LIFE cover art a looking glass into the past
While inventorying materials stored in the basement of the Greensburg Hempfield Area Library, volunteer Keith Kelly came across a treasure trove that he used to create the library's latest special exhibition.
Stacked on shelves, surrounded by rare books and old newspapers, were dozens of copies of Life magazines.
For about three months, Kelly sorted and organized issues spanning the years from 1939 to 1972, when Life ceased weekly publication and became a monthly and finally a newspaper supplement before its 2007 demise.
Ultimately, he chose more than 100 issues from 1939 to 1970 to display for the iconic cover photographs.
“They were sitting in our basement for years and years and years, and we didn't know what to do with them,” says Diane Ciabattoni, assistant to library director Linda Matey. “Nobody could see them or enjoy them, so it's great to see them come alive again.”
Deciding which covers to include in the exhibit, running through Jan. 23, was a daunting task.
“I've never done anything like this before, so I was improvising the whole time,” Kelly says.
He also conferred with local photographer Richard Stoner, whose work is included in the collections of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art, among other institutions and private collections.
Kelly says he turned to Stoner for help because Stoner uses Life photos when teaching photography and visual art at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill University. Stoner will draw on his knowledge to give a lecture on the photojournalists who worked for Life and the magazine's place in photographic history at 2 p.m. Jan. 14 in the library.
The exhibit's final line-up has a chronological flow, Kelly says, with the individual covers more or less evenly spanning the decades of publication.
“There were so many themes you could do — women photographers, military images, social change,” he says. “I told my wife, there's so much women's fashion, you could do a whole exhibition just with women's fashion. I tried to get the best overall sampling of what was available.”
Library visitors will find plenty of images that have become part of the American consciousness.
There's Yousuf Karsh's 1941 portrait of a scowling Winston Churchill, said to be one of the most reproduced photos in history.
There's the 1945 photo by Alfred Eisenstadt, sometimes called the dean of Life photographers, capturing an American sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate VJ-Day, the long-awaited victory over Japan that ended World War II.
The piercing eyes of Charles Manson glare from a 1969 cover. Celebrities and athletes smile from others.
Just as important as the history they captured, Kelly says, is what the covers convey about the way news was disseminated in simpler times.
“Life was really the one voice of America in the early years, when all there was was radio,” he says.
“Life also pioneered the idea of photojournalism. The photos really were the story. In many cases, the words were incidental.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.