Print is rumored to be dead, but there’s something about the allure of a magazine, of holding a glossy publication in your hands, that keeps bringing us back to it. Granted, the mainstream magazines of late have largely foregone artistic innovation in favor of pure celebrity worship. It wasn’t always like this, though: looking back through the archives of Vogue, LIFE, or Harper’s Bazaar reveals stories and imagery that would be hailed as modern genius today.

The Jewish Museum’s latest exhibition, “Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine” celebrates the ingenuity and artistic experimentation in popular magazines from the 1930s through the 1950s. As magazines began to embrace the avant-garde and incorporate its imagery into their pages (as well as their layouts), they helped introduce an entire generation of Americans to a newfound visual landscape, the effect of which has continued to trickle down through the fashion and art industries today.  

Dick and Adele, c. 1947 © Saul Leiter
Atom Bomb Sky, New York, 1955 © William Klein

“Modern Look” goes back to the genesis of that, starting at a time when magazines pivoted from illustration to photography. While the exhibition pays homage to the trailblazing photographers who contributed to these magazines, like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Gordon Parks or Robert Frank, it pays special attention to the artistic directors who were responsible for this new look, like Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar or Alexander Lieberman of Vogue.

With over 150 works spanning the exhibition, there are vintage photographs, art book layouts, magazine cover designs and more, all organized into five sections: “Art as Design, Design as Art,” “Fashion as Desire,” “The Contested Page,” “Reimagining Industry,” and “Graphic Effect,” each to demonstrate that the merging of art photography and commercial magazines had an effect well beyond simply making a pretty-looking magazine. Rather, it solidified photography’s importance as a medium of journalism and storytelling. 

Cover of Direction magazine, December 1940,
Designed by Paul Rand
Cover of Scope, November 1941,
Designed by Will Burtin

The Jewish Museum’s Senior Curator Mason Klein, who organized the exhibition, explains the inception of the exhibition thusly: “As the standard of photojournalism rose, so did the power of the photograph,” he said. “Magazines came to be understood as a potent new language, superseding the written word as a means of kindling the imagination.” 

Fashion, naturally, features heavily in the imagery throughout the exhibit. Lillian Bassman’s Blowing Kiss was taken on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, capturing actress Barbara Mullen in Dior’s “New Look”, a revolutionary collection that debuted in 1947 that brought back a classical femininity—cinched waist, rounded shoulders, full skirts—that had been largely abandoned during the shortages and restrictions of wartime. It was a new silhouette, and appropriately, Bassman captures Mullen in silhouette form, with her pointed hat and outstretched hand, the contrasts between light and dark as sharp as a razor.  

Blowing Kiss (Barbara Mullen), 1950 Outtake from “The V-Back Evenings,”
Harper’s Bazaar, July 1955 © Lilian Bassman
Woman on Electrical Productions Building, New York World’s Fair,
Published in Harper’s Bazaar, September 1938 © Martin Munkacsi

“The city’s budding graphic design culture gave rise to a diversity of photography as it absorbed literary, painterly, and cinematic elements, and challenged the conventional distinction between the fine and the applied arts,” said Klein. From Martin Munkácsi’s Woman on Electrical Productions Building, with its diagonal, convergent lines, to Frances McLaughlin-Gil’s Nan Martin, Street Scene with the gingham of a coat contrasting with the lines of a building’s windows, many of the images include graphic attributes. 

Indeed, many of the glossy magazines of today could learn a thing or two from revisiting Lieberman’s Vogue and Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar. Their roots, as Klein said, “emerged from a distinctly American combination of innovation and pragmatism.” Maybe print isn’t dead after all; maybe it just needs a little Brodovitchian innovation.

Nan Martin, Street Scene, First Avenue (detail), 1949
© Frances McLaughlin-Gill
Komol Haircoloring, 1932 © Grete Stern

By Christina Cacouris 

Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.

Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine
On view at the until July 11, 2021
Jewish Museum, New York.

Kid + Homeless, New York, c. 1955 © William Klein
Seventh Symphony (Men Leaping with Architectural Feature), c. 1930s © Alexey Brodovitch

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