Remembering John Loengard – Photographer, Editor, Author

News reached me today (27th May 2020), from California-based Australian Image curator, Graham Howe, of the passing on May 24th, of the remarkable John Loengard. Born in 1934 he was part of the golden age of photographers who created and crafted images for Life magazine. He was a superb mentor, teacher, editor, writer, photographer. He joined Life magazine in 1961 and was photo editor from 1973-1987.

As Graham so aptly states, “John’s perception was zen-like. Through both his own masterful photographs and those he chose to publish by others, he mapped a visual intelligence that helped us make sense out of this world.”

I was introduced to John Loengard by the then-Senior Curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Australia, Gael Newton, who persuaded me to sponsor John’s visit to Australia to address the millennial Australian Photographic Society APSCON Convention in Canberra in 2000.

What follows is the result of an extraordinary collaborative interview in Sydney over an hour that turned into three hours, two days after the convention. Some days later it expanded in an email exchange after his return to the USA. It was first published in Nikon Light Reading Magazine, in the December 2000 edition, of which I was also the Publisher.

John Loengard, holding a copy of an earlier edition of the Australian Nikon Light Reading magazine in a hotel interview in 2000. Photo: John Swainston.

PROFILE:  JOHN LOENGARD – FORMER LIFE PHOTOGRAPHER AND PICTURE EDITOR (First Published December 2000, Nikon Light Reading magazine, Australia.)

“I really think Nikon should support a visit by New York photographer and past Life picture editor, John Loengard, to coincide with our Silk exhibition,” said Gael Newton, Senior Curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia. 

We were sitting rugged-up midwinter in a breezy restaurant in Sydney’s inner eastern suburb of Paddington, near to the Australian Centre for Photography.  Nikon had already agreed to support the outstanding first museum exhibit of the work of New Zealand-born photographer George Silk at the NGA. Happily it coincided with the annual Australian Photographic Society Conference (APSCON) being held in Canberra after the Olympics and before the Paralympics. Gael Newton, apart from being one of the most authoritative photo curators in Australia, is also very persuasive and passionate in her enthusiasm to promote opportunities to extend Australia’s new-found love of photography.

Thus was arranged the visit to Australia by one of New York’s most eminent photographers and pictorial editors, formerly of the august Life Magazine.  For those fortunate to have heard his two Canberra lectures during October 2000, it was an enriching experience to see his work, hear his comments on the most formidable photo essayists of the fifties, sixties and seventies and to share in his dry Upper West-side Manhattan sense of humour.

He kindly assented to an hour’s interview in Sydney, where I talked with him about photography and the impact that it has made and continues to make on our society. I was particularly interested in how his association with Life Magazine had started.

“I had been contributing to my college alumni magazine during my undergraduate studies, producing picture stories much influenced by what I had been seeing in Life. I wasn’t studying photography; it was Modern European History. Life’s Boston Bureau Chief saw my work in the magazine and recommended me to New York for an assignment, but I was turned down. My break came in the year of my graduation, 1956. A tanker ran aground in Cape Cod and I was given the chance of getting the pictures, which ultimately led me back to New York and a start at Life Magazine.”

“My earliest influences had been a book titled “Fritz Henle and His Rollei.” I was also much impressed by the renowned Herald Tribune photographer Nat Fein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the farewell ceremony for baseball legend, Babe Ruth, in 1947. For a newspaper photographer of his day, Fein put great store in avoiding the use of fill-in flash. It’s a facet of my photography today that I try always to work with available light. In rare cases where that’s impossible, I’ll go whole hog and use large flash systems to control the lighting and make it resemble natural light as much as possible. Then I worked with black and white images and still do so today, predominantly using a Nikon F3, a 35mm PC Nikkor lens or a Micro Nikkor 60mm.” 

The mid-1950’s in America was a time of real boom, economic expansion and renewal. Gone were the shadows of the Second World War and Korea. General Dwight Eisenhower was occupying the White House, but it was the age of Bill Haley & The Comets and rock ‘n roll. The television Sunlight Soap operas were getting up a head of steam. Yet, in what seemed like another world, Hungary was being overrun by the Soviets and the Suez Canal was the centre of an International crisis. What was the strength of the then twenty year-old magazine like Life? 

