The Magic of Magazines

Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine, the current exhibition at The Jewish Museum, is a panoply of beautiful and provocative photography from the golden age of magazines.

Gloria Swanson, New York by Edward Steichen published in Vanity Fair, February 1928
Direction magazine covers 1930's-1940's


At a time when Americans came to rely on the periodical for guidance and education on a variety of topics from housekeeping to gardening to sartorial advisement and trend direction to the latest scientific or technological advances, photography as a medium steadily increased as the dominant form of communication to complement everything from news stories to fashion spreads.

Woman on Electrical Productions Building, New York World's Fair by Martin Munkacsi published in Harper's Bazaar, September 1938
Inaugural cover of Upjohn Pharmaceuticals monthly publication Scope featuring the anticipation of the phrase "test-tube baby" published by the magazine, November 1941

The American magazine matured in the mid 20th century, as European art directors, escaping unstable countries, immigrated to the United States with innovative and audacious viewpoints. Eager for new ways of expression, these art directors preferred the use of artistic and experimental photography over illustration. In due course, photographers blossomed and became celebrities in their own right. Richard Avedon, Herbert Matter, Edward Steichen, Lillian Bassman, Gordon Parks—to name a few—became just as acclaimed for their commercial work as their fellow fine artists of the time.

Charles White, Chicago 1941 by Gordon Parks
Atomic Head by Herbert Matter published in Arts and Architecture, December 1946
Nan Martin, Street Scene, First Avenue 1949 by Frances McLaughlin-Gill


Advertising soon picked up on this trend, with myriad products and services all being photographed to grab and hold a reader’s attention and ultimately influence buying decisions.

Knife with Pear by Lillian Bassman for a cutlery brand, 1950

Text and illustrations no longer held their interest.



These two photos cleverly employ a sense of whimsy to convey a consumerist message to post-war readers.

Harry Bertoia's Diamond Chair by Herbert Matter for Knoll, 1957

And, with the introduction of color imagery, magazines exploded in popularity. Color enriched the pages and brought a lushness to the various facets of print communication, providing a fresh and more direct impact. The viewer could experience the visual landscape in an almost three dimensional way.

Lipstick editorial by Leslie Gill published in Harper's Bazaar, October 1945
Untitled by Saul Leiter published in Harper's Bazaar, February 1959

Photography provided information, inspiration and aspiration to a nation that transitioned from the wartime period; to civil rights; to the moon landing; and onto the first African American model to appear on the cover of Vogue.

The Jewish Museum’s exhibition provides a comprehensive survey of images from chronological historical periods and covers a wide range of then current issues, lifestyle topics and social changes from these periods.

Department Store, Mobile by Gordon Parks published in Life, September 1956
Kid + Homeless, New York, 1955 by William Klein
Cover by Gordon Parks published in Newsweek, August 3, 1964

Many have said that magazines are now anemic in their influence at best and simply dead, at worst. That may be somewhat true, with the rise of social media. But nothing can away take that “fresh off the stands” feeling of a new issue, beckoning a reader to explore what lies beyond the cover. For this reason, I personally love magazines and the unique experience one can have sitting with the pages.

Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine reignites the excitement that magazines once held for readers when they all anxiously awaited the arrival of the mail carrier with the latest monthly, holding wonders within and possibilities for the future.

Perhaps this exhibition will reignite the desire to buy a magazine once again.

Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine runs through July 11.