Life magazine wove news photography with images from pop culture, sports and Hollywood.
Published weekly from 1936 to 1972, it flourished before the invention of television and at a time when many Americans were illiterate.
Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery of Photography is affirming that legacy while giving a nod to social distancing with the online exhibition “Life: Defining Photography” on view at monroegallery.com.
The images range from iconic portraits of Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein to shots of an angry Mickey Mantle flinging his helmet and haunting prints of jailed Mexican migrants.
These photos tell stories.
“We’ve been fortunate to know many of the photographers during their lifetime,” gallery owner Sidney Monroe said.
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic portrait of Churchill flashing the “V” for victory sign in Liverpool did not reflect the end of World War II, Monroe said.
“It’s 1951, so it’s after the war and during a re-election campaign,” he explained. “Eisenstaedt told us he was at a rally and (Churchill) actually fell asleep in his seat, as he was wont to do. Then the band struck up ‘God Save the Queen’ and he instinctively woke up and flashed the ‘V’ for victory sign. It seems to symbolize what we all know about Churchill.”
The photographer’s 1947 image of a world-weary Einstein occurred in the famed physicist’s Princeton, New Jersey, study.
“It shows a little bit of vulnerability,” Monroe said.
Loomis Dean’s 1955 photo of Mexican immigrants sprawled across the floor of a California border patrol jail cell could have been taken today.
“This was during a federal campaign to deport migrant workers,” Monroe said. “It was actually called ‘Operation Wetback.’ It also reminds us that many of the issues we confront today about migrants and refugees are issues society has been dealing with for a long, long time.”
John Dominis captured a frustrated baseball player in “Mickey Mantle Having a Bad Day” at Yankee Stadium in 1965.
“He just struck out,” Monroe said. “We all think of the iconic Mickey Mantle
hitting home runs. He’s flinging his batting helmet along the way. It’s a little more personal and a little more emotional than a snapshot.”
Ed Clark’s portrait of a weeping Navy chief petty officer playing the accordion after the 1945 death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a classic. Officials were moving the president’s coffin onto the funeral train to Washington, D.C.
CPO Graham Jackson had been assigned to Roosevelt’s guard duty in Warm Springs, Georgia.
“This is the day after FDR died at home,” Monroe said. “He had been there for some time and actually knew him.
“He’s actually playing the song ‘Going Home.’ When you look at it, even though you don’t know the context, you see the people in the background with their heads bowed.”
Life’s photographers also captured their share of politics-meets-Hollywood.
Bill Ray opted for a different angle when his fellow journalists rushed to the front of the Madison Square Garden stage to shoot Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy.
“Everybody was jockeying for position,” Monroe said of the 1962 image. “He walked upstairs and found a way to get behind where nobody was. He wanted to get something different.”
Ray shot the slinky actress from behind, with the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” clearly visible on the lectern.
“That dress became famous, because they literally had to sew it on her,” Monroe said.
“It speaks so much about Marilyn and JFK at the time. Within a short period of time, they both would be gone.”
In 2017, the silk and rhinestone dress sold for $4.81 million to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”