“When Life Magazine was introduced in 1936, it was able to take advantage of new technology just then developed by the RR Donnelley Company, America’s largest printing entity. Donnelley had developed a way to dry ink quickly when printing on coated paper stock, -a necessity for the massive print runs of a weekly news-in-pictures magazine. Henry Luce, Life’s founder, was 38 when the magazine started and his staff was much younger. Luce brought his experience of creating strong picture portfolios of American business in Fortune magazine. There he had used pictures that did more than illustrate written stories. They had shown facts clearly and powerfully. Through Luce’s strong intellectual curiosity and his team of young editors and photographers, Life set the visual standards for a quality pictorial magazine. By the mid 1950s Life had gained the ability to reproduce colour on short deadlines that enabled a new dimension to be added to the long-standing strong black and white tradition.”

“Competition with television had simply demanded colour. Advertisers found that television was the most cost-effective way to reach broad groups of people, -those who eat soup, for example. As long as television was still broadcast in black and white, national magazines continued to command the attention and interest of national audiences and advertisers. But as the sixties dawned, colour TVs began to appear. Coincidentally, the nation had become less innocent or homogeneous than it had been. A story on an Iowa barn dance would no longer captivate a resident of Florida.” 

After the interview was over I wondered if the influence of the locally produced nightly major city TV news bulletins which began at the end of the fifties was responsible for the unrelenting preoccupation that middle America had for local interest stories. I remember when I lived in Chicago some twenty years ago the senior Senator of Illinois, Chuck Percy was the Republican party’s bellwether for whether a party policy would appeal to the voters. He would always say, “If it doesn’t play in Peoria, it won’t play anywhere.” (Peoria is the ultimate middle-America small town in Southern Illinois, not far from where Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years.) Thus, a period of inward-looking local thinking was born.

In Loengard’s APSCON talk he had showed us a number of superb Life Magazine picture spreads. The audience was clearly struck by the sequences of images that drew one into the subject of the feature story. I asked him what the essential skills were for a photo essay.

“I mentioned earlier the strength of Luce’s pictorial heritage. He had sought out photographers who could extend the concept of the portfolios in Fortune magazine into picture stories that would throw light on a subject in depth.  Photographers like Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White and of course Alfred Eisenstaedt, or more recently Mary Ellen Mark, all had the ability to get inside an issue and unfold multiple dimensions of the subject. Often I’m shown photo essays that are portfolios of good images that simply repeat their content over and over. I don’t feel I have been allowed to get inside the subject. At Life we tried to capture the subject’s various dimensions to lead the viewer to discover something new at every turn of the page. 

Of course, the single photograph can be terribly telling. I don’t think anyone can doubt the significance of Eddie Adams’ horrific image of a Vietnamese officer’s summary execution of  a Vietcong suspect. Single-handedly it probably shifted the ground away from the Kennedy/Johnson path by convincing Americans reading the morning paper that America was involved in something wrong. Nixon was elected nine months after it appeared and was constantly seeking a way to withdraw the USA from what was being shown as a foreigner’s war. Certainly Larry Burrows’ essays in Life also brought the war to the reader with an immediacy that helped change attitudes and sped our withdrawal from the conflict.” 

“In his unique way, W. Eugene Smith’s extraordinary technical ability to turn subjects into pictures, also turned the picture story into an art form. I often try to explain the concept of what a picture story is by suggesting that in the old days, if Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson both went to Coney Island (New York) in the summer when there’d be a million people on the beach, you’d expect both would come back with large portfolios of remarkable pictures of humanity frolicking on the sand. (It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel.) But if the subject is specific and topical, as it should be, -say, the parachute jump on the boardwalk, not the bathers, Cartier-Bresson might produce a decisive moment or two from which you could choose the best. But Smith would observe the parachute jump from every conceivable angle, the tension of waiting, what it feels like to float down, the arrival on the ground, what sort of people line up to go, what sort of people operate the equipment and so forth. He would produce a series of photographs that would add up to an insightful and exciting drama.”

