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Looking At The Old Life

February 16, 1986|ZAN DUBIN

It's only fitting that the woman who indexed and catalogued Life magazine's photographs for over 35 years has a vivid memory of the day she decided to spend her life looking at pictures.

"One fall day when I was in the second grade, my teacher, Miss Clark, was showing us pictures associated with autumn--like pumpkins, turkeys and football games," recalled Doris O'Neil, director of Vintage Prints for Time Inc. and former head of the Life Picture Collection. "And she told us, 'Children, all year I collect pictures I like and keep them in order so I can find them when I want them.' And I went home and changing from my black-and-yellow plaid school dress--I remember what I was wearing--into my play clothes, I thought to myself, 'She's got ahold of a good idea.' "

The idea obviously wasn't lost on O'Neil, here on a recent visit from New York for the Long Beach Museum of Art's opening of "Life: The Second Decade, 1946-1955." The lively, silver-gray haired New Englander, who calls Alfred Eisenstaedt "Eisie," organized the memory-jolting photo exhibit (along with the International Center of Photography), sponsored jointly by Time Inc. and United Technologies Corp.

The traveling display includes 200 classic Life black-and-whites (some we'd swear we've seen before, as covers, perhaps?) taken by 74 Life photojournalists. The shots recapture the celebrities, citizens and countries that made news during the era after World War II. Images of Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi and a young Sen. John F. Kennedy join those of Joe Louis, Salvador Dali and Elizabeth Taylor. Views of Berlin, Korea and Israel, torn by turmoil, are shown beside frames of optimistic Americans sporting 3-D glasses and crew cuts.

"This selection isn't meant to historically illustrate that 10-year period," O'Neil explained. "My intent was to take some of the compelling photographs I knew were there and share them with a larger public.

"As a given photograph hit me I put it aside," selecting prints from the Picture Collection's 156,000 photographs for 1946-1955. "I wouldn't analyze why (an image) hit me, but I had an immediate gut reaction to every print I chose. Each one had a ring of truth, a quality of honesty and directness."

With only one exception, the photographs on view (through March 16) are original prints, O'Neil said. About two-thirds appeared in the magazine, the others didn't, "because Life's peg was always news first," she noted. "Maybe there had been a landslide, or Hitler had moved into Sudetenland, and you'd have to make room in the front news pages and kill the others scheduled to run."

O'Neil became well acquainted with Life's editorial philosophies and inner workings during her tenure there. Born and raised in Rhode Island, she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked as librarian there and elsewhere until she saw her first Life photo exhibit, realizing, "I've got to work at Life." She quickly applied for a job she was just as swiftly offered. It was 1948, 12 years after Life's first issue.

"The main function of the Picture Collection, which then already contained 2 million prints, was and is to cross-reference the pictures that came in every day," O'Neil said. Working primarily for then top editor Ralph Graves, she made manageable the photographs for him and other Time Inc. personnel at several of the corporation's sister publications: Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.

Pointing to an image on a nearby wall, O'Neil said her tasks might have been to determine "if that picture there of Taft with a rooster was taken during his presidential or primary campaign." It was from the latter.

"During the early days there was a wonderful family feeling at Life," O'Neil mused. "We were all in it together and when the photographers came back after two to three months on overseas assignment, they'd burst in and tell us all about it. There was a great deal of hilarity about it all. I think these guys thought they were getting out a college newspaper."

Some of "these guys" O'Neil came to know--beside "Eisie," still a close friend--included some whose work is in the "Second Decade" exhibit: Martha Holmes, John Phillips, W. Eugene Smith, Philippe Halsman and the "dedicated and sensitive" Margaret Bourke-White.

"Bourke-White once told me that her mother and an unabridged dictionary were the two strongest factors in shaping her career," O'Neil said pensively. The photojournalist was afraid of the dark as a child, she continued, and her mother helped her overcome the phobia with nighttime walking exercises. "If Bourke-White did well, her reward was to look at her mother's unabridged dictionary and its illustrations.

"Imagine White being afraid of the dark . . . but in the course of her assignments, she went over a mile down into the earth to photograph the world of (South African) black gold miners--that picture is in the show. She also went one mile into the sky to do her famous aerial shots, and she once flew faster than the speed of sound."

As director of vintage prints for Time Inc. since 1977, O'Neil still works with the picture collection, but her present duties are now more curatorial, perhaps more creative than organizational. It was a career transformation she said she was well prepared for.

"At Life, I learned that it was all right to go right ahead and do what I wanted to do. I have a well-developed appreciation of history and standards and patterns, but what I learned was it's perfectly all right to throw all that to the wind, to follow your instincts. It was not only all right but it was the thing you had better do. That was what Life did; that was the quality that produced the pictures that had the ring of truth."

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