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Remembering John Loengard Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

26 May 2020

John Loengard, an American photographer who became Time's picture editor after Life magazine folded, died last Sunday from heart failure. He was 85.

He was 11 years old when his father got the bright idea of purchasing a camera. Loengard recalled the moment:

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.

He ran down to the drugstore to buy film but was brought up short when the clerk asked him what size film. "I had not expected photography to be so complicated," he confessed. His mother rescued him by telling him a roll of #616 Verichrome would do the trick. Later, his father showed him how to develop it in the bathroom.

Enthralled by the new gadget, Loengard used it to take photos of his family, his friends and his neighborhood. He became a photographer for his high school when the editor asked him to take a photo of 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.

As a senior at Harvard, Life magazine's Boston bureau-chief Will Jarvis assigned him to photograph a freighter run aground on Cape Cod in 1956. Jarvis didn't use his photos but it was the beginning of Loengard's long association with the magazine.

He joined the staff in 1961 after two years in the Army and contributed several photo essays that became classics, including The Shakers and Georgia O'Keeffe.

When Life suspended weekly publication in 1972, Loengard became the picture editor of 10 semi-annual Life Special Reports.

He became picture editor of Time Inc.'s Magazine Development Group, planning and launching People magazine in 1974 and in 1978 was instrumental in Life's rebirth as a monthly.

In 1986, that publication won the first award for "Excellence in Photography" ever given by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Loengard continued as Life's picture editor until 1987.

In a tribute to his mentor, Joe McNally wrote:

Thing about John was that he could see things in yourself as a photographer you did not know you had. The fanciful ideas about pictures he offered up in his office (which ranged from mildly incongruous to flat out ridiculous) were not really serious notions to be shot, but instead were the lighting of your own interior fuse. And, in the editing process, he and Mel [Scott] would find salvation in your take, surprising and excellent pictures that breathed life into a story. Pictures you didn't think you had or didn't think much of, so blinkered we can be as photogs, shuffling continuously through the dusty sense of our ongoing failures, like Pig Pen with a camera.

In 1987, Loengard became a fulltime freelance photographer. Among his more noted images are a 1963 photo of Medgar Evers's 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. Many of these can be seen on his Web site.

He has published four books about his own photographs and six concerning the work of other photographers.

He taught at the International Center of Photography in New York, The New School for Social Research in New York and at workshops around the country.

In 2018, he reflected on the changes he'd witnessed:

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.

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