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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Look Magazine Photograph Collection

Photograph of a woman seated in chair while another woman models a dress
Stanley Kubrick, photographer. Woman seated in chair while another woman models a dress. 1949. Look Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Look Magazine Photograph Collection (5,000,000 photographs, 1937-71) is the largest single collection in the division's holdings. It includes both color and black-and-white photographs—published and unpublished—accumulated by the magazine during its thirty-four-year history.

Look magazine originally took the form of a tabloid-type publication, full of sensational coverage. The magazine shifted its focus, however, after World War II. Under the influence of Fleur Cowles, the wife of the publisher, Gardner “Mike” Cowles, Look began to be advertised as a biweekly for the whole family. The magazine made a concerted effort to appeal to women, particularly in their roles as consumers. One expression of this effort was the regularly featured “For Women Only” section, which highlighted consumer goods and services, frequently of the less conventional sort, such as women's spats and fur bikinis. As this suggests, the magazine blended the frivolous with the serious, not only covering fashion, food, celebrities, and popular culture, but also presenting more probing investigations of the civil rights struggle, health issues, education, and international affairs.

Coverage by Women

Photograph of an African American secretary Joan Elizabeth Murray at work on set of television show Candid Camera
Charlotte Brooks, photographer. African American secretary Joan Elizabeth Murray at work on set of television show Candid Camera. 1963. Look Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Aside from the influence exerted by Fleur Cowles and women editors such as Patricia Coffin, and despite the focus on women readers, Look was largely a male-dominated effort. Look's photography staff was composed primarily of men. Look documentation suggests that only four women ever worked on staff. Molly Tankanog and Dorothy “Dash” Taylor appear briefly in Look records for the period 1945-46, and Janet Mevi's name turns up for the period 1949-1952. Charlotte Brooks (b. 1918) stands out because of the length of time she worked as a staff photographer for the magazine (1952-1971) and because of the sheer volume and variety of the work she produced during her tenure. While Look hired very few women photographers for salaried positions, the company did commission a number of women, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, to carry out photographic work for the magazine.

Coverage of Women

Individuals: The magazine's coverage of women celebrities ranging from Lucille Ball to Gloria Steinem yields a wealth of portrait imagery for the 1950s and 1960s. The visual coverage of individuals, both well known and unknown, often follows a “day in the life” approach, picturing a person through a number of her activities. For instance, Ruby Hurley's 1957 tour of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branches as the organization's Southeast regional secretary shows her encounters with everyone from a rural farmer to Lena Horne, as well as the more mundane aspects of her life on the road (LOOK—Job 57-7241).

Work: The archive exhibits the magazine's emphasis on women caring for their families and working in jobs traditionally occupied by women, such as nursing, teaching, and social work, but it also features women in some nontraditional roles, such as the woman police detective featured in a 1956 story (LOOK—Job 55-4033) and auto test-driver Betty Skelton undergoing exams to become an astronaut in 1959 (LOOK—Job 59-8504).

Vietnam War: The impact of the conflict in Vietnam on women's lives is reflected in photo assignments showing military wives, as well as photographs documenting antiwar protests.

Lifestyles, Roles, and Choices: Several sets of images delve into the availability of birth control. Others explore, more generally, the quality of American middle-class women's lives—a subject tackled, for instance, in the 1958 piece “America's New Middle West: St. Louis Woman” (LOOK—Job 58-7929). One assignment carried out in the early 1970s documented participants in the “Fascinating Womanhood” movement, a response to calls for women's liberation (LOOK—Job 70-5730).

Class and Race: Although the magazine directed itself to a middle-class audience and frequently focused on middle-class lifestyles, as early as the 1940s, Look attempted to illustrate the culture of America's less economically advantaged citizens, which at that time included many Native Americans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans. From the mid-1960s onward, Look staff made a concerted effort not only to acknowledge the poverty in which some African Americans lived but also to highlight African Americans' inclusion in American society, with an emphasis on integrated schools and workplaces.

Comparing Published and Unpublished Images

The magazine aimed to inform, but not necessarily to shock its readers. Because the Look photo archive includes both published and unpublished images, it is possible to gather evidence about editorial selection practices in examining the materials. For instance, photographer Al Clayton's hard-hitting coverage of the poverty-stricken Pilgrim family in Yazoo County, Mississippi (LOOK—Job 67-3368), numbered in the hundreds of images, of which eight were chosen to illustrate the article “Poverty: The Hungry World of Teresa Pilgrim,” (LOOK, December 26, 1967; available on microfilm in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room, as well as in hard copy in the General Collections; AP2.L79).

Despite its lack of caption information or other textual documentation for unpublished images, the Look Magazine Photograph Collection offers potential for exploring how the magazine presented American culture to its readers, and particularly to women readers, in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Photograph of Fluoridation: Why all the controversy? by Charlotte Borrks

Charlotte Brooks, photographer. Fluoridation: Why all the controversy? 1958 April. Look Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Photograph of a page from Look Magazine in an article on fluoridation

Page from a Look magazine article titled "Fluoridation: Why all the controversy?" 1958. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Searching the Collection

Photos created for issues from 1952-1971 are available. The photographs are grouped into "jobs" (groups of images made for a particular assignment). The contents of any single job can include:

  • published black-and-white material
  • unpublished black-and-white material (mostly reproduced as “contact sheets”—photographic prints that reproduce multiple negatives or 35-millimeter negative strips on a single sheet)
  • published color images, represented by color copies
  • unpublished color images

Catalog records in the online catalog, where the collection has its own listing, enable researchers to retrieve descriptions of jobs by subject, or photographer, or the title of the Look magazine articles in which images from the job appeared.

A fraction of the Look images have been digitized, generally as a result of researchers' purchases of reproductions. Researchers are able to view on-site materials in the reading room with no advance arrangement by submitting call slips. On-site jobs can include:

  • photocopies of pages of Look magazine that featured black-and-white and color images from the job
  • black-and-white contact sheets

Unpublished color images from jobs must be requested in advance, in order for staff to retrieve the materials from off-site cold storage. Likewise, jobs that consist only of negatives (that is, they feature no published images and no contact sheets) must be requested in advance for the same reason. Nitrate negatives cannot be served.

Look Magazine Picture Research File

An adjunct to the Look Magazine Photograph Collection is the magazine's picture research file, a collection of more than 50,000 photographic prints (1910-1970, bulk 1935-1970) used as reference material on personalities and a variety of subjects for the publication of stories in Look Magazine. Material focuses on popular activists, entertainers, politicians, locales, major conflicts, and movements of the mid-twentieth century.

Women are represented in the coverage of celebrities and individuals in the news, as well as in cultural trends, such as women sports spectators and examples of women's jewelry.

Searching the Collection

The off-site collection can be searched through an online finding aid. Researchers can request to view on site up to 10 folders at a time with advance notice, as time is needed to bring the material on site and prepare it for viewing.

Further Information

Sample Images