Keppler’s Vault 55: LIFE Photo Lab

There was a time when LIFE Magazine was one of the most highly respected news publications in the world.  Originally started as a humor magazine in 1883, the magazine published humorous articles until an ownership change in 1936.  In that year, Henry Luce, owner of Time Magazine bought the publication only for it’s name with the intent of turning it into a weekly news publication with an emphasis on photojournalism.

Here, Princess Elizabeth graces a special color cover of LIFE in Oct ’51.

LIFE Magazine would continue it’s weekly format until 1972, at which time it switched to a monthly publication, which lasted until 2000 when it’s parent company, Time-Warner decided to shutter the publication due to declining sales and poor advertising revenue.

But during the magazine’s heyday, if anything you did, whether as an author or photographer, was published in LIFE Magazine, you knew you had made it.

LIFE Magazine had no shortage of A-list photographers such as David Douglas Duncan, Carl Mydans, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and many others.  Between them, some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century were taken and published in the pages of the magazine.

Considering the profile of the work being published, you’d have to imagine that the people behind the scenes that brought these images to newsstands every week were under immense pressure and extreme deadlines.

In this week’s Keppler’s Vault, we take a look at a two-part article from July and August 1960 that takes a behind the scenes look at LIFE’s Photo Lab.

A group shot of the photographers working for LIFE Magazine when this article was printed in 1960.  In this picture are some of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

While I would never dream of discrediting the hard work of the men and women photojournalists out there today bringing to us up to the minute photos of world events as they unfold, the speed and convenience that the digital world affords us has eliminated countless positions that were once held by all the behind the scenes workers back when this article was written.

Here, a technician inspects rolls of color film hanging in an electric film dryer.

The photos that came through the LIFE photo lab were also used in Time and Sports Illustrated magazines as well, so a tremendous amount of choreography and organization that would have been required to handle all of the assignments, stories, and photos that likely came through this lab at a breakneck pace.  What required 12,458 square feet of space back then likely could be accomplished by a couple people sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer today.

I found the descriptions of how the film was assigned numbers linking it to a story, then developed, inspected, contact printed, enlargened, and filed away to be incredibly fascinating.  As much as I loved reading this article, I’d love to see a documentary that shows the entire process from start to finish.

In part two of this article, originally published in August 1960, we learn a little bit more about how LIFE handled color film.  Looking simply at the layout of the building, the color lab had it’s own section in one corner of the entire facility.  What I found interesting was their exclusive use of Ektachrome and Anscochrome slide files.  There was no mention of any color negative or Kodachrome back in those days.

Sue Thalberg works in the file room, meticulously organizing thousands of negatives.

What impressed me most reading this article, wasn’t just the elaborate setup needed to process and handle the massive amount of black and white and color film that went through it, but the film room shown in image 9.

It hurts my brain at the number of historically significant images that must be stored in this room.  I have to imagine this stuff was saved and still exists somewhere.  If not in a warehouse owned by the current Time-Warner company, or possibly in a museum.  If anyone reading this knows the fate of the LIFE photo archives, please let me know in the comments below.

You could argue that LIFE magazine would not have been as successful as they were without excellent writing, a knack for identifying and getting to stories before other magazines, or even just a little bit of luck, but I truly believe the talent of it’s photographers and it’s countless amount of photos is what elevated it to one of the premiere news publications of the 20th century, and the LIFE photo lab is where most of that magic happened.

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All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2020.

4 Comments

  1. Nice coverage of a photography icon. I must admit though, the Associated Press and it’s photography department was an iconic operation also. I had 40 years invested in that department.

  2. Fascinating article. Sad, however, that a publisher archiving images would have chosen Anscochrome. Ansco’s slide films age poorly, losing color saturation over time. I shot a good bit of it during the early 1960s and stored the slides in the dark and low humidity. Just ten years or so later (still well within Life Magazine’s heydays) the images were fading. Today, they are so weak as to (likely) be beyond digital restoration. I realize that Ansco had the first fast 35mm ‘chrome film (ASA 500) but for daily use Ektachrome (or an Agfa emulsion) should have been chosen.

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