Ubiquity in Life Magazine

A simple quote from Henry Lefebvre: “Clever images of the everyday are inserted on a day-to-day basis, images that can make the ugly beautiful, the empty full, the sordid elevated—and the hideous ‘fascinating.'”

In this quote, Lefebvre discusses the ubiquity of certain images that appear as natural to us. Take, for instance, the iconic Earthrise photo I wrote about previously. The photo appears fascinating, albeit ubiquitous to us. It seems normal – that is earth, after all. However, that image is normal because we have an impulse to see it as a natural icon. In fact, I argue in a current paper, the very documentary impulse that inspired Earthrise was itself inspired by years of Western colonial cartography. Earth only appears natural in photographs because of the tradition of capturing landscapes in some limited frame (i.e. maps, photographs, etc.). It is no coincidence that the popular Life Magazine portrayed these seemingly ubiquitous images. If we look a little harder, however, we see these apparently natural images as problematic.

In a 1997 article, “Watching The Bombs Go Off: Photography, Nuclear Landscapes, and Spectator Democracy,” Scott Kirsch argues that the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) provided an image of a nuclear bomb test in America to Life in order to make that image ubiquitous.

Life Magazine Cover, February 27, 1950

Ask yourself: how ‘natural’ does that image appear to you? I have seen that images (at least images like that one) before! Sure, it is amazing how much destructive force the photographer has captured, but, to a degree, we cannot really contemplate the photo. So we act: we act awed, albeit, to an extent, unmoved. First, we cannot comprehend the destructive force in this image much at all, so our scientifically trained understanding helps us to react appropriately. The photos are so ubiquitous that our culture has conditioned us to see them as natural. This is precisely what the AEC wanted: to make atomic energy appear normal, Kirsch argues.

Kirsch’s argument appealed to me. So I decided to to check out Google Book’s open archive of all Life editions ever printed. Look at this page. Scroll down to the section “Browse all issues.” Select 1950 and begin to scroll right through all the issues.

When I did this, I noticed that the February 27 issue was one of very few to have an image other than a person on the cover. Initially I wanted to download all the cover images and plug them into ImageJ, a photo visualization tool. However, time was a huge constraint. That would have to wait for a much larger project.

What I realized on the Google Book page, however, was that the covers oozed with ubiquity: based on the particular context, the photos appeared natural. What is more normal and ubiquitous than a human? I am sure we could examine race and gender in these covers, but the image of the bomb exploding is pertinent here.

At first I imagined that the bomb cover would disrupt the normal flow of people. And in a way it does. However, there is double effect here: it both disrupts normalcy and makes the bomb ubiquitous in its own way. The Life reader would register the bomb as natural, especially with the following issues showing people over and over again. The bomb fits into a narrative of ubiquity. The more it becomes a part of the culture, unproblematized, the more it appears an image natural to the culture.

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