In Pictures: The Women Photographers Who Shaped LIFE Magazine

An exhibition at New York’s Historical Society presents 70 arresting images from pioneering women

BY Kadish Morris in Culture Digest | 17 JUL 19

LIFE magazine may have published its last issue in 2000, but the journal’s legacy has extended far beyond that final print run. Internationally renowned for its exceptional storytelling through photo essays that centred on human interest, the magazine was at the forefront of expressive and challenging photojournalism. During its heyday, between the late 1930s and the early 1970s, LIFE employed 110 staff – a mere six of whom were full-time women photographers. Yet, these remarkable women – Margaret Bourke-White, Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen and Hansel Mieth – helped shape the magazine’s identity and, to celebrate their unique vision, an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is showcasing 70 of their most arresting images. According to Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society: ‘These pioneering women photographers captured events international and domestic, wide-ranging and intimate, serious and playful.’

Margaret Bourke-White, photograph from ‘Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West,’ LIFE, 1936. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Margaret Bourke-White (1904–71) captured Fort Peck Dam, the world’s largest man-made hydraulic dam and one of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, in a 1936 photo essay. Bourke-White was one of the magazine’s first four staff members and this image was on the cover of the inaugural issue of LIFE.

Marie Hansen, photograph from ‘The WAACs,’ LIFE, 1942. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

A photo essay by Marie Hansen (1918–69) shows the first recruits of the newly launched Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at their training centre in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1942. That same year, Hansen became a staff photographer at LIFE and captured a variety of Hollywood personalities and politicians such as US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Lisa Larsen, photograph from ‘Tito As Soviet Hero, How Times Have Changed!’ LIFE, 1956. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

After fleeing Nazi Germany for the US in 1938, Lisa Larsen (c.1925–59) worked for magazines such Vogue, Parade and The New York Times. From the 1953 wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier to Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito’s 1956 visit to the Kremlin, Larsen’s work captured culturally and politically significant moments with sincerity and without pretence.

Martha Holmes, photograph from ‘Mr. B.,’ LIFE, 1950. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Martha Holmes (1923–2006), who was born in Kentucky, shot mixed-race singer Billy Eckstine in New York for a three-page LIFE profile in 1950. The ‘controversial’ photograph, in which a group of white female fans surround Eckstine, received countless letters of protest from white readers. While Eckstine’s career suffered as a consequence of the image, Holmes reportedly said in an interview that she saw the photograph as one of her best works because it ‘told just what the world should be like’, according to the museum’s press release.  

Nina Leen, unpublished photograph from ‘American Woman’s Dilemma,’ LIFE, 1947. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Nina Leen (c.1909–95) emigrated to New York from Europe in 1939 and was best known for her fashion photography as well as her depictions of animals and of everyday women. Her 1947 photographs of the ‘American Woman’s Dilemma’ present a sharp and graphic observation of postwar-era motherhood.

Hansel Mieth, photograph from ‘International Ladies’ Garment Workers: How a Great Union Works Inside and Out,’ LIFE, 1938. Courtesy: © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Hansel Mieth (1909–98) shot the international Ladies’ Garment Workers Union during a summer retreat for LIFE in 1937. She worked at the magazine for seven years, producing emotionally charged imagery that spotlighted the labour movement during the great depression.

‘LIFE: Six Women Photographers’ runs at New-York Historical Society, New York, USA, until 6 October 2019

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.