous photographers:

Cornell Capa -- Andreas Feininger -- Alfred Eisenstaedt --Carl Mydans -- Margaret Bourke-White -- W. Eugene Smith -- Gordon Parks -- Hansel Mieth -- Peter Stackpole

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