Monday, November 8, 2021

Books: On The Legacy Of Look Magazine


Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-Twentieth Century America

By Andrew L. Yarrow

Potomac Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press; hardcover, 408 pages; $39.99

When one thinks of vintage magazines that represented how life was like in post-war America, Look magazine always is at the top of the list. Andrew L. Yarrow, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and a professor of American history, tells the story of what became one of the greatest mass-circulation publications in American history, and the very different United States that it documented.

Look, published from 1937 to 1971, had 37 million readers at its peak, and it was an astute observer with a distinctive take on one of the greatest eras in American history. It had an extraordinary influence on mid-twentieth-century America through its powerful, thoughtful stories and outstanding photographs, but also by helping to create a deeply powerful national conversation around a common set of ideas and ideals. It covered the victory in World War II, building immense, increasingly inclusive prosperity to celebrating grand achievements and advancing the rights of Black and female citizens.

Yarrow examines how the magazine covered the United States and the world, telling stories of people and trends, injustices and triumphs, with essays by prominent Americans such as Martin Luther King and Margaret Mead. Look made a point of not shying away from the country's ills, but it always believed that they could be solved.

Look shaped Americans' belief system while guiding the country through a period of profound social and cultural change, while utilizing a long-gone form of journalism that helped make America better and assured its readers it could keep improving.

Yarrow writes of the magazine's impact, and what readers will learn in this book, in this excerpt: "As a historian of twentieth-century America, a journalist, and someone disappointed in many of the directions that the country has taken in recent decades, I find Look particularly appealing. It offers new information and perspectives on the United States in the middle of the last century. It is an outstanding example of how thoughtful journalism can reach far beyond elite audiences. And it viewed America hopefully, yet critically, rather than through the dark and distorted lenses of cynicism and take-no-prisoners bile.

It was also visually appealing in ways that no major publications -and very few websites, for that matter - are today.

Look, like any publication, was far from perfect. There were trivial and fluffy stories, and important stories that it missed or came late to cover. Yet, on balance, it was a remarkable magazine.

For those old enough to remember this glossy, eleven-by-fourteen-inch magazine, the stories and photos in this book undoubtedly will reawaken long-ago-memories. Yet, more than just a trip down a beautifully illustrated memory lane, this book can also remind them of a time when Americans were optimistic and civic-minded, had broadly similar goals, and weren't browbeaten into believing that the country was a shambles and could only be magically returned to greatness by lashing out at other people, ideas, and institutions. For the majority of Americans, who have never seen an issue of Look, this book is intended to tell the story of a great American magazine during a momentous era in U.S. history and show that there are better alternatives to the politics, culture, and media of the twenty-first century.

It is impossible to talk about Look without discussing its photographs: color, black-and-white, occasionally enhanced, full page or a collage of smaller images, shots of newly prosperous and still poor Americans, beating hearts and Paris fashions, portraits of John Kennedy and Jackie Robinson, movie stars, and sleek new technologies. Because of space limitations, this book could only include 61 of the roughly 180,000 photos that the magazine published of the roughly 5 million held by the Library of Congress alone. That's a shame, given how evocative, surprising, and stunning so many were. There is no question that Look deserves big-format photo books and exhibitions of its most striking images.

The inaccessibility of Look's photos is matched by the inaccessibility of its issues and articles. I had to pore through often damaged volumes of hard-copy issues at the Library of Congress and university libraries - none of which had a complete run of all Look issues. Some issues had disappeared even from the nation's largest library, and more than a few issues had pages torn out. Relatively few libraries even have Look on microfilm. I was fortunate to find a few dozen issues from Look's last few years that my parents had saved and others for sale on websites like

Thousands of other publications have been digitized and are in databases or freely available to the public. Life can be found on the internet thanks to Google, which digitized every issue in the early 2000s. Making Look available online would not only enable readers to discover the magazine but also make it possible for scholars and students to delve into its riches."


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