Website Review

LIFE photo archive

Imagine walking down a hallway lined with photographs. Now imagine walking through a labyrinth of hallways with 10 million photographs and drawings, the approximate number of images available in the LIFE photo archive, hosted by Google.

On one wall, a black-and-white photograph shows a white baby perched on the edge of a sink holding a toothbrush in its mouth. On another, an African American toddler sits snuggled in a blanket on a shelter chair during a flood in Louisville, Kentucky. Still other images show two daughters of Czar Nicholas II of Russia on an outdoor patio, school children in Ecuador waving flags during a visit by U.S. President Richard Nixon, uniform-clad boys in the Nazi Youth Movement marching in formation, or an 11-year-old Amish girl shooting marbles in the U.S. national girls' tournament.

This remarkable collection is a visual goldmine. Teachers and students of an almost endless number of topics related to children and youth in American and world history can explore for hours, searching photographs and drawings from the 1750s to the present, most of which are seen publicly for the first time on this website. The majority of the images come from the 20th century, showcasing the work of famous photographers, such as Gordon Park, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Margaret Bourke-White, among many others.

Exploring this archive, however, is at once fascinating, rewarding, and incredibly frustrating. Search results are capped at a maximum of 200 images, meaning that a search on "children" returns only a tiny fraction of the possible matches. Some images are presented with basic source information, such as title, location, date, photographer, and image size while others provide no information at all, leaving the viewer with many unanswered questions.

Some images are part of collections, such as the hundreds of "Gibson Girls" drawings or the "Circus Girl" photographs taken in 1952. In the right column, "related images" sometimes appear and many of the images are tagged with "labels" that offer pathways through the mass of images. An image of a baby, for example, might lead to a tag for "baby carriage," "children at play," "blind children," or "child care," all of which lead down other paths or abruptly end. Or an image might link to no other images, sending you back to the beginning to find another path.

Photographs appear in three sizes: small, medium, and large. Images are presented at 300 dpi and even the medium-sized images are of decent size for classroom use, roughly 400 x 600 pixels. The larger scans contain a LIFE watermark and while all images are available at no cost for personal and research purposes, the archive also offers each image for sale, framed, at a cost of $79.99 and up.

The photographs as a whole depict a range of childhood experiences, from famous young people in formal settings (Shirley Temple on her 11th birthday "wearing her first long dress, a fluffy frock of marquisette trimmed with a dubonnet ribbon") to ordinary children engaged in everyday activities, such as the children at a Turkish tobacco factory daycare "where working moms drop their kids during their day shift."

Spanning several centuries and many borders, this collection provides a glimpse into many different experiences of childhood and youth. Students could examine a range of customs across time and culture, exploring, for example, the material culture of childhood from swaddling to cribs or the role of institutions, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, in the lives of young people. Even more revealing, however, would be an assignment exploring what the words and images found within this archive tell us about the society that produced and consumed Life magazine—the photographers, editors, writers, and subscribers who interacted with these images and created meaning from them day to day.

The caption next to the young girl in the shelter, for example, reads, "Lonely little African-American baby sucking her thumb." Next to a 1938 photograph from Romania is the caption, "A Gypsy lighting the small oven while holding her dirty child." White children are rarely described as "lonely" or "dirty," even when collected under the label "poverty."

The subjects selected are equally telling. Several photographs of African mothers nursing their newborns focus on the women's breasts and nipples. Other women from Myanmar, Vietnam, Finland, Albania, Pakistan, and Israel are also shown nursing. Compare this to images of white women with their young, fully dressed and often, in the mid-20th century, with a bottle. What does this say about perceptions of motherhood, gender, and child rearing? About gender, race, and nationality?

This rich archive can provide primary source material on a host of national and international topics, from dress, play, education, and health to national identity and international relations. Whether looking for something specific, such as images from a 1951 hearing on comic books, or broad, such as high school, you will likely find many images worth exploring. The images are high enough quality to print and use easily for research or class assignments. Keep in mind, however, that despite the powerful Google search engine, in some ways you are left to wander through the labyrinth unguided, without a map that might provide a sense of how images fit into the collection as a whole. It is hard to know exactly what a given search term will return and with the limit on search results, it is impossible to see the full range of images on many topics. It is, however, a worthwhile adventure if you begin with patience and creativity.

How to Cite This Source

Kelly Schrum, "LIFE photo archive," in Children and Youth in History, Item #250, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/250 (accessed October 21, 2014).

This rich archive can provide primary source material on a host of national and international topics, from dress, play, education, and health to national identity and international relations.