40 years since the last issue of LIFE

January 16, 2013

December 29, 2012, marked the 40th anniversary of the last issue of the original LIFE magazine. An  exhibit in the 1st-floor lobby of Memorial Library (on display through March 1, 2013) commemorates that anniversary and highlights the fact that Special Collections holds some 40 examples of the curved metal printing plates used to print the last issue in December 1972. The printing plates were the gift of John and Barbara Dobbertin, who also donated examples of the first (November 23, 1936) and last issues of LIFE included in the display. As he describes it, Dobbertin discovered “printing plates from the last issue of LIFE stacked on the ground floor of the 440,000-square foot printing plant” of R. R. Donnelley & Sons in Chicago and purchased the plates in 1973 “for the scrap metal price of 3¢ per pound.”

The color cover, “The Year in Pictures 1972,” required multiple color plates, one of which is shown here. Like movable type, such electrotype printing plates are reversed or wrong-reading; the pages printed from them are right-reading.

curved printing plate, one of multiple color plates, used to print the cover of the final issue of LIFE magazine in December 1972

Use of curved printing plates was just part of a complicated technological system that made possible a weekly photographic news magazine printed on coated paper and produced in enormous quantities.

Curved plates as installed on a printing press at R. R. Donnelley and Sons. From "The house that quality built" (1957)
Ranks of curved printing plates, ready to be put on a press at R. R. Donnelley and Sons. From "The house that quality built" (1957).

Henry R. Luce, who recognized the possibilities at R. R. Donnelley & Sons, launched LIFE in the midst of the Depression, as recounted by James L. Baughman, professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in Henry R. Luce and the rise of the American news media (1987). George H. Waltz, Jr., described the printing processes at R. R. Donnelley in The house that quality built (1957).

We invite you to take a look at the exhibit, which John Dobbertin generously curated. It features LIFE articles of signal importance in late 1972, from the launch of Apollo 17 to latest on the war in Vietnam, alongside the printing plates used to produce them.

More of the printing plates await you in Special Collections.

A video recording entitled Craftsmanship & automation, originally produced in 1960, contains footage about presses and plates used by R. R. Donnelley & Sons in various large publishing projects. Acquisition of this DVD, among scores of documentary films on printing crafts, was supported by a grant to the the Libraries’ Silver Buckle Press from the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries.