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America in Pictures: The photojournalism of Life magazine

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Rankin Rankin | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

I have always been a big fan of Life magazine.

For decades, Life was arguably the most important magazine in America.

It led the way with photojournalism, which had had a profound impact on the printed depiction of American society.


Rankin: photographer and presenter of America In Pictures

An American institution, the peaks and troughs of the magazine reflected the rises and falls of the country.

Only when television and celebrity culture took full force did Life finally depart for good.

Filming America in Pictures for BBC Four was a fantastic experience.

Meeting five of Life's photographers was incredibly inspiring, especially Bill Eppridge.

I was struck by his photographs - in particular, of Senator Robert F Kennedy's assassination.

We both choked up as he described the scene: the busboy who went from shaking Kennedy's hand to cradling his head as he was dying in his arms. It was very moving.

I also worked with one of my favourite directors, Jack Cocker, as part of this documentary.

Great at directing film... I wish I could say the same of his sense of direction!

Driving the crew home one rainy evening from a clam bake, he managed to get us completely lost. We eventually arrived home at 2am, with a 6am call time the next day.

Some of the photographers who worked on the magazine were, and still are, the most influential in the world.

Heroes to many, and certainly to me, they captured the most significant moments in American history, each in their individual style.

Of all the Life photographers, I was most influenced by W Eugene Smith.

In the autumn of 1986, I went to see his exhibition at the Barbican.

I was so awed by the show that, before starting my career in publishing, I had my heart set on being a documentary photographer.

W Eugene Smith has been referred to as the originator of the photographic essay, and you'll see in the programme that like many Life photographers, he would spend weeks immersing himself in the lifestyles of his subjects.

This wasn't reportage from the outside looking in, but straight from the inside, raw and beautifully intense, showing how individual lives created the patchwork of American society.

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Life photographer Bill Eppridge talks to Rankin

Working in the field, the Life photographers were repeatedly put in danger, and exposed to instances of life and death.

Hungry for - and committed to - truth, they prioritised the image over salary and personal safety.

Would I react the same way in those situations?

As a portrait and fashion photographer, the biggest hazard I face is changing light bulbs in my studio!

Those photographers would go to any length to get the shot, taking advantage of literally any opportunities they could.

Although the Life photographers loved and respected the magazine, they were not afraid to assert their beliefs and artistic vision, even if it meant going against the editors' wishes.

In fact, this rebellious behaviour gave the magazine its identity, truth and diversity of opinion. I really identify with this.

Photographers don't seem to have the same artistic free reign these days, and looking at the work of Life, that seems a shame.

Rankin is the presenter of America In Pictures.

America In Pictures is on Thursday, 1 December at 9pm on BBC Four.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Probably, the best documentary I have seen on any channel this year. Outstanding stuff. Well done, Rankin. And thank you Life.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a fabulous programme - thank you :)

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. Excellent work Rankin, and there's me thinking you were just a celeb snapper you big softie! ;-) Bit gutted not to see Tim Page in there but what a fabulous portrait of a truly legendary magazine.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great show and some brilliant photography !

  • Comment number 5.

    Brilliant documentary, very inspirational. More documentaries with Rankin please!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Really enjoyed the programme. What absolutely spoiled it for me though was the voiceover at the end blotting out the Frank Sinatra 'That's Life' song with an inane announcement about an upcoming programme. Totally spoilt the overall atmosphere. In fact, I was so cross it didn't even register what was being announced. Will the BBC stop constantly spoiling programmes like this. It would have been more impactive if the announcement had followed the end of the programme.

  • Comment number 7.

    Very interesting programme, I am a photography student just learning about photojournalism of the twentieth century and I thought the whole story was amazing and the photographers mentioned are heroes with the work that they did. It is a great shame that, like mentioned in the programme, some do not longer shoot. Very good programme!

  • Comment number 8.

    Truely great film making and a wonderful subject matter.

  • Comment number 9.

    Makes me want to get one of the Life books for Xmas.
    Darn it, I'm going to get one! Anyone know which one would best cover the programmes theme of essays?

  • Comment number 10.

    Huge thank you for all the hard work and effort in putting together an amazing documentary and a truly inspirational piece of work.

  • Comment number 11.

    Fantastic! So many iconic images, brilliant photographers and insightful interviews. An hour was too short, what about a series? R.I.P. Life - long live Rankin!

  • Comment number 12.

    Brilliant,loved the show. I love your boyish enthusiasm for photography.What was the name of the photographer with the massive studio, Burt I think. I need to check out more of his work.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi Rankin, how are you.
    Loved seeing this documentary, Like yourself I was inspired to pick up a camera after seeing images from old copies of life and being aware of Magnum.
    Its interesting to think that Life magazine has not been published in such a long time yet the Photography courses around the UK have been full to bursting in well over a Decade. So in my mind the medium is alive and well. Its just a pity that there isn't a magazine dedicated to reportage and photo essays. Maybe an avenue for Waddle publishing? There is a real wealth of image makers on these shores but most people don't have an avenue for their talents or perspectives. In my opinion it would be a homage to those who have inspired us to keep their dreams, and passions alive. There is nothing like picking up a book or magazine that is full of amazing images to inspire and fire ones imagination. To convey so much in one shot or over a few shots with each photo able to stand alone is an amazing thing and the reason why Photography is so powerful. Thanks BBC and Rankin for keeping the ideas alive and paying respect to those who tried to show us the world. Thanks for bringing information to a new generation waiting for inspiration.

  • Comment number 14.

    This was an incredible documentary, I'm afraid that my generation won't see such talent...

  • Comment number 15.

    Life mag was more than photojournalism it's a social document recording events in history in which the photographers captured and immortalized images future generations.

  • Comment number 16.

    Add your comment

  • Comment number 17.

    Rankin! What a great documentary! I love the USA & I'm really enjoying the All American season.

  • Comment number 18.

    Mesmerising programme from start to finish. Thank you Rankin

  • Comment number 19.

    Wow, a truly inspirational programme. Thank you so much BBC4 and Rankin for your wonderful documentary. You have done Life magazine justice and given us an insight into the characters behind those iconic photographs.
    I have just started taking photos (at the ripe old age of 50!) and am lucky enough to have experienced both small town America and New York and you captured the spirit of Life magazine and of the 'All American Dream' as only a Brit can!
    Wish there were more programmes like this. Thank you again :)

  • Comment number 20.

    I thought this was a fantastic insight into one of the most
    iconic parts of social history.As well as photographic history
    that i have seen for some time.It went into great depth not
    only for photographic journalism but for people.Who are interested
    in social history to.Very well thought out. Very interesting piece
    of work well done Rankin.

  • Comment number 21.

    I have been waiting for a documentry on LIFE magazine for years and this could not have been better. Have been a great fan of LIFE buying all the books and the magazine when it started up again in the 80s until it folded again in 2000. Our hall way has 18 framed covers from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Thanks Rankin

  • Comment number 22.

    As a Budding photographer working on my diploma, i have found this documentary truly inspiring. Rankin covered all of what i enjoy, especially the war photography, and his duplicate of the famous photo in times square captured the same feelings as the original from after the second world war! thank you!

  • Comment number 23.

    Really one of the great documentaries, it managed to get right inside the men who made the still photograph create emotions, an art all of its own. Rankin was the perfect choice, he was able to communicate with the photographers in their own language. Congratulations to all concerned, how about the book of the film?
    Stuart Hetherington FBKS.

  • Comment number 24.

    Oh dear, I am in a minority apparently. I found Rankin to be a very banal presenter. His command of the English language doesnt match his photographic skill, although he did have a ready supply of cliches, and he was an uninspired interviewer. More of a goggle eyed fan really. And when he showed some pix of early celebrity photography, he failed to make the connection with the current problems of paparazzi evidenced in the Leveson enquiry. He said nothing about cropping, B&W v colour, composition etc. And when Bill Eppridge took the shot of the dying Bobby Kennedy and the busboy supporting Kennedy looked up ... didnt it occur to either of them that the busboy was thinking, we need a doctor and there's another lensman in the way ... ?
    The show could have used a presenter with a bit more intellectual rigour, Howard Jacobson or Tom Sutcliffe perhaps.

