Wednesday, February 8, 2017

In other times

When Judie Walton’s 5 year old son asked her mother ‘How old will I be in one thousand years’, she would reply: ‘1,005.’ At this time the Waltons – that is to say, at least the parents, then aged 27 and 32, but quite possibly the children as well – carried on their persons at all times medical bracelets such as this one, with instructions as to how their body should be treated in case a fatal accident should befall them.

The story is included in the February 20, 1967 issue of Life magazine, meaning the parents would now be in their seventies or early eighties. The Life Extension Society of Washington, DC ceased operating by the early 1970s, but it’s quite possible that the Waltons switched to the Cryonics Institute founded by Richard Ettinger, the author of the section of the article that concerns them. Ettinger himself ‘died’ in 2011, aged 92, and his body lies frozen in a cryonic capsule in the Institute’s vaults, along with over one hundred other hopeful cadavers.

Old magazines are one the cheapest available forms of time travel. Should science and capital ever bring back Ettinger and the other immortalists back to life, one of the most efficient ways of catching them up on human affairs would be to leave them in a room with some mainstream titles from successive decades. Not the august Life itself, obviously, since it too ceased operating, first as a weekly in 1972, then altogether in the year 2000. But hopefully one or two paper magazines will still exist for Ettinger and his acolytes to readjust their eyes and brains to when they are reanimated.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I collect old magazines, but I do enjoy picking them up randomly at fairs. My single best find was probably an Italian film magazine from 1940 featuring, among other remarkable things, a message of friendship and good wishes from Joseph Gobbels. Or a $5 bound volume containing several issues of The London Illustrated News published in the 1870s. However, the best decade for general interest magazines is probably the 1960s. This was the heyday, the time of maximum prestige and authority of this kind of journalism. It was a time before ‘fake news’, or rather a brief interlude during which faith in the press was such that the notion of alternative facts needed not be seriously entertained (at least not by the majority of people). My December 1963 issue of Life is of particular interest in this regard due to its spread on the Warren Commission. This was an attempt to calmly establish the basic facts of JFK’s assassination (‘Was it Really Oswald who shot Kennedy? Yes.’ ‘Did Oswald have help? No.’) and included a forensic photographic reconstruction of the view from the shooter.

Faith in American institutions, including the press itself, is especially evident in a 1960 issue of the magazine on US politics. Here, over a gold background, the editors insert a quote from Hoover that – whilst highly dubious to begin with – sounds frankly hilarious to Trump-era ears.
The Presidency is more than executive responsibility. It is the inspiring symbol of all that is highest in America's purpose and ideals… That office touches the happiness of every home. It deals with the peace of nations. No man could think of it except in terms of solemn consecration.

As for the possibly conflicting truths of other nations, in 1961 Life launched a special book to warn readers against ‘the nature of the enemy’.

For a mere dollar, the reader would also receive a ‘fold out map of the world in full colour showing the global scope of the Red offensive’. (Magnificently, in my copy of the magazine this ad was printed opposite a full-pager on an innovative remedy against crab grass.)

I don’t want to caricature these publications, however, which besides the stunning, epoch-defining photography, contained instances of fairly enlightened journalism; of its time, to be sure, and most glaringly so when it comes to gender and race relations, as well as international politics. But also serious and occasionally bold, for instance in a piece on the urban migration of African Americans that – fifteen years before Reagan’s welfare queens – attempts to dispel growing conservative myths about ‘calculated patterns of brood mothers bringing up babies on relief ’.

However, the reason why these magazines still circulate has little to do with social history, or history writ large. It’s that they were visually gorgeous. Their aesthetic was based on a mix of the world’s best photojournalism, fashion and advertising, and is still extremely appealing .

A full page portrait of Nixon supporter Mary Whiteside during the 1960 presidential election

In its occasional acts of self-promotion, Life explicitly reminded readers of the cultural impact of the magazine industry’s images, as in this ad referring to its pioneering use of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s pictures of living embryos.

If the photography in the 1960s was still primarily in black and white, advertising was visually elevated by making full use of colour. There are some exceptions, such as this sexually aggressive ad for Listerine.

Or this ad promoting portable televisions as a means to escape the crushing tedium of looking after small children.

Or this almost petulant request for people to send telegrams. Remember telegrams? Send a bloody telegram. At least on your father’s birthday, for chrissakes.

By contrast, the premium ads were in the most garish colour imaginable. This is a golden age of print journalism, so we’re talking about big brands and full page ads selling for exorbitant prices. Tobacco, alcohol, cars, perfumes. Top-end electronics.

First-class air travel.

And always, or nearly always, Coca-Cola.

All of these brands, the backbone of American capital, directly underwriting journalistic truth. Back when cigarettes didn’t kill you.

Or alcohol didn’t cause dependence.

Back when cars were synonymous with industry, from the thunderous Buick Wildcat to the humble, unassuming Datsun.

It’s not just that these ads paid for the stories and the pictures, or for the cost of shipping these magazines internationally. It’s that all of these corporations existed in a feedback loop with journalism – or rather, the journalism industry, that is to say the business of selling news – in a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing ideologies.

That era is well and truly over. Advertising no longer needs to lurk among attention-grabbing news items and is delivered more and more by media companies whose own market value far exceeds that of industrial manufacturers (save for Apple Inc, which builds the devices that make the advertising truly ubiquitous). Exit the magazines of the Mad Men decade, now reduced to sociohistorical artefacts of limited antiquarian value – and for this reason more interesting to me than they ever were.