From Frank Sinatra gazing into space as he draws on a cigarette, to a self-confident, though battered Muhammad Ali emerging from the fight with his archrival Joe Frazier; from orange-colored napalm clouds over wartime Vietnam to Bobby Kennedy jogging with his dog along a turquoise seashore; from Picasso to Churchill, to Gandhi and Che Guevara; from the land to the skies, and from wildlife to everyday life — this first auction of LIFE photographs offers a treasure trove.
Between 1936 and 1972, this fabulous selection of images inspired travel, emotions, and awe to millions of readers of this exceptional magazine, which dispatched talented photographers around the world to capture it thanks to their trained eye, talent, and courage.
A collection of the best photographs from LIFE Magazine’s archives is brought to the public for the very first time in Europe, and this event takes place in France, in Paris, and is of course made to coincide with the renowned Paris Photo art fair (which this year is quite different).
So what is, or rather, what was LIFE? It was the brainchild of Henry Luce, a genius member of the American press who also launched TIME. LIFE’s front page — and content — highlighted momentous events spanning the prewar years, the fifties, the sixties, and beyond, and covering topics such as fashion, painting, politics, literature, sports, war, current events, and the spirit of the times. LIFE pioneered this type of magazine, inspiring other successful weeklies, such as Paris Match. LIFE’s strength and firepower did not derive solely from its photographs: it also published Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea before it was released as a book, probably contributing to the author’s winning a Nobel Prize for literature.
LIFE was therefore a driving force, a powerhouse, an influencer that offered insights into human nature thanks to its prestigious contributors, its photographers, and veritable creators of some 200 masterpieces which now go under the hammer. These were legends of their craft: Alfred Eisenstædt, seen as the father of photojournalism; Larry Burrows, the great war-photographer who spent nine years in Vietnam; Gion Milli, the virtuoso portraitist; Margaret Bourke-White, the first female photojournalist; and many others, including John Dominis, Allan Grant, and Gordon Parks. They all embarked on a quest to capture that decisive moment: an unexpected gesture, a singular angle, a celebrity suddenly exposed, lighting that alters the scene, a moment of pure truth or pure beauty.
Every one of these photographers was eager to make our lives look ever more LIFE-like. Was there ever a better title for a publication: four white letters on a red background, at once a logo, a brand, a trademark, an heritage?
I recall being a foreign student on an American campus in the mid-fifties: as we impatiently looked forward every week to a new issue of LIFE, one of us even came up with a jingle:
– What’s LIFE?
– It’s a magazine.
– How much is it?
– 5 cents.
Was Life worth only 5 cents? Of course not! It was worth much more. Reality was interpreted and depicted by true artists who probed contemporary issues and were shrewd observers of current events and celebrities. They were photojournalists, members of a noble elite.
Photojournalists are princes of our craft. Photojournalists are chroniclers of society. They are hunters, tracking emotion and revealing personalities; they are historians whose art is to transform an instant into something universal.
By Philippe Labro
Philippe Labro is a French writer, journalist, and filmmaker.
The Eye of LIFE Magazine
November 11 to 14, 2020 (The exhibition proceeds as scheduled)
Cornette de Saint-Cyr Auction House,
6 avenue Hoche, 75008 Paris, France
By appointment for the press only, from 10 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. (and until 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 14). For the general public, a virtual visit is available at cornettedesaintcyr.fr.
– A vast majority of the photographs are accompanied by well-documented fact-sheets for an enhanced viewing experience.
The auction, under the hammer of Arnaud Cornette de Saint Cyr, will be broadcast live, Saturday, November 14 at 3 p.m. at https://drouot.com/.