The Golden Age of Magazines

The Jewish Museum’s “Modern Look” exhibition chronicles America’s burst of creativity from the 1930s - 60s

| 28 Apr 2021 | 11:47

Magazine racks will never seem the same after viewing “Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine,” at The Jewish Museum in New York (through July 11), chronicling the Golden Age (1930s - 60s) of magazine photography and design. It introduced icons like Avedon, Stieglitz and Penn, launched Black (Gordon Parks) and female (Lisette Model) photographers, and created entirely new ways to look at a printed page. But where did this creative burst come from?

This show underscores the influence of European emigres, many of Jewish descent, who brought their innovative ideas with them while fleeing tyranny. The 150 vintage photographs, art book layouts, and magazine cover designs had quite a long, strange trip of their own, as well.

“The research and development period took several years because I wanted to tell a story that hadn’t been told before,” says Senior Curator Mason Klein, “with works that weren’t as well known or seen.”

“Then the pandemic came – we couldn’t get loans because people couldn’t be there to pack the art, loans couldn’t be posted, shipped or packaged properly. There was a lot of triage and everyone had to deal with the unexpected.”

A Vivid Pictorial History

The show contains five sections: “Art as Design, Design as Art,” “Fashion as Desire,” “The Contested Page,” “Reimagining Industry,” and “Graphic Effect.” The draw is fashion and beauty photography – and it’s terrific. However, there’s much more to it than that, according to Klein.

“I really tried to show magazines weren’t just beauty and material things” he notes. One of his favorites, “The Contested Page,” shows works by Gordon Parks and Lisette Model. “Parks was one of the few who understood early that the camera was a fierce weapon,” Klein points out. “This was a time when photographers didn’t just do pretty images, but challenged the readers – almost voyeuristically – to see things they hadn’t seen before.”

The Sections

Art as Design, Design as Art introduces the pioneers who brought Avant Garde ideas with them when they fled Europe. The star here is Alexey Brodovitch, Russian-born art director of Harper’s Bazaar, who painted backdrops for the Ballets Russes in Paris before coming to the U.S. He inspired photographers with a phrase he heard from the troupe’s founder, Serge Diaghilev: “Astonish me.” The works here are dynamic, exciting and challenging, especially the wall of covers of DIRECTION magazine, a socialist culture review. Each have a punk sensibility – using random collage, clip art, color and typeface mashups - that would work as an album cover for The Clash.

Fashion as Desire: Black and white photos of the ultimate symbol of the 50s –wasp-waisted, well-hatted beauties (like Irving Penn’s “12 beauties” of famous models) line the walls. Panels in the middle of the room offer Avedon’s insightful celebrity portraits. Arthur Miller smirks as he poses with Marilyn Monroe, and a huge photo captures Marian Anderson transported in full-throated song. The shockers are the daring compositions and art direction by Vogue – even for the cover of a Vogue pattern book – and the daring collage and photography in the early work of Gordon Parks, the first Black photographer hired by Vogue.

The Contested Page: Long before the Internet, magazines and their photography were powerful carriers of compelling images and narratives. Gordon Parks stars here in works beyond fashion in works for Ebony and other outlets. His images still challenge the viewer and are as powerful today as they were in the 60s, showing, for instance, a woman and her daughter standing on a sidewalk under a “Colored Entrance” sign. Here are the first steps towards feminism as well, with examples of a magazine “for women who work” called Charm.

Reimagining Industry: This is the biggest surprise in the exhibit. Business and industry used dramatic and visually compelling art design in the covers of their magazines and in-house journals; Fortune was once considered the most lavishly designed magazine in the country. This sample of Fortune magazine covers under Will Burtin’s art direction are a tour de force of edgy collage, color and design, used to convey complex topics. Stodgy companies like Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, Abbot Labs, and Knoll International launched in-house journals with exciting and provocative design – even the Container Corporation of America’s series – the beautifully designed “Great Ideas of Western Man.”

He then went on to Scope, a house periodical for scientists and the medical community sponsored by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. This journal, previously shaped by Lester Beall into an unexpected visual publication, is considered to be the most artistically designed biomedical journal in history.

Graphic Effect: The final section shows a more freeform pattern of imagery - more like photographers as designers. Gordon Park’s series of photos evoking scenes from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” for Life Magazine range from complex – like A Man Becomes Invisible, or simple like Emerging Man, but all are compelling and moving.

There isn’t enough room to mention more works by Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Lester Beall, Margaret Bourke-White, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, William Klein, Herbert Matter, Lisette Model, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, Cipe Pineles, and others. You’ll have to see them for yourself ... and be astonished.

For information about the show: