Photo by Margaret Bourke-White. Construction of giant pipes used to divert a section of the Missouri River during the building of the Fort Peck Dam. © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation
Life magazine photo series, including from ‘Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West’ (1936) by Margaret Bourke-White © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

When Life magazine launched in 1936, at the depths of the Depression and the height of the Works Progress Administration art project, its first cover photo was an awe-filled vista of towering concrete pylons and a couple of tiny humans. With that shot of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, Life established itself as a vivid narrator of the country’s glamour and struggles — and the glamour of struggle.

The accompanying article, titled “Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West,” reported on the town that sprang up around the 10,000 labourers and their families who moved to the middle of nowhere and erected a great industrial monument. That the picture was taken by the Bronx-born documentarian Margaret Bourke-White also made a tacit argument that would become increasingly urgent: safeguarding America is too important a job for men to do on their own.

Life delivered that message inconsistently: only six female photographers ever joined the staff of the magazine that promised “big pictures, beautiful pictures, exciting pictures, pictures from all over the world, pictures of interesting people and lots of babies”. Now, the New-York Historical Society is honouring that pioneering half-dozen with a winsome and wistful exhibition that leaves us pining for more.

The show, too, opens with Bourke-White, who was famous for her portraits of giant machines before joining Life. In 1930, she was the first foreign photographer to penetrate the Soviet Union’s centres of industrial might. That portfolio led Life’s founder Henry Luce both to admire and underestimate her.

“What the editors expected [from the Fort Peck Dam assignment] were construction pictures as only Bourke-White can take them,” he wrote in a note to readers. “What the editors got was a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.” The contact sheets that appear at the Historical Society allow viewers to mingle with the drinking and dancing patrons of “Ruby’s Place,” intrude into a ramshackle dwelling called “Gerry’s Apartments,” and greet a smiling waitress who sidles up to the bar with her towheaded child.

Bourke-White was the rare media hero, but Life’s first decade was one of mass effort, in the magazine business as well as in factories and war. Life celebrated the single, splashy image that could instantly imprint itself on the culture: Rita Hayworth in lacy lingerie, a tuxedoed Noël Coward coolly baking in the Las Vegas desert. But it also valued journalism as an ongoing, collaborative effort. Week after week, it published series that unfurled across multiple spreads, often by photographers whose names remain unknown.

Two images from ‘The WAACs’ (1942) by Marie Hansen
Two images from ‘The WAACs’ (1942) by Marie Hansen
Photo by Marie Hansen.
		WACs doing daily calisthenics exercises.
		© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

The St Louis-born photographer Marie Hansen, for instance, joined Life in 1942 and was promptly assigned to track the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which took on support jobs and freed men to fight. Hansen insinuated herself among the inductees as they drilled, serviced engines, organised supply chains, and performed other conventionally male duties. In one eerie shot, serried ranks of volunteers wear bug-eyed gas masks; they look like a battalion of disciplined arthropods.

Many of Hansen’s images finessed the violence, though. A formation of girls in uniform, hands on hips, skirts aflutter, hop joyfully in a field. The caption is soothing: “The exercises are designed to foster flexibility and endurance, not bulging muscles.” Hansen helped acclimate America to the idea of women in the military, portraying WAAC service as exciting but not threatening. The formula worked: over the course of the war, 150,000 women joined up.

Afterwards, as veterans returned from overseas, female workers who had stepped up to fill jobs in their absence suddenly became a problem. Employers and the government hustled them back to the kitchen, citing the “return to normalcy”. But Nina Leen, who had arrived in the US from Europe in 1939, cast a more sympathetic lens on the generation of women who had enjoyed a modicum of autonomy during the war.

Photo Nina Leen. American Woman's Dilemma- A dilemma that plagues that modern working woman in balancing personal aspirations, household and work. © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation
From ‘American Woman’s Dilemma’ (1947) by Nina Leen © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

For a 1947 photo essay, “The American Woman’s Dilemma”, Leen shadowed several young mothers through their routines of sacrifice and compromise. Josephine Gloss, who hasn’t yet been made redundant, leaves her home early in the morning, hugging a child she sees only on weekends. Then she heads off to her job at the doll factory, where she spends her days among babies made of plastic. Leen’s photos float a series of unanswered questions: Does Gloss feel guilty or proud to spend her days manufacturing fake children in order to support her real one? Does she have a choice — or a future?

In another vignette, a married couple hunch over separate drafting tables in their living room, while a toddler gazes up from her play chair. “Artist Edna Eicke paints covers for the New Yorker, does her work at home with her artist-husband,” the caption informs us. This portrait is a scene of stagy bliss, a perfect, if momentary, balance of creative career and engaged parenting.

The industrious Leen also underscored the costs of idleness. In one comical shot, a middle-aged matron slumps at a card table, looking desperately bored. She’s surrounded by a roomful of lookalikes with a surfeit of hair, money, and time. “Millions of women find too much leisure can be a heavy burden,” the caption warns. In another wry photo, a woman jiggles furiously in a slimming contraption, suffering for beauty. “Reducing session . . . ” the caption reads, and the rest goes unwritten: reducing the workforce can be wrenching.

Photo by Martha Holmes. Singer Billy Eckstine getting a hug fr. an adoring female after his show at Bop City. © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation
From ‘Mr B’ (1950) by Martha Holmes © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

An atmosphere of moral instruction wafts through the show. Work and family life were changing drastically in the mid 1940s, and have transformed since, but the mix of clichés, counter-currents, and social obligations still resonates today. Here are the McWeeneys on the lawn in front of their detached suburban home: Dad in a suit and fedora, Mom dressed up for a day of caring for the couple’s three catalogue-ready children. Surely there’s a martini and a pot roast in this household’s immediate future (and maybe a bedtime Valium, too).

But such “normalcy” can be hard-won, tenuous and oppressive. In 1949, Martha Holmes took a photo of a young white woman embracing the dashing, pencil-moustached black singer Billy Eckstine backstage, amid a crowd of grinning female fans. It’s a tableau of unselfconscious elation, a portrait of “just what the world should be like”, as Holmes put it. It was also a stick of dynamite, triggering a flood of written protests and blowing a hole in Eckstine’s career. “That picture just slammed the door for him,” recalled the pianist Billy Taylor. Life got that aspect of America just right: what brings joy to some also triggers rage in others.

To October 6,

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