NITA AT LARGE
This is an archived post This is an archived post
Previous Index Next
Life is Back from the Dead
March 20 2010, 7:48 PM by Nita Rollins
Life Magazine is a brand colossus, in many ways the quintessential Boomer brand.
Defining photojournalism in the 20th century while also defining the 20th century, its
portraits framed the ahistorical absolutes of courage, despair, charisma and power as
much as the persons of a certain historical gravitas. The viewer’s pursuit of accidental
revelations of character kept all those modernist literature-stoked latent/manifest
dichotomies in productive tension. I know because I used to sit spellbound before the
stacks of Life my cousin had collected in his post-Harvard hovel. With my two-page
spread-sized memories intact, and an avowed deference for the tradition of the
defining public image—in stark contrast to the people’s indefatigable showcasing of
social networking candids—I am the perfect witness to a Boomer brand entering the
ecosystem of the open web.
It’s not Life’s digitization per se that makes this an interesting transition for a brand
twice defibrillated in its 64-year history—we barely raise an eyebrow over Google’s all-
in-a-day’s-work project to digitize the world’s books, for heaven’s sake.
It’s the letting loose of Life’s curatorial authority, its single-photo storytelling precision,
into the jungle of laissez-faire cut-and-paste social web content that begs for
commentary. The ‘coming soon’ web site promises over 10 million photos will be made
available for viewing, or, as parent company Time put it: "…the most important
collection of imagery covering the events and people of the 20th century…[will be]
available for free for personal use”—at least, for viewing and sharing. More than 97%
of the collection has never been seen by the public.
Such an inconceivable darkroom trove of “outtakes” (albeit by the likes of Alfred
Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks)! What could be more
appropriate for our era of flourishing amateur photography and citizen journalism than
converting Life’s vault into an editorial roundtable, a photographic piñata? Unsettling,
perhaps, for its Boomer devotees who remember when larger-than-Life was hard to
come by? (Winston Churchill as a screensaver—really?) But probably, ultimately,
exhilarating for all comers. That is, if Life truly adapts to the digital channel. And from
what I’ve gathered, the revenue model is strictly 20th century—mainly advertising-
based. (As Time also owns Getty, site visitors coming to look and learn will be exposed
to the latter collection and might buy.) Based on the advance press, there is but one
concession to the social web’s intensely OPEN relationship with images—you can
create Flickr-style personal collections.
There are ways to counter the constant battering of our journalistic institutions (hint:
they’re digital), and, in this instance, to drive cross-generational traffic to Life.com.
(Yes, this begs for a post on washingtonpost.com.) For Life, in my opinion, the most
important of these is a social platform for storytelling, the kind that would enable
community voting on the best photo/journalistic albums—those with stirring
commentary that keeps history alive. Kodak has an employee blog that has done
wonders for their place in the imaging community, as they like to call it. Limited edition
downloads of Life covers for poster-size printing wouldn’t be a bad idea either, even if I
did steal it from the current collaboration of Absolut and fashion designer Helmut Lang.
For all those copyright-minded among you, there are always the Creative Commons
alternatives. Quite simply, more exposure, more usage=more life for Life.com.
To make sure I’m not blindly enthusiastic about this digital brand makeover of Life,
particularly as an Engaging and Networked brand, I conducted some quick research
of a certain person who has graced Life’s covers several times, and who is the very
definition of iconic inexhaustibility (if you don’t believe me, read American Monroe: The
Making of a Body Politic. Has the social web tired of Marilyn Monroe? Can icitizens
find enough to do, interactively speaking, with the silver screen goddess? Does she
make sense any longer to digital millennials, for whom self-presentation precedes self-
Are you kidding? 16,738 thought to upload some version of Marilyn Monroe on
Flickr. Metacafe has 144 largely homemade Marilyn Monroe videos. iStockPhoto has
several Marilyn impersonators doing their best to keep the subway breeze blowing up
her white pleated dress, figuratively speaking. And Google says Marilyn Monroe
matters to someone 13,400,000 ways. I found a particularly appropriate cultural artifact
trolling around someone’s personal Picasa photo album: Marilyn Monroe coaxed once
again into life through a collage of Life’s covers.
I also found a Marilyn Monroe image rarely seen (perhaps never before published?)
on Flickr and will leave you to contemplate both its hold on the viewer and the icitizen
comments that follow.