MFA’s “LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography” is a stunning display of photojournalism



The exhibit includes light boxes with photos on top and a magnifying glass beside it so that visitors can interact with the exhibit.

Walking into the Museum of Fine Arts’ temporary exhibit on LIFE magazine, I had expected a small, lighthearted tribute to a retro American magazine. I could not have been more wrong.

“LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography” opened at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) on Oct. 9, 2022 and closes on Jan. 16, 2023. The exhibit, with work spanning the years 1936 to 1972, consists of an expansive collection of images, many of which from LIFE magazine. I found this collection of photographs, letters and various other media to be incredibly moving.

This exhibition provides an in-depth look at the making of LIFE magazine, as well as all the different stages of editing photos go through. They also highlight biases that tend to plague many works in journalism. I thought the inner workings of LIFE magazine’s process was very eye-opening.

However, what struck me most about this exhibit was the emotional magnitude of the pieces they presented. It definitely caught me by surprise to learn that the majority of the exhibit is devoted to American tragedies.

In the exhibit, there is a clear focus on moments of action that can only be captured by photography. Every scene is a millisecond of a much bigger story. So, in a sense, it shows that photography can be both an accurate portrayal of events, but also a narrow, distorted view of what actually happened.

There is a collection of photos taken on the battlefield of the Vietnam War that I found particularly chilling. This series is illuminated by a bright, colorful light behind the prints, and that adds more of an emphasis on the tragedy by drawing attention to it visually. As described in the blurb, many of the photojournalists found that it was more powerful to take photos of wounded soldiers and the casualties of war rather than the battle itself. Choices like these helped shape the way journalists captured important events over time.

As I continued through the exhibit, I came across an incredibly moving contemporary piece about the Rwandan genocide. In the center of the room, there is a large light box with exactly one million copies of the same slide photographs to represent the number of people killed in the genocide. The sheer magnitude of the piece left me stunned. The pain and suffering was translated so effortlessly through the mountain of photos and I couldn’t stop staring at it in silence.

The exhibit also includes vivid images from the Holocaust, Japanese internment camps, as well as the victims of the Birmingham bombing. I found this collection especially striking. It brought the history of those events to my attention in a personal way as I examined the real people in the photographs. Although the room was quite crowded, there was a solemn, quiet atmosphere as people observed the photographic depictions of tragic events in history.

The exhibit also addresses various discussions of bias in journalism. It was refreshing to see tangible criticism of the way the media has failed marginalized groups throughout history.

A series of reworked New York Times articles, made by artist Alexandra Bell, were composed to emphasize the pervasive white lens that many stories are told through. Bell marked up an original New York Times article and pointed out subtle, but crucial areas of prejudice in the headlines, captions and photo choices. Then, next to the marked up copy, the reinvented article is placed in an effort to portray a more equitable perspective.

I think it’s easy to separate oneself from the people in historical photographs. Despite this, the “LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography” exhibit removes the barrier of time and forces you to confront the past through these striking and deeply personal images. This left me reflecting on the ways that the media depicts the tragedies of today.

Although these photographs will last forever, this exhibit will not, so I highly suggest you take a look at the MFA’s “LIFE Magazine and the Power of Photography” while it’s still here. The exhibit closes on Jan. 16, 2023.