  • Comment number 25.

    One of the best shows I have seen in a long time, just wish it was a series with depth on the photographers, well done Rankin.

  • Comment number 26.

    Nice work Rankin, for a person that could so easily be a luvvy darling pretentious I find you are down to earth and authentic person who loves and respects life, your visit to the true South Africa while back proved this for me... respect

  • Comment number 27.

    A total waste of the license fee! I wasn't disappointed by this documentary as I wasn't expecting much. But I did expect some mention of the likes of Andreas Feininger, Margaret Bourke-White, Philippe Halsman, Dirck Halstead (still living), Dorothea Lange, Hansel Mieth, Lee Miller, Gjon Mili, Ralph Morse, Gordon Parks, George Silk, Peter Stackpole and Dmitiri Kessel. These were the real LIFE greats along side Mr Eisenstaedt. So for there to be no mention was more than disappointing. It seems this programme was more a case of interviewing some of the surviving LIFE staff members and letting Mr Rankin "try" his hand at a style of photography which by his own admission isn't his strongest. If you really want to learn about the LIFE photographers start with John Loengard's book The Great LIFE Photographers and then try and find second hand copies of books by the photographers themselves.

  • Comment number 28.

    After watching this great documentary, I hoofed it over to the 'Life' website, and have spent a happy hour browsing through the photographs. Suddenly, there is context attached to the images. Just terrific. Ta very much x

  • Comment number 29.

    Excellent. Rankin did a great a great job of paying homage without trying to stand in any of his subject's limelight. A humbled and humbling approach. These guys were heroes, did an amazing job and deserve recognition. I love the fact that many of them were so nonplussed about celebrity. An immersive trip to another era — one which today's culture could probably learn a lot from.

  • Comment number 30.

    This is why I pay my BBC Tax (licence). Rankin is so lucky to get to meet some of my heros of photography.

  • Comment number 31.

    Great stuff, Rankin. I first got into Life when Google announced the "Free" digitised collection on Gooreader. I was hooked and have read every episode and been inspired by the depth and range of the photography within its covers. The programme was worth the license fee.
    Cheers BBC.

  • Comment number 32.

    I saw the trailer a couple of days after I started an essay on W. Eugene Smith, oh the luck!!! Brilliant! I want to see more programmes like this.

  • Comment number 33.

    Interesting documentary - most interesting/disturbing moment was about the Bobby Kennedy photo. Some of the music used was quite good; is the information on what songs were used available anywhere?

  • Comment number 34.

    Absolutely brilliant Documentary. Reminded me of the time I picked up a Capa book in a bookstore. I am now a photographer because of that book>
    loved the blunt honesty of the photographers. No entourages for them.
    Couldnt help notice the difference in styles ( surely intentional) between Rankin and Burk Uzzle. Assistants and strobes and cutting edge Leica.
    Burk in the cheap seats with 30 year old Leica
    The only complaint, it was too short.
    Could easily have been a mini series.
    Would love to see Rankin do a documentary on W Eugene Smith in the future

  • Comment number 35.

    Loved it! More documentaries like this on photography! Worth every penny of my BBC licence fee! Well done Rankin Photography and BBC!

  • Comment number 36.

    this programme is what the bbc should make more of intresting thought provoking, educating to a degree, some of the photographers I hadn't heard of so something to research, others like Lee Miller, Tim Page I was surprised they were not mentioned ! Overall great programme more pluses than minuses, the American season so far has been good.

  • Comment number 37.

    What a brilliant programme this was, fantastic work by Rankin and the crew. I love my photography and this really was a superb insight with some brilliant interviews to some of the best photographers and to the daddy of photojournalism! Top stuff BBC!

  • Comment number 38.

    As others have said one hour is not enough to cover forty years of work in this magazine. Favourite things, images and photographers are bound to be missing. However being able to talk to some who were there at the time is revealing of many truths.

