LIFE MAGAZINE
THE WORLD’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHS 1980-1990
Winter 1990

In the electronic '80s, full of zap and fax, photographers had to be fast to keep up. There were royal weddings and a model-like princess; a film star President; a pope almost constantly on the move, pictured against exotic backdrops. Wars in the Middle East, Central America, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Cambodia bore witness to humanity's continuing inability to live with itself. There were awesome natural disasters when the top of Mount St. Helens blew off and the earth moved beneath Armenia. Equally terrifying were the man-made ones as planes were blown out of the skies and forests died from acid rain and flames. Then there were moments of inspiration. We were moved when the Vietnam veterans finally got a monument and some of the recognition they felt they deserved. We thrilled to watch unknown American heroes defeat an invincible Soviet ice hockey team in the Olympic Games, and we cheered the gritty determination of the American farmer to preserve the family acres against foreclosure and drought. We were transported to planets by robot cameras launched into space before the decade even began. Photography also suffered setbacks. Everyone tried to control the media. Authorities in South Africa and the West Bank, aware of the power of the camera, severely limited its use, and the British military made it almost impossible to photograph the Falklands war. Politicians behaved like actors, and actors behaved like corporation presidents. The phrase "photo opportunity" became widely used. Now a campaign with all its complexities and smoke-filled rooms could not be photographed. There were only a series of staged events produced by the candidate's handlers--who knew exactly the best settings for their man. Sometimes the handlers got it wrong--as they did when they put Michael Dukakis in an Army tank--but mostly they were on the money. The sheer volume of work produced during this decade bears witness to the vitality of the medium, and not just by professionals. Encouraged by a new generation of auto-load, auto-focus, auto­expose cameras, amateurs were shooting everything around them. In the industrialized world today almost nothing happens that isn't recorded by a camera. According to the Wolfman Report on the Photographic and Imaging Industry, the estimated number of exposures made in the United States in 1988 alone was 15.46 billion. Given those numbers, it is foolhardy to say that the 118 pictures in this issue are the best of the decade, but one of the strengths of the medium is that its appeal is very personal. Your great picture may be a rolling landscape. Somebody else's choice could be a grim news still or maybe an elegant portrait. These photographs are our favorites. Just over half are American, because this is an American magazine. Just under half are journalism, because that's what we do and know most about. But we did not want to limit ourselves in any way. Every photograph taken during the '80s was eligible for this issue. We have included pictures used in advertisements and on record album covers, for promotion and as gallery art. We tried in our selection to be unpredictable and a bit controversial, but most of all we wanted to move you and entertain you with our choices. Because this is a celebration of photography, there is very little text, but we interviewed the photographers and beginning on page 122 there are anecdotes about the pictures, arranged in the order in which they appear in this issue. You may get to that point and decide that the photographs you like best would be entirely different ones from those that we selected. Even so, we hope you enjoy the path we took. -Peter Howe


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Monkey’s trainer’s daughter, New Delhi, India, 1980

TRAINER'S DAUGHTER
"I spent some time following street performers around in India. Theirs is an old tradition, passed down from generation to generation. The children grow up with animals, learning how to train them. The animals grow up as part of the family's daily life." -Mary Ellen Mark, Library


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Gypsy Children, Near Barcelona, Spain, 1987

GYPSY CHILDREN
"I had just met them when I took this picture, and I don't know where they got that incredible mask. For me, the way they look had a quality that was very touching and recognizable, something about imagination and the poetry of childhood." -Mary Ellen Mark, Library

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