Academic journal article Journalism History

The (Nearly) Naked Truth: Gender, Race, and Nudity in Life, 1937

Academic journal article Journalism History

The (Nearly) Naked Truth: Gender, Race, and Nudity in Life, 1937

Article excerpt

Henry Luce's Life magazine had an early brush with controversy in 1937 with the publication of a voyeuristic feature titled "How to Undress." This paper undertakes a qualitative analysis of this and other instances of nudity in the first year of Life to understand the institutional and cultural contest in which "How to Undress" emerged. It also addresses the questions of how this deature (and nudity more broadly) fit into photojournalism and what these images and responses to them suggest about ideologies of gender, race, and sexuality Life's nudity was not merely a frivolous distration from the serious news of the day, as some commentators have suggested. Instead, it often communicates serious messages about women's proper role in society and about distintions between Americans and people from other cultures.

Every week hundreds of human beings-some of them news-- worthy-reveal their exhibitionist traits by showing off before a camera-sometimes with appalling results. SHOWBOOK will save a half page or so in the back of the book for the silliest of these self-exposures.

Henry R. Luce, A Prospectus for a New Magazine1

Life will show us the Man-of-the-Week ... his body clothed and, if possible, nude.

Henry R. Luce, Life Prospectus2

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible3

American news photography reached a new level of popularity and credibility in the 1930s with the rise of documentary photography and large-format photographic magazines, especially Life. As journalism historian Michael Carlebach has noted, photojournalism came of age in this period, moving from tabloid sensationalism to serious coverage of news and social issues.4 Previously, news photography was clearly subordinate to the printed word with its practitioners almost always working anonymously and getting little respect from reporters and editors. With advances in photographic and printing technologies, however, the journalistic uses of photography expanded and its status improved. When Life began publication in 1936, it was the first magazine in which photographs played the starring role, supported by captions and short articles. Life also made stars out of several of its top photographers, especially Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt, who were pioneers of the photographic essay.

Despite Life's reputation for quality coverage of news and social issues, it also offered a lot of sensationalism and controversy. A frequently cited example of the frivolous side of Life is the 1937 feature "How to Undress for Your Husband," which contained a strip-tease in the guise of advice for married women. Journalism historians have used "How to Undress" to suggest that Life, despite its superb photographic essays, displayed a vulgarity that precluded its being taken completely seriously as journalism.5 Similarly, photojournalism historians have cited "How to Undress" as an example of the medium's continuing problem with sensationalism.6 In the broader context of cultural history, James Guimond analyzed the feature as an instance of Life's careful "cheesecake protocol" that edited out overt displays of eroticism, while it allowed certain voyeuristic images of women that fit into its family magazine image.7 According to Life insiders Robert T. Elson and Loudon Wainwright, "How to Undress" was a crude but successful effort to boost circulation.8 The editor of Life's fiftieth anniversary retrospective criticized the magazine's early editors, who "veered into vulgarity" by publishing the piece.9 Given the wide range of scholars and others who have commented on "How to Undress," it is surprising that little research has been done on these types of images in 1930s photojournalism?10

The purpose of this article is to explore nudity in the first year of Life to better understand: the institutional and cultural context in which "How to Undress" emerged; how this feature (and nudity more broadly) fit into photojournalism; and what these images and responses to them suggest about ideologies of gender, race, and sexuality. …

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