Life: The Classic Collection

[27 October 2008]

By Rachel Smucker

Ah, LIFE—the well-preserved curmudgeon of magazines, the once-formidable photography giant, the expert surveyor of American culture! Back again?

Sort of. Though the magazine itself has been discontinued as a weekly since 1972, it has appeared at intervals in the form of a monthly magazine from 1978 to 2000, and again as a newspaper supplement from 2004 to 2007. What began as America’s first all-photo magazine in 1936 has now been reduced to a single website (currently in the works):, “the future home of…the most amazing collection of professional photography on the Web.” Ambitious, but still a sad, technology-bound end to what was once a photographic behemoth. 

As a capstone to this nearly 72-year-long tradition of intermittent greatness is LIFE: The Classic Collection, a near-definitive piece of LIFE history that chronicles the former magazine’s most famous photographs of people, places, and everything in between. For the generation that experienced LIFE magazine in its initial glory—that is, those who were curious and able enough to pick up an issue sometime between 1936 and 1972—this book is something akin to a photo album. For the generation that missed out on this crucial piece of American history—or, those who remember LIFE as a flimsy leaflet stuck between pages of newsprint—The Classic Collection is a perfect introductory course in photojournalism.

However, it’s the “journalism” part of LIFE that the editors of The Classic Collection wanted to remove from the body of this particular tome. In order to give each picture “the space and presentation it has earned,” there is no text accompanying the photos, only a short caption with the title, year it was taken, and “interesting shoptalk about the photographers.”

My apologies to the editors for extrapolating an unintended consequence of the anti-journalism mission, but that “interesting shoptalk” is probably most fascinating part of the book, next to the photographs themselves. Learning the simple hows and whys of picture-taking is one thing, but hearing it from the mouth of the artist is quite another.

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked,” wrote Alfred Eisenstaedt of his 1963 photograph, “Children at a puppet theatre”, “but the best picture is the one I took at the very climax of the action…Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”

The pictures included in this volume are not only LIFE‘s best, but most well-known. As the book jacket amiably warns the reader, many of the photographs are not new, but are probably the ones most people would like to “revisit”: “V-J Day, 1945” (or, what most people refer to as “the sailor kissing the nurse”); iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy; famous moments in sports history; images from the Vietnam War; a rather timely picture of author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Yet for all the iconography LIFE can offer, it is difficult to place The Classic Collection among the best books of photography. National Geographic has its own formidable contenders (Through the Lens: National Geographic’s Greatest Photographs, 2003; In Focus: National Geographic’s Greatest Portraits, 2004), as does the Saatchi Gallery (I Am a Camera, 2001), Vanity Fair (The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images, 2008), and Ansel Adams (Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, 2007).

LIFE, too, has its own internal competition: Heaven on Earth: 100 Places to See in Your Lifetime (2006), 100 Photographs That Changed the World (2003), LIFE: In Hollywood (2003). It has created for itself an oeuvre, a standard of excellence that has somehow never been able to grow out of its American roots. In some ways, both this reputation of LIFE as the embodiment of American culture and the sheer reknown of the photographs have limited The Classic Collection‘s ability to stand alone as a modern book of photography.

But perhaps our expectations for LIFE-style photography are not necessarily detrimental to our overall appreciation of The Classic Collection. Like the grandpa who repeatedly tells the same story through the same pair of rosy-colored Shuron Sportivos, we come to relish our memories through the simple act of retelling them. For some, seeing the image of The Fab Four in a swimming pool may be just as pleasant the umpteenth time as it was the first. LIFE, successfully predicting this sort of sentiment, included 25 full-size, removable images in with The Classic Collection as both a response to anticipated nostalgia and as a way of getting the discontinued magazine back into peoples’ homes.

But unlike the grandpa in the above cliché, LIFE does not insist on the superiority of “the good old days.” Like any quality photographer would argue, The Classic Collection emphasizes good photography over technical superficiality (“today’s technological advancement, while fine, has done nothing to add excitement to a well-made picture”), and does not assert itself unreasonably. Neither are the photos themselves dishonest about the past—be assured, there is no glossing over in these pages. From disease to sadness to death, the images selected for The Classic Collection are nothing short of epic. There is no moderate, there is no “pretty,” no in-between. Be prepared for intensity.

While I have tried to capture the essence of The Classic Collection in these 800 words or so, it is perhaps Henry Luce, the original founder of LIFE magazine, who can put it most succinctly:

“THE PURPOSE: 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 in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers, and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed…”

Take it from a man who knew exactly what he was talking about, and just look. It’s the only demand a photograph can make.

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