Life Magazine Photographers – Lessons 1


Looking at other photographers’ work is a great way to find your own style. Whilst I am in the midst of reading quite a few specialised street photography books, they can be fairly demanding of my attention. I have to make some “quiet time” to really get into them.

I recently managed to watch “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 45 minute increments over 3 or 4 consecutive QANTAS flights last month. It was the perfect aeroplane movie – not too involving and mildly entertaining. I make a call in the first 10 minutes if a movie is worth watching. As soon as I found out the plot revolved around a missing photographic negative, I was smitten!

The story is set during the closure of the printed Life Magazine product. It reminded me of one the first “photography” books I purchased – “The Great Life Photographers”. You can buy it here. I have never actually read a Life Magazine, but everyone knows the images. It is an easy way to explore “journalistic” style which can be very relevant to street photography.

Here are some of the images I love from the book, along with a brief explanation of what I learnt. Sorry about the quality, but they are direct scans from the book as I struggled to find the images on the interwebs…

Photographer : Robert W. Kelley

Photographer : Robert W. Kelley

For a scene taking place in a relaxed rural setting, there is a strong point of tension. The work already complete vs. the work yet to come. “The calm before the storm.”

The wide angle of the image demonstrates why the main subject is having a break. The massiveness of the table settings is augmented by the clear repetition – the people setting up have had to do the same tasks over and over and over.

The repetition present in the image suggests the sense of the exhaustion the maid must already be feeling, and the anticipation of the oncoming onslaught of people. Every single chair will soon have a hungry person on it wanting to be waited on, fed, and watered. Every single cup will need to be filled multiple times. The calm before the storm…

Kelley has produced a very aesthetically pleasing image – where the composition techniques help tell the story.

Repetition is a theme in this photo that helps tell the story. The mass of parallel lines and subject items are virtually unmissable. The overwhelming size of the tables dwarfs the maid. Being front and centre ensures she is the clear subject. The wide angle captures the relationship perfectly – she is the focus, but you get a sense of the enormity of the picnic lunch about to happen.

The figures in distance, still setting up, help highlight the overall size of the scene. I often struggle with composition in these situations – either the main human subject ends up being too small or it underplays the size of the complementing scene.

Finding ordinary people in extraordinary visual situations takes patience. Most of the time, this theme plays out with a small subject contrasted against a massive and relatively plain architectural or natural backdrop.

There is a nice quirk at the top end of the second table – one of the chairs is different and provides a point of interest to balance against the maid.

Lessons :

1. Use a wide angle lens to capture a wider, massive scene, whilst maintaining focus on a human subject in the foreground.

2. Repetition and parallel lines are a strong visual theme.

3. Ordinary people in extraordinary scenes.

4. Capture moments “before the storm” hits.


Photographer : Herbert Gehr

Photographer : Herbert Gehr

An amazing photo, considering the lighting conditions.

There are clearly defined “light edges” (ref Fan Ho techniques here) along the footpath, creating interesting angles other than 90 degrees. The group of three men is accentuated by the shadow that falls from their figures. The rather ominous single figure under the Bar sign on the corner provides a counter to the man bottom right who is moving along the footpath.

“Nothing good happens after 2am” is the mantra of many professional sporting clubs – the image looks as though the fun an sociable part of the night is about to come to a close. The scraps of paper on the footpath, and the lack of women in the image suggest the night is getting quite old. The time has come when those who do not want any further “excitement” have gone home and to bed.

The photographer has captured the image from a high vantage point, which creates a point of view that is not ordinary or expected.

My Melbourne Silver Mine buddies talk about “little dude” subjects – images with small silhouetted figures, normally a single person, but in this case, many “little dudes”.

Little Dude works because of the lack of recognisable facial features – where the viewer can easily project themselves onto the subject. They can imagine being in the scene.

Lessons :

1. “Little Dude” subjects are generally only silhouetted and do not have recognisable facial features.

2. Find an interesting angle.

3. Look for areas of high contrast between light and dark – creating “light edges”.


Read part two of this article here.


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