Henry Luce, co-founder of Time Inc., wanted to start a new weekly magazine—a news picture magazine. “He’s got it in his blood bad,” a colleague said in early 1936. Photojournalism had developed rapidly in recent decades, partly due to the advent of miniature cameras such as the Leica, which allowed quality photographs to be snapped quickly under the worst conditions. But “the cream of the world’s pictures,” Luce said, had yet to be made accessible within one publication. Neither had anyone tried to “edit pictures into a coherent story,” he argued, “to make an effective mosaic out of fragmentary documents which pictures, past and present, are.” On November 19, after months of frantic labor at Time Inc., some two hundred thousand copies of the magazine went on sale. It was called Life , and most copies were snatched from newsstands before the day was out.
From the cover of Vol. I, No. 1, loomed the towering piers of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam, photographed by Margaret Bourke-White while under construction. Inside were pictures of the dam’s WPA builders celebrating Saturday night at a local watering hole; shots of Fort Knox as well as Fort Belvedere, country retreat of Edward VIII; Broadway and cinema stars, Brazilian natives, Chinese schoolgirls, and color reproductions of John Steuart Curry’s paintings; a one-legged Swiss mountain climber, a royal hunting party, and a step-by-step portrayal of a black widow spider devouring her mate. Many of the pictures were taken by Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Thomas D. McAvoy, and Peter Stackpole. The combination proved irresistible. The first issue sold out, as did the second, third, and fourth. Life broke all the records, selling a million copies a week as soon as the presses could turn them out and doubling that by the end of its second year.
Luce’s premise for Life explained it simply enough: “People like to look at pictures.” Of course he intended to give them more than that. “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon,” this was the prospect Life held before its readers. Life ’s was a new kind of journalism, and it soon inspired imitations around the world.