BACK before the wonders of video tape could emblazon a morning shuttle explosion onto the national consciousness by noon; before the nightly news opened American windows onto Vietnamese rice paddies; before video cassette recorders, live-action ``mini-cams,'' or even television itself, the images of our time were synonymous with Life magazine. This weekly newsmagazine catapulted the photographic image ahead for 36 years (1936-72) by highlighting the lifework of some of the most celebrated photojournalists of this century -- Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, and many others.
Now, a 200-photograph exhibit -- chosen from 156,000 prints used in Life and its sister publications -- is making its way across the United States and Europe.
Entitled ``LIFE: The Second Decade, 1946-55,'' the exhibit is the second of three major retrospectives generated by the magazine's archivists beginning in 1978 and running through 1990. This latest collection is to tour seven cities in the US and six in Europe through 1988.
Everyone who loves Life's wondrous capability of capturing both the monumental and the usual with uncommon sensitivity are getting more than an exercise in nostalgia. They are reminded that the picture press images of decades past -- colorless, motionless, without audio accompaniment -- speak as loudly, eloquently, and symbolically as the most compelling images of our own day.
Some reviewers say the photos are especially moving because they represent the artist's vision often captured at great personal peril -- retreating marines caught in an ambush, for instance, a photo taken by David Douglas Duncan in Korea. Viewers have been relishing the opportunity to examine the way the mass media in previous decades projected the world and influenced the ways an entire generation interpreted the events and social phenomena of the immediate post-war era.
Here are US soldiers in action from Korea to Berlin, the birth of Israel and the UN, the end of colonialism in Indochina.
Besides images of political struggle, there are actors from Hollywood to Broadway, artists from Picasso to Pollock. There are snippets of Americana from 3-D movies in suburbia to Marlene Dietrich's legs, and normal citizens from the Champs 'Elys'ees to Shanghai.
``The good pictures don't begin to happen until the photographer has hung around enough until his subject no longer notices him,'' says Ralph Graves, former Life managing editor.
Hanging around long enough to chronicle the human condition uncontrived was the special goal of Life photographers, 69 of whom are represented here. Doris O'Neil, director of vintage prints for Time, spent 30 years pooling prints from the three Time publications into the ``Life Picture Collection.'' She was around opening day at the Long Beach Museum of Art here to inform reporters just how long ``hanging around'' can be.
Take, for instance, the famous photograph of surrealist painter Salvador Dali, replete with flying cats and cascading water. Ms. O'Neil says the wife of photographer Philippe Halsman ``told me they had to have Dali jump in the air countless times over many days until the cats ended up in the right place on the negative.''
Other stories abound. Of Winston Churchill playing tricks on Mr. Halsman -- preparing a pose then walking away before the click of the shutter -- until Halsman photographed him from behind. Of Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi refusing to pose for Margaret Bourke-White unless she learned to use the spinning wheel, symbol of India's quest to shake the economic domination of Britain. Of US marines stalked from one side by the Red Army, from the other by camera-wielding photojournalists.
Nina Leen's captivating photo of four generations of an Ozark mountain family has been included in the time capsule carried into space by Voyager II ``to explain to aliens who we are, and that we are well-meaning,'' says O'Neil.
Besides the monumental -- kings, queens, and presidents -- the exhibit highlights the usual: a boy resting on a fawn, women at a church picnic, children at play. It is intended not as a review of photojournalism, nor as a guide to world events of the period. Rather it's ``a selection of some of the most remarkable, compelling, or delightful images of that time, regardless of subject matter,'' O'Neil says.
Cornell Capa, executive director of the International Center of Photography, where the show first opened in New York, says the photographs represent a ``mind-boggling quantity of visual output, the best the world's professionals and anybody with a camera ready at the right place at the right time offered for publication.''
O'Neil notes that artistic value is only one criterion with which to assess a photo's impact.
``Take this one of Eisenhower being lassoed by a parade cowboy on inauguration day,'' she says. ``As a matter of form, shadow, and lighting, it's technically not very interesting. But I included it to show Americans how we've lost our innocence. That could no more happen today without the cowboy being riddled by Secret Service men within seconds. And his horse, too.''
O'Neil says Americans should be interested in the collection not so much for its chronicling of the national experience as for the opportunity to identify with things that happened 30 years ago.
``I think human beings are inclined to think the issues confronting us today never confronted previous generations. We tend to think the `real' world is the present.''
O'Neil relates with relish the exuberant, early days of Life magazine, when two prints of each negative -- one by plane, one by train, for safety -- were sent to Life printer R. H. Donnelly in Chicago. ``The pressure of getting out a weekly magazine to 7 million subscribers was so great that no one much cared what happened to the prints once they were used,'' says the woman pressed with the task of filing and cross-indexing photos for future use.
Once used, photos made their way home to New York via wire baskets ``that I'm convinced were designed to bend the corners of prints and tear off the emulsion,'' says O'Neil. The wire baskets were often mistaken for trash baskets. ``Occasionally we'd find a discarded sandwich on top of a magnificent photo, or some cleaning person would discard the whole batch. We lost the Royal Family of the Netherlands that way.''
Although some of the prints in the exhibit have cracked emulsion or are slightly dogeared, most are in excellent condition. Serious students of photography can get a look at unretouched, original prints made at a time when, according to many photo historians, contemporary photography first began to be taken seriously.
The magazine that helped promote photography as art suspended weekly publication in 1972, but to keep possession of the title it had to publish at least four times a year. Then in 1978, Life became monthly, as it now exists.
``Its focus is entirely different,'' O'Neil says of what she sees as Life's abandonment of its traditional identification with the common man.
``Part of the price they have to pay to survive is to make its coverage more elitist,'' she says.
What killed the original Life? ``Largely TV,'' she says. ``But at the same time, Life had developed a way of doing business in which money was no object. People could spend two months on a story if they wanted. We got used to that, a kind of arrogance.'' She likens the early Life to a vast and romantic ocean liner. ``We were terrific on the ocean. But we couldn't turn around very fast. And the economics of ocean liners rely on how fast they get in and out of port.''