LOOK Magazine collection, 1937-1962

Extent: 258 binders
The LOOK Magazine collection consists of 2,415 photographic assignments containing black and white negatives, contact prints, slides, and color transparencies produced by the magazine’s staff and freelance photographers. The photographs in this collection are from the magazine’s stories related to New York City, both published and unpublished.

Historical Note
LOOK was produced by Cowles Media Company and founded by brothers Gardener Jr. (known as Mike) and John Cowles. The first issue ran in January 1937, with monthly issues published until May of that year, at which time the magazine switched to a biweekly schedule—which it kept for the rest of its run.

LOOK was a direct competitor to LIFE magazine, and began circulating only months after LIFE. As both were general interest magazines with an emphasis on photography, the comparison between the two was persistent throughout their life cycles. LOOK had a slightly lower circulation number and perhaps a lower-brow reputation than the competition, with its early years focusing on sensational, tabloid-like stories and images. In general, LIFE was more news-focused while LOOK relied more on human-interest stories.

Its reputation was such that when Fleur Cowles first met her soon-to-be husband Mike Cowles, she was hesitant to pursue a relationship with him because of his magazine. She called it a “sleazy barbershop rag” because, again drawing a comparison to LIFE, it was “published on cheap paper and full of sex, while LIFE took the serious road.” This seems to have been an intentional differentiation; before circulation began, after comparing editorial plans with LIFE’s founder Henry Luce, Mike Cowles himself stated that “LIFE would be a rather ‘upscale’ publication while LOOK would seek a more downscale audience.” In a 1940 issue LOOK wrote, in a feature aimed at potential advertisers, “LOOK is a highly respected, profitable medium for products used by everybody—with an appeal that goes through entire families thoroughly.” Their goal was universal appeal. They also stated that the magazine’s “first intention was to be interesting. LOOK would rather be damned than dull.”

This is apparent when looking at the themes in the early assignments in this collection. There are news items and features on the war and the country’s leaders, but taking up much more space than those stories are profiles of radio shows; celebrities of stage, radio, music, and athletics; nightclubs and social life; and fashion. Early issues also tend to emphasize scandal, including eye-catching pin-up portraits and photographs of car accidents, ambulance runs, and hospital surgery wards.

The tone of LOOK, however, evolved, largely due to the influence of Fleur Cowles. After her marriage to Mike in 1946, she was first made Women’s Department Director and then Associate Editor of the magazine. Post-World War II, she began to steer the magazine away from shocking, sensationalist content and towards more family-friendly matter. While the stories covered the same general categories as before, they focused more on women, families, food, art, and fashionable trends. There are perceptible differences in the overall nature of the pre- and post-war stories.

The magazine’s circulation numbers, around 1 million in its early years, increased by more than 300,000 within just a year of Fleur’s involvement. Numbers remained high, with a peak of 7.75 million in 1969. As television became more and more popular, print advertising revenue plummeted, and LOOK began to lose money. In 1971 Mike Cowles announced that the magazine would cease publication. The last issue was published October 19, 1971. The magazine’s run totaled 34 years; the photographs in this collection cover 25 of those.

The majority of LOOK’s photo archives were donated by Cowles to the Library of Congress. However, those stories singled out by LOOK staff as pertaining to New York City were donated to the Museum of the City of New York beginning in 1956, when the magazine was still in circulation.

LOOK had a particular emphasis on photography. Its photographers were encouraged to be creative and to take the lead on stories. As such, this photograph collection, though at times lacking context, is an excellent representation not only of New York in a certain period of time, but of the general feel of LOOK magazine as a whole. While stories lean towards a smaller scale than those of the magazine’s competitors, it could be argued that LOOK’s intimate view of New York City more accurately captures the feel of what life was like for those who lived here.

Scope and Content
The LOOK collection consists of 2,415 photographic assignments comprised of black and white negatives, contact prints, slides, and color transparencies, most in the following sizes:

Negatives: 2.25×2.25 (120 size), 35 mm, 3×4, and 4×5
Contact prints: 8×10 and smaller (wide variation in size)
Color transparencies and slides: 120 size, 3×4, 4×5, 8×10
Color slides: 35 mm

Some assignments also contain ephemera including paper captions cut out from published issues of LOOK, interoffice memos, pamphlets, and other supplementary material, most of which contribute biographical or descriptive information to the materials they accompany.

The collection covers a large variety of topics. It ranges from 1937 to 1962 and depicts celebrities from radio, film, television, theater, music, fashion, publishing, and high society; politicians and political events; New York City landmarks, streets, shops, institutions, and neighborhoods; cultural events and their effects on the city; and the everyday lives of people living in the city.

Click here to view the finding aid for the LOOK Magazine Collection.