Legendary photographer John Loengard began taking pictures at age eleven of his family, friends and his New York City neighborhood. He was a photographer for his high school newspaper before going on to Harvard College, where his work caught the eye of LIFE magazine’s Boston bureau chief. Loengard joined the photo staff of LIFE in 1961 and his photographic essays soon became classics. In 1973, he joined the staff of Time Inc.’s Magazine Development Group, helping to plan and launch People magazine in 1974, as well as publishing semi-annual editions of LIFE from 1973 through 1977. In 1978, Loengard was instrumental in the start-up of LIFE as a monthly publication, serving as its picture editor. In 1987, Loengard left to become a fulltime freelance photographer. He has published four books about his own photographs and six concerning the work of other photographers. Some of his most iconic images include a 1963 photo of Medgar Evers’ widow and son at his funeral, a 1961 photo of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, photos of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe on the roof of her house in New Mexico, and photos of The Beatles in Miami in 1964.
Photo Credit: Joe McNally
At Sunday dinner in late 1945, my father talked about buying a new camera, now that World War II was over. I was eleven years old. I was not able to draw a likeness of any kind, and while I had been photographed, I‘d never operated a camera myself. The notion that I might simply “take” a picture was suddenly, wonderfully exciting. We had a box camera in the house. I rushed to the Liggett’s drugstore on our corner in New York City to buy film. The clerk asked, “What size?” I had not expected photography to be so complicated. Back home, my mother told me a roll of #616 size Verichrome film would do the trick. Later my father showed me how to develop it in the bathroom. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I began to make pictures of my family and friends and all the neighborhood landmarks. Four years later, when I felt I was running out of subjects, an editor on my high school newspaper asked me to photograph the captain of the football team. I walked out onto the practice field and asked the big man to kick a ball. He did. I liked the picture, and soon I realized that with a newspaper in my hip pocket, so to speak, I might go almost anyplace to take a picture and be welcomed.
I was a senior at Harvard College in 1956 when Life magazine’s Boston bureau-chief Will Jarvis (who’d seen my work in Harvard publications) asked me to photograph a cargo ship that had run aground on Cape Cod in a storm. Though Life did not use the pictures, the assignment began my relationship with the magazine. After two years in the army, I joined the photographic staff of Life magazine in 1961.
I was not happy with all of the pictures I was taking. I had yet to really firm up a style of taking photographs. Then in 1964, a quiet coup overturned the government in Brazil. A few days later, with nothing camera-worthy happening in downtown Rio de Janeiro, I sat on Copacabana beach. A middle-aged man walked toward me, and unusual for me, since he was not connected with the news, I got up and intercepted his path to take his picture. Back in New York, when I saw a print, I really did say to myself, out loud, “That’s your style.” To me, it seemed the print’s clarity and depth was ordinary and unexpected, simultaneously. I’ve explored that notion ever since.
My point of view became more evident. The photographic essays I did on painter Georgia O’Keeffe or on the religious sect known as the Shakers or on my own summerhouse (as well as my portraits of the Beatles or of poet Allen Ginsburg or actor Bill Cosby) became classics. American Photographer magazine would identify me in the 1970s as “Life’s most influential photographer.”
In 1973, when Life had stopped publishing weekly, I joined the staff of Time Inc.’s Magazine Development Group to work on the prototype for a magazine on photography called “Camera Month” that did not get off the ground. Instead we planned and launched People magazine in 1974. We also published semi-annual editions of Life from 1973 through 1977, and planned two magazines for women, neither of which ever started. In 1978, I was instrumental in the start-up of Life as a monthly publication and served as its picture editor. Life won the American Society of Magazine Editors’ first award ever for Excellence in Photography in 1985.
In 1987 I left to become a freelance photographer, fulltime. I would also publish four books about my own photographs and six concerning the work of other photographers.
Today, I’ll use a digital camera or an iPhone, rather than the box camera and bathroom I began with. But basically photography has not changed. My lens still marries reality to form, and my camera records their marriage. Their wedding is the moment.
A proper moment still means the world to me.
John Loengard, 2018