Society often takes revisionist views on those who an earlier generation has extolled. Icons of an earlier era are sometimes seen in a lesser light. I wondered if, thorough his own photography and his work as a photo editor, John Loengard had modified his views of who had really contributed most strongly to Life’s heritage.

“Generally nearly all the Life photographers and their work stand up well. I think the work by John Olson probably is under-appreciated now and was perhaps not adequately recognised when it was produced. In Maitland Edey’s 1978 book, Great Photographic Essays from Life, (ISBN: 0-8212-0742-3) no less than three of the twenty-two were the photographed by Leonard McCombe. But outside of the world of photojournalism his work is seldom mentioned or shown. Edey had been an editor of Life in the ‘40s and ‘50s and produced the book for the New York Graphic Society in his retirement. The weekly magazines are of course long since gone, but as a book I think it shows just how strong some of these photo stories were. When shown in their original layouts it is clear how the strength of design reinforced the great images contained in each essay.”

I was intrigued by how changing technology had changed photography.

“Photography has gone through technical and aesthetic changes throughout its one hundred and sixty years. Despite the fact that there was extensive photography of the American Civil War in the 1860s, it seems amazing that the Great War has so little imagery. I don’t know if it was due to censorship, but there really were not major photo stories that survive of the war. This is despite the fact that newspapers had used photographs on a regular basis since early in the 20th century. Of course, it was German newspaper supplements ‘Münchner Illustrierte Presse’ and ‘Berliner Illustrirte’ that spearheaded the use of the new, small, precision German cameras in the twenties and were major catalysts for increased pictorial reporting, and for more informal pictures.”

“Today, with digital photography, we are on the brink of another major change. Photography has often leapt forward in response to technical innovations in the past. Digital is just another tool in the palette of the photographer. The software is really little different than the possibilities of the darkroom. For colour especially, the control of the print will match the control we’ve long had in black and white. Expression in colour will take on new dimensions using digital techniques and this will be a significant step forward. In the 1930s there were three catalysts for progress in pictorial coverage: the flash bulb, higher film speed (100 ISO!) and super-fast lenses that the new small 35mm format cameras allowed. These advances permitted photographers to record human activity indoors candidly for the first time. In the same way the immediacy, the flexibility and the extended creative possibilities of digital photography may prove an equally strong boost to picture making. As a long-time exponent of the art of black & white pictures, I find the colour possibilities in digital quite intriguing and potentially so much more powerful.”  

John Loengard has compiled three books of his own work and three on other Life photographers. For now he is seeking more subtle, perhaps more languid rhythms in his own work. He feels his photographs no longer must compete at the turn of a page with dramatic images of the Civil Rights movement, the napalm of Vietnam and the tribal wars of Africa. Despite his admission to being kicked out of music classes in fifth grade, he ventures that he is looking for ‘less fortissimo’ in his pictures. Of his contemporaries, he remembers the time when photographers were little appreciated and their work was unspoiled by the vast sums of money that their work now commands.

“It’s certainly a change in society’s view about photography. What does it mean? I don’t know.”

The published works of John Loengard can be found in most major State Libraries around Australia. Several are also available from major online bookstores and some Australian art galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia. 

For reference they are:

Life Photographers: What They Saw (1998). Bulfinch Press, ISBN 082122518. 
Life Classic Photographers: A personal interpretation (1996). Bulfinch Press, ISBN 0821222635.

Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch (1994). Schirmer Art Books. ISBN 3-88814-745-X (3-88814-180-X).

Celebrating the Negative (1994). Arcade Publishing, ISBN 1559702826.

Life Faces (1991). Macmillan Publishing Co. ISBN 0-02-574043-1.

Pictures Under Discussion (1987) Amphoto ISBN 0-8174-5539-6 (-5540-X) (pbk.)  

Rest In Peace, John Loengard,
1934 – May 24 2020, in New York City, Aged 85.