It's Life, but not as we know it

LIfe magazine has re-emerged in the US as a weekly newspaper supplement. Edward Helmore reports
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The Independent Online

There are few magazine titles as synonymous with entire eras as Life magazine. From the first issue on 23 November 1936 - featuring a Margaret Bourke-White cover photograph of Fort Peck Dam - through nearly four decades, the magazine was a institutional feature of American life. It ceased publication in 1972, staggered along as a monthly from 1978 to the turn of the millenium and collapsed again.

There are few magazine titles as synonymous with entire eras as Life magazine. From the first issue on 23 November 1936 - featuring a Margaret Bourke-White cover photograph of Fort Peck Dam - through nearly four decades, the magazine was a institutional feature of American life. It ceased publication in 1972, staggered along as a monthly from 1978 to the turn of the millenium and collapsed again.

Three months ago Life's former publishers, Time Inc., the vast US publisher and entertainment company, relaunched Life magazine once again. Its first re-issue issue featured Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker in a picture taken by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and articles by, amongst others, the Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt.

But Life has not been resuscitated as a monthly magazine and is not available on the newstand; Life is now a weekend magazine that comes as an insert with dozens of regional US newspapers, among them the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News. Each Friday some 12 million copies of the thin publication are distributed to a warmish reception.

It's merely an oddity of US newspaper publishing that only three papers - The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times - bother to produce their own weekend magazines and supplements. Most papers simply buy in a supplement such as Parade, Gannett Co.'s USA Weekend or American Profile.

The revival of Life tells the story of what is and is not possible in American publishing. Time Inc. did not even consider re-launching the magazine as a stand-alone publication; with the exception of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, general interest publications are considered a dead publishing category.

Any publication that's tried to behave like a British Sunday supplement has come to grief. "TV killed Life the first time," said Peter Bauer, Life's publisher. "What killed Life the second time was that it was a general interest monthly. To succeed, you need to be contemporary. And to be contemporary, you need to be weekly."

Susan Pocharski, the features editor, says the new Life seeks to "uphold the tradition of the magazine of the Fifties and Sixties. We try to publish great photography and great story-telling on a weekly basis that looks at slices of life both domestic and international."

Readers of American newspapers are not known for their hunger for international news yet Life's editors have been surprised by the response they have had to foreign stories - or at least foreign stories that have American themes - like publishing last letters home from soldiers killed in Iraq. "We are definitely filling a gap by putting the human face on the international story," adds Pocharski.

Under the iron fist of the magazine's picture editor, George Pitts, Life is seeking to re-establish itself as force in photography. In it's heyday, it published some of the most recognisable images of the time and the publishers believe there is reason to think that the public responds to the still image.

Moreover, it is the magazine's bold ambition to redefine the readers' relationship to Hollywood and celebrity. The plan, says Pocharski, is not to blitz the covers with the promise of celebrity gossip and hysterical buzzwords that exist on any one of dozens of news-stand magazines that need celebrity to sell themselves. "We're trying to rekindle America's love affair with Hollywood," she explains. "We're not out to trap people or talk to them about their lastest love or break-up."

In practice that means asking a celebrity to talk to them about a time or part of their lives that's meaningful to them - and not put them on the spot about their fame. In the past few issues, Life has featured Tom Hanks looking back on "a less than perfect childhood" and what Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp learnt about parenting from starring in Finding Neverland, the recent film about Peter Pan author JM Barrie. "We take a celebrity and focus in on a slice of their lives that's meaningful to them," she explains, and we have found celebrities want to be in Life because we play fair with them."

But can Life survive this time? It looks like it might. It's hard to imagine how it can go wrong. But like the real thing, you never can tell.

A century on Camera

Henry Luce and his colleagues at Time Inc took advantage of the birth of the 35mm portable camera to publish a magazine that revolutionised photography in print. Launched in November 1936, Life has chronicled and provoked America's passions. The publication is said to bear the magazine world's most famous magazine logo. In its heyday, Mr Luce said it was "what the public wants more than it has ever wanted any product of ink and paper".

Most magazines are built around editors and writers, but Life is historically built around photographers. The magazine has featured some of the most recognisable images in the world and represents some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, including Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, Andreas Feininger and John Dominis. The most popular photograph in Life's history is "VJ Day" by Eisenstaedt.

The photograph, taken on 15 August 1945, pictures a sailor embracing a woman in Times Square. Robert Doisneau's 1950 picture of a kissing couple in Paris, Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville, is one of the most romantic images in the world. Eve Arnold pictured Marilyn Monroe in the Nevada Desert in 1960 for Life, which became one of Monroe's most iconic images. The magazine was a weekly until December 1972, then published as semi-annual special reports, and since 1978 as a monthly. But the May 2000 issue of Life was its last as a stand-alone magazine.

Genevieve Roberts

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