Processing and Cataloging the LOOK Magazine Collection
Tuesday, September 25, 2018 by
The Museum of the City of New York has just embarked on a project to catalog, process, and digitize the Museum’s LOOK magazine photo archive collection, generously funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This large collection dates from 1938 to 1968, and it chronicles a fascinating time in American history, principally by way of human interest stories—which was LOOK magazine’s unique emphasis compared to other, more news-focused magazines that were its contemporaries.
The photographs depict a wide variety of scenes from mid-century New York City history, from soldiers returning from World War II being greeted by their families, to children dressed up and playing in Central Park, to famous entertainers of the day in their homes with their families and pets. Politicians, actors, authors, and musicians are profiled; neighborhoods, landmarks, and ordinary people are photographed. Altogether, this collection gives a literal picture of New York City and the people in it through a remarkable variety of lenses, creating a striking impression of what it was like to be in one of the most exciting cities in the world at a time of constant change, strife, heartache, invention, entertainment, and growth.
Though most of LOOK’s archives reside with the Library of Congress, MCNY holds those relating directly to New York City. The collection is largely made up of photographic negatives, organized by story assignment. There are over 2,240 assignments in the collection, and my job as project photo archivist is to catalog each one so it can be easily accessible to the public. I look at the photos that make up each assignment, research the subjects and photographers, combine that with the information we already have from the magazine’s original assignment envelopes, and create a record.
When the project is completed, each assignment will have a number, a title, a date, a photographer, a brief description of what is depicted, and a description of the physical aspects of the negatives—how many photos, what size, what condition they’re in, etc. Once this is completed, the entire collection will be searchable by photographer, title, subject, and other fields.
We will also be digitizing a portion of the collection, which will help with our accessibility challenges. Scans of some of the negatives will be attached to each catalog entry. Some of the collection has already been digitized and is available on MCNY’s website; these images can be found here.
Through these photographs, we get a sense of how people lived—both residents of and visitors to the city—and how things have changed and remained the same in the years since. The photographers, both staff and freelance, were oftentimes allowed intimate access to the lives of their subjects, whether they be a hospital emergency ward or a gaudy party attended by the city’s rich and famous. The majority of the collection’s photographs were never published in the magazine, and so these archives are truly a never-before-seen glimpse into this particular period in New York City history.
MCNY currently has an exhibition with some photographs from this collection. Through A Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs features photographs taken while the famed film director was a young staff photographer for LOOK. The exhibit not only gives a glimpse into Kubrick’s mind and future career, but is an example of the kind of subjects and settings that many assignments from this collection highlight.
Check out the press release.
“Eyes on America: Processing and Cataloging the LOOK Collection” has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor