Google's New Lease on LIFE

Google's digital archive of the famed mag lets us flip – er, click – through the 20th Century

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009  |  Updated 5:49 AM PDT
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Marilyn Monroe Before She Was Famous

Getty Images

LIFE magazine lives online in a new Google Books digital archive.

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The latest Internet time-suck is a virtual time machine that’s well worth the trip.

Google Books recently unveiled its free digital archive of LIFE magazine, featuring every page of every issue from the picture-driven publication’s heyday as a weekly, from 1936 to 1972.

The issues tell at least part of the story of the U.S. and the world around it, from the Great Depression to the dawn of Watergate – with wars, assassinations, the space race, social upheaval as well as four decades worth of celebrities, sports and fashion in between.

Many of the cover subjects are icons still identifiable by initials, or first names: FDR, JFK, MLK, Marilyn, Jackie. Between the covers resides some of the best photojournalism of the last century, including the work of Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa and Gordon Parks, among others.

Not all the gems are photos – Marilyn Monroe’s last interview is among the many articles worth reading. (“Sometime I feel I’m fooling somebody, maybe myself,” she said.) The ads over the years, touting the virtues of everything from bacon (“Be one step ahead with meat power from Swift!) to smoking (“Dutch Masters For Christmas”), are priceless, shameless products of the “Mad Men” era.

The Internet often gets blamed for slowly killing print, but this is one case where Google is helping revive a lost art form. In an age of instant video, it’s all too easy at times to forget the lasting power packed by a great photograph – there was a reason grandma kept that dusty stack of LIFE magazines long after the issues arrived in the mail.

The magazine was reborn a couple times over the years in different forms, before folding, apparently for good, in 2007. But it lives online, with new photographs, at LIFE.com.

Google Books’ new collection is a nice addition to Google Image’s archive of 10 million photos taken by LIFE photographers, even if navigating through the pages can be a little clunky at times.

But that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to get lost in LIFE.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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