A Certain Look
Emily Geminder March 1, 2010, 3:09 p.m.
April 13, 1945, and a 16-year-old kid in the Bronx snapped a photo of a newsstand vendor, his face hemmed in by headlines. “F.D.R. Dies!” and “Roosevelt Dead!” they read. The boy wonder with the 35-millimeter was the quiet, brooding sort with an impossibly deep-set gaze, and he went by the name Stan Kubrick. A junior at William Howard Taft, Kubrick was the son of Jewish immigrants, and he spent more time at the Loews Paradise movie palace than at school. When the New York Daily News offered him $10 for his photo, the enterprising future auteur cut across town to the offices of Look magazine, which outbid the paper by a whole $15.
By the time he graduated high school, Kubrick had a $50-a-week gig as a Look staff photographer. He angled his camera with “truthful ambiguity,” as he would call it, and he turned it on everything: showgirls and subway riders, B-movie actresses and variety-show auditions, middleweight prizefighters and young couples on fire escapes. It was, he later said, “a miraculous break.” Not only did it provide him with the resources and platform to refine his talent, but it served as “a quick education in how things happened in the world.”
At the time, the oversize glossy spreads of Life and Look magazines were finding their way into living rooms and train cars across the country. People discovered an insatiable hunger for something that, not long before, they hadn’t known they needed: pictures. It wasn’t that photography was new so much as it was newly cheap, and in 1936, Henry Luce founded Life and thereby turned a whole generation into consumers of images. A year later, Look followed suit, and both magazines dispatched photographers out into the world by the hundreds, reaping the riches from roll after roll of negatives.
If Life chronicled what Henry Luce called the “American Century,” Look was concerned with that century’s backstory, the often strange and slapdash narratives of self-invention that populated its streets. For Look, New York served as a heady incubator of ambition, a city where outsiders, strivers and misfits rubbed up against the glittering world of fortune and fame, a gleaming global capital that was nonetheless propelled by ordinary people and comprised of working-class neighborhoods.
NEW YORK WAS ALSO a city in flux, undergoing its largest building boom since the 1920s. In 1957, Look did a feature on the Park Avenue modern architectural lineup, the blaze of development that transfigured the residential neighborhood north of Grand Central into a sheer vertical corridor of glass. Among a group of architectural titans, Gordon Bunshaft stands in godlike proportion to a model of Lever House, his Modern magnum opus. The architects stand like deities posed beside their glass-and-steel cathedrals of commerce.
The Look Building, which went up at 488 Madison Avenue in 1950, was a pioneering player of the postwar metamorphosis itself. The building’s developers, the redheaded fraternal duo Percy and Harold Uris, capitalized on new Modernist tastes and deposited large, unornamented boxes around the city. “We’re not building in a vacuum,” Percy Uris told Time in 1954. “We’re building in a market.” The brothers’ buildings frequently drew comparisons to either wedding cakes or Assyrian ziggurats, and the Look Building was among the former. Its curved, white edges are layered with two miles of ribboning glass windows, stacked one on top of another and tapering to a 23-story finish. Designed by Emery Roth & Sons, in many ways, the building presaged things to come, but it was also a stylistic departure for the firm, which went on to define the city’s monotone glass-and-steel vernacular. The Look Building, while it drew some criticism at the time, was at least committed to its bold masonry of rounded white brick.
When it was built, the style was still novel enough that the facade’s giant letters demanding that passersby “Look” may have been unnecessary. The letters themselves were somewhat controversial, as Esquire, another tenant in the building, objected loudly to its designation as the Look Building. It even filed a suit against the naming, but to no avail. It was not just the building but the era of Look.
Kubrick departed from the magazine that same year, having completed his first film, the documentary Day of the Fight, whose subject, Walter Cartier, he first shot for Look. But in many ways, Kubrick had already defined the magazine’s gritty ethos, its commitment to narrative arc and, most of all, its preoccupation with the subjects in the fringe of the shot. His stills for a feature on Frank Sinatra linger not on the singer so much as on his onlooking fans. On assignment to shoot a midtown billboard painter, Kubrick looks past the ad for the “Merry-Go-Round” bra to the upturned faces of the people below.
Look showcased people who came to the city with what E.B. White called the essential New York willingness “to be lucky.” Among them was Elsa Maxwell, a self-proclaimed “short, fat homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background,” who propelled herself to socialite status, wrote a syndicated gossip column and became legendary for her parties, among them “Treasure Hunt” parties (she invented the scavenger hunt), “Come-as-Your-Opposite” parties, “Come-as-You-Were-When-the-Autobus-Called” parties and, as Brooke Astor told Time, “a party where pink pigs walked down the aisle.”
The magazine also chronicled the beady new phenomenon of television, devoting spreads to its back rooms, its casting calls, its influential producers. It was slowly becoming clear, even to Look photographers, that TV was the American living room’s glossy new arbiter of images, that pictures had sped up, flipbook-style, along with people’s appetites for them. Look‘s advertising defaulted to this unyielding new media, and in 1970 the magazine published its last issue, followed a year later by Life.
BY THEN, NEW YORK had changed, too, moving away from Look‘s metropolis of self-propulsion and reinvention, becoming instead synonymous with mass urban decay and disillusionment. The Look Building held on to its enormous letters a whole decade past the magazine’s disappearance, though the structure itself was no longer eye-catching and new. In a city consumed by modernist sheen, it was no longer extraordinary. It was, however, finally anointed with landmark status in November 2009, among the Bloomberg administration’s trend toward Modern awardees.
Perhaps the Look Building’s most prominent recent tenant, Institutional Investor, is also in the publishing industry, though it seems somewhat artless to equate two such divergent publications—one aimed at executives in corporate finance, the other a magazine staffed largely by WPA photographers whose subjects included garment workers and longshoremen, the sort of working-class New Yorkers pushed farther and farther into the outer boroughs’ reaches, if not displaced entirely.
These days, in another moment of media unrest, as the industry talks in terms of hyper-specialization and niche markets, it’s difficult to imagine a publication having such faith in its readership, abiding by the odd belief in multiplicity—not only in the subjects it featured but in the compulsions of its audience. That its readers might not know they had an interest in churchgoers in Harlem or a waitress at the Copacabana, but that, once such subjects were launched out into the world, the great throbbing multitudes would recognize something familiar in them.