    Whereas more programmes concentrating on photographers would be welcome, perhaps in such a series the British ‘Picture Post’ could be included. It was being published at the same time as Life magazine and also produced some world class photographers.

  • Comment number 39.

    I enjoyed the programme, but it really skipped over much of the impact Life magazine had during key moments in American life; probably it should have been a series. But not sure I could take an entire series of Rankin presenting. With his 21,000 euro Leica M2 and two assistants, he looked a little ridiculous alongside these American greats (each, who had only one camera and no assistants). Rankin's ego was all too obvious and many of his questions were inane. Surely he should have done more research. And why have a fashion and portraits photographer present a programme about documentary photography? England has many outstanding documentary photographers, who don't have the entourage Rankin seems to require. A for effort, but to me Rankin was out of place and it showed.

  • Comment number 40.

    Excellent documentary! Interviews very good. A joy to have a knowledgable presenter. More please by Mr Rankin.
    Mitch 2 Dec 2011

  • Comment number 41.

    This was a great documentary and Rankin was brilliant. I am late to photography so some of these photographers are new to me. Although I knew the Life story which has always fascinated me. This is what the BBC does best. Rankin what about doing a programme on the Vivian Maier story which would be great. Well done BBC and Rankin only downside? could have been a series of 3 programmes.

  • Comment number 42.

    Great documentary BBC4. It could have been a bit longer but I'm thinking it will inspire people to get to the library or the bookshop and discover more. How about something on Picture Post and Bert Hardy?

  • Comment number 43.

    This was fantastic. I'm a wedding and music photographer and really wish something like Life was around now. What a dream job. But photography is going the way of music, people just take what they can get for free rather than paying for the best now.

  • Comment number 44.

    What an excellent programme. Being a serious amateur photographer, very inspiring. More please. How about which photographers have influenced particular genres of photography, with one genre each week. It could include photojournalism, landscapes, portraiture, celeb culture incl paparazzi, wildlife, creative. And keep Rankin as the presenter please.

  • Comment number 45.

    Can anyone tell me what year the picture of the three boys came from? It was featured in the documentary, a picture of three boys with the middle one hugging the others and I think being dragged along. thanks

  • Comment number 46.

    Hello. I'm the director of the programme - I've got some answers to questions posted above:

    @Chrisjb – probably the best book on LIFE’s photo essays is "Great Photographic Essays from Life" by Maitland A. Edey (Editor). Sadly it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a copy via Amazon for under a tenner. It’s brilliant.

    @jim_bowen_fan_1989 - There’s no music log on the BBC website but you can download a list of the tracks I used here, as a word doc: https://files.me.com/jack.cocker/rez3ny

    @kateh – The shot of the three boys was by Bill Eppridge (the photographer who shot the heroin addicts essay and Bobby Kennedy's assassination). It's from a fantastic essay he did on integrated schools in the 29 Sep 1967 issue - that particular photograph is on page 66. Here’s a link to the issue on google books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=clYEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA60&ots=0fggg-UCUT&dq=bill%20eppridge%20integrated%20school&pg=PA66#v=twopage&q&f=false

    All the best,

  • Comment number 47.

    Great pictures - but I think that more on the formative years of Life would have been interesting to see. I had some questions about the underpinning research as well.
    I know that Burk Uzzle's website says he was the youngest photographer under contract to Life at 23, which was quoted in the programme, but I was under the impression that Rex Hardy (google "rex hardy source:life") was their youngest-ever staffer, at 21.

    He quit Stanford in his final year (1936) and had several photos of Robert Taylor in the first ever Life issue. His first front cover was on the September 6 1937 issue, and his work appeared foir several years, including photo-essays such as the Haiti one (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNyZ6cHpvZs) in 1937.

    This also ties in with his LA Times obituary:


    ps does Rankin have a first name?

  • Comment number 48.

    Good stuff.....although a number of the photographers could do with their own documentary. Howsabout 'Rankin does W Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project'?!

  • Comment number 49.

    Fantastic show. I particularly loved the bit about Larry Burrows.

    Does anyone happen to know the name of that great piano music that starts 13 minutes into the show? I would love to find out! Thanks


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