Black Star and Life: End of an Era

(In honor of Black Star’s 75th anniversary, Black Star Rising is publishing occasional excerpts from Hendrik Neubauer’s 1996 profile of the agency, Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism.)

In its long history, Black Star has seen the best and worst of times in the business of photojournalism. The “high art” of journalistic storytelling in pictures entered a permanent crisis from the end of the 1960s onwards.

Even the apparently symbiotic relationship between Black Star and Life came to an end. In 1972, the magazine ceased publication.

Deathblow for Life

The reason for this was primarily the magazine’s appetite for the huge and spectacular with regard to budget, employees and print runs. Television, which was undergoing an explosive development in the 1960s, stole advertising revenue from Life with its colorful and rapid pictures and thus took away the magazine’s raison d’etre.

However, other circumstances resulted in a deathblow for Life, as a remark made by William Owens suggests:

Life lost substantial advertising revenues, but it had also lost its political role … Life played a cohering role in the creation of the American nation … and in asserting American power internationally, once the restraints of isolationism had been removed.

Perhaps the crisis of confidence experienced by Americans during the Vietnam War expanded into a fatal crisis of confidence in Life.

A New Focus

Ben Chapnick recalls the end of Life thus:

Very frankly, it was like any other day in the history of the agency. It had been a number of years since Life was an important factor in the economic life of this agency, and the demise of the magazine created a sadness emotionally, but had no effect on the agency, the photographers, or the work that we were doing at that time.

In the 1960s, Newsweek and Time became the agency’s most important clients for photojournalism, and a change took place in the way in which Black Star photographers worked on assignments. The magazines developed, in competition with television, an ever-increasing appetite for pictures of events around the world.

The golden era of background stories that reflected the news of the day had become a thing of the past. Henceforth, reporting that focused on events predominated.

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