During its golden age, the American magazine LIFE stood at the forefront of photojournalism. From the late 1930s through the early 1970s, the publication filled the pages of its weekly issues with photo essays that provided a unique perspective into news happening in the United States and abroad.
Now, an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is paying tribute to the women behind the cameras. Through a mixture of vintage prints and archival materials, “LIFE: Six Women Photographers,” running through Oct. 6, focuses on the work of contributors Margaret Bourke-White, Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen and Hansel Mieth — the only women who served as full-time staffers in the photography department during the magazine’s heyday.
“These pioneering women photographers captured events international and domestic, wide-ranging and intimate, serious and playful,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “At the forefront of history, these photographers enabled the public ‘to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events,’ as LIFE founder and editor-in-chief, Henry Luce, described it. We are honored to highlight their work in our Center for Women’s History, where their contributions to photojournalism can shine.”
Culling together over 70 objects, the exhibition features published and unpublished photographs that offer insight into the editing and publishing cycle of the images created by the photographers. Each woman is represented by a photo essay pulled from the LIFE archive.
After opening a studio in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1927, the work of Bronx-born photographer Margaret Bourke-White caught the eye of editor Henry Luce, who hired her to produce photographs for Fortune in 1929. A year later, Bourke-White traveled to the Soviet Union to document industry abroad, and in 1934, Bourke-White began to work on her iconic images of the Dust Bowl. In 1936, the photographer became one of the first four photo department staffers at LIFE, where she shot the inaugural issue, distributed on Nov. 23, 1936.
The cover photo features the colossal towers of the Fort Peck Dam, which sprung up in Montana as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The crisp silver gelatin print depicts the enormity of the project on the magazine’s front page, while Bourke-White’s interior photo essay, also on display at the exhibition, demonstrates the goings-on of the Missouri River Basin construction site.
Missouri-native Marie Hansen, who shot a wide-range of Hollywood stars and politicians, began her work at LIFE as a researcher before becoming a full-time staff photographer in 1942.
On view in the exhibition is Hansen’s photography series documenting the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was founded in May 1942 and saw the enlistment 150,000 women during World War II. Her photographs, which featured WAACs training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, capture the women with eerie clarity as they perform physical exercises and sit, en masse, wearing gas masks and uniforms.
In the essay accompanying the photos, the director of the WAAC, Oveta Culp Hobby, is quoted as telling the new arrivals: “You have taken off silk and put on khaki. You have a debt to democracy and a date with destiny. You may be called upon to give your lives.”
In 1944, at the age of 20, photographer Martha Holmes began her tenureship at LIFE, where she produced intimate photographs of public figures such as Jackson Pollock, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland, alongside images from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.
In 1949, the photographer captured an image of jazz singer Billy Eckstine surrounded by adoring white women, with one folded, smiling, into his chest. Despite the innocent nature of the photograph, the then-provocative image caused backlash upon its publication for its depiction of a Black man with white women and has been cited as a factor in the fall of Eckstine’s career. Still, Holmes stated it remained one of her favorites because it “told just what the world should be like.”
Lisa Larsen, who began her career with LIFE as a freelancer in 1944, fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1938. After arriving, she worked for several high profile publications, such as Glamour, Vogue, Parade and the New York Times. In the 1950s, Larsen’s work took on an international bent as she photographed prominent foreign figures, such as the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, who admired her work.
During the Cold War, LIFE dispatched Larsen to Russia to photograph the 1956 Kremlin visit of Yugoslavia President Josip Broz Tito. The published photographs from this assignment, titled “Tito as Soviet Hero, How Times Have Changed!,” on display at the New-York Historical Society depict the sizable crowds gathered, while her unused work from the series, also on display, reflects personal portraits that demonstrate, according to the museum, the “intense Soviet effort to put on a good show.”
Born in Russia, photographer Nina Leen moved to the United States in 1939 after a childhood spent living in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. LIFE first began publishing her work in 1940, and by 1945, Leen joined as one of the only female staff members. Over the course of her three-decade-long career at LIFE, the magazine published thousands of her images, with over 40 images making it to the cover of the weekly.
In 1947, Leen produced a series of photographs on the “American Woman’s Dilemma,” which documented the life of women in the postwar era, with a strong focus on the balance between motherhood and the workforce. The essay accompanying the photos poses the “dilemma” as: “She wants a husband and she wants children. Should she go on working? Full time? Part time? Will housework bore her? What will she do when her children are grown?”
In one of the images on display in the exhibition, a “housewife” stands in the back of the frame, ironing a piece of fabric, as she’s surrounded by dozens of beds and hundreds of household items, all laid out in front of her in organized rows to represent a “week’s work.” Another image, which was not used in the spread, shows a single working woman eating a snack at a milk bar.
After growing up in Germany by the name Johanna and then traveling around Europe under the male pseudonym Hansel, Mieth came to the United States in 1930. The photographer joined the staff of LIFE in 1937, where she stayed for seven years before moving to a sheep ranch in California.
The photographs chosen to represent Mieth’s work in the exhibition come from a 1938 story that she created on the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union while the group was at a summer retreat in the Poconos. The photographs paint a playful portrait of the union laborers, who are shown riding horses and kicking their legs in unison under a photo-mural of union leaders as they rehearse in the group’s Labor Stage theater.
Top Image: Detail of Nina Leen's photograph from “American Woman’s Dilemma,” LIFE, June 16, 1947 (similar frame published). © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation. Courtesy: New-York Historical Society.