Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Alfred Eisenstaedt's "Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin" circa 1948 on Google Image
Sixty years ago this year, Life magazine did a cover story about Madison, with photography by their great photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was about Madison, but it was about more than Madison.
It was the postwar American Dream in pictures. The war was over, the midcentury boom was starting, and here was a Kodachrome vision of what life in America could be, an essentially suburban vision of the idyllic life in a city big enough to have cultural amenities and a major university, but small enough to have trees, parks, lakes and beaches -- and seemingly infinite green space. (And when, judging from the photo above, Madison Gas & Electric apparently didn't have to worry about air quality standards.)
Now that Google is scanning the entire 10-million image Life magazine photograpic archive and making it available through Google Image search, Eisenstaedt is among those Life staff photographers whose images will now be available online in much larger numbers. With a little judicious experimenting with search words, the search can even bring up specific assignments -- like the Madison story. Type these words into the Google Image search window: Madison Alfred Eisenstaedt source:life. You'll not only save a trip to the library to look up the old bound volume of Life, but you'll find a fascinating online visual experience.
What's cool is that the several hundred images include not only the photos that were published in Life, but also the outtakes. The color of the photos that were published (or perhaps considered for publication, there seem to be a few I never saw before) is -- all things considered -- pretty decent. Not so the outtakes like the one on the right. They're horribly faded and color-shifted. I imagine the former were kept in dark, humidity and temperature-controlled archival storage, while the latter were lucky to survive at all.
The scans are not very crisp, as is true of most photos scanned in high-speed batch mode (Google has scanned about 2 million images from the archives, and has about 8 million to go). But it hardly matters. While these images may be as softly blurred as memory itself, they also possess the evocative power of those moments when, with a sharp pang, you recover a long-forgotten memory that had seemed to be gone forever.