Life Magazine Stories with Michael Durham

This past week in Process & Skills, we met Michael Durham, a former photographer, reporter, and researcher at Life, who came to speak to our class about his experiences working for the magazine.  As we are all currently working on a photo essay, this provided us with a wonderful opportunity to learn from a professional and find inspiration.

Listening to Mr. Durham’s stories about working at the magazine was like listening to a real-life Forrest Gump.  When he began his talk with a story about how he was hired by Life after his coverage of a tuna tournament in Massachusetts was spotted by an editor from New York, I knew he was going to be interesting.  I did not quite expect, however, to hear that over the course of his 11 years at the magazine, he would meet Malcolm X, the Beatles, or the leader of the KKK, and report on the Birmingham riots and the March on Washington in 1963, the 1968 Olympics, or the gay liberation movement of 1972. He was one of the first reporters on the scene after President Kennedy was shot, and very nearly got an interview with Martin Luther King Jr.–if only he bought the Birmingham rioters whistles to divert the police dogs (rule #1–journalists shouldn’t get involved in the story they are reporting on!).  It was incredible to hear these familiar historical episodes from someone who had witnessed them so closely.

The main takeaway from all this was most certainly that reporting, and getting “the” photograph, are a lot of hard work.  Sometimes, too, it is all for naught–Mr. Durham also recounted a story of how he and a fellow photographer had made a particularly demanding trip to Antarctica for six weeks to do a story for the magazine, during which his friend fell off a mountain and nearly died, and the story never ran.  So many stories that he worked on, in fact, never ran.  Countless hours, trips, miles, and money spent for a story never to see the light of day.  I think that, for us young designers, this is a very important lesson to learn; sometimes, as students, we might spend hours, days, or weeks working on a project, for it not to work out.  We might be out there taking hundreds of photos for our essays, to only come up with 10 that carry the message we want to convey.  It’s tough work.  But hey, who’s to say that somewhere along the way, we won’t meet some amazing people and witness some incredible things, like Mr. Durham?  It’s all about the process, and I think that Mr. Durham is himself an example that hard work is not without reward; at the very least, it gives you some unbelievable memories!


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