Bobbi Baker Burrows, a stalwart custodian of Life magazine’s storied photo archive who, as director of photography for the magazine’s book series, became an arbiter of how newsmakers and news events were immortalized by one of the most influential photojournalism outlets of all time, died Jan. 10 at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. She was 73.
The cause was corticobasal degeneration, a rare neurological disorder, said her husband, photo archivist Russell Burrows.
Mrs. Burrows was hired in 1966 as a photo assistant at Life, a cornerstone of the Time-Life empire, toward the end of its heyday as a mass-market pictorial magazine. Known for its photo essays, Life was revered during the mid-20th century for chronicling war, movie stars, the space race, the Olympic Games and extraordinary human interest stories.
After shuttering in 1972, Life was resurrected as a monthly from 1978 to 2000 and also produced special issues and books to commemorate historical anniversaries and landmark news events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As a senior photo editor, Mrs. Burrows assigned stories and doggedly scoured thousands of images, selecting for publication only those that, in her view, would resonate across history. Entirely self-taught in her craft, she won respect for her “encyclopedic knowledge of photography” and for cultivating the trust of even the most hard-bitten photojournalists, according to a tribute on the Time magazine website.
One of her most important early assignments came amid the frenzy of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in California in June 1968. Life’s Bill Eppridge, who found himself within feet of the mortally wounded politician, photographed Kennedy in an image that heavily implied martyrdom. It was horrifying and luminous.
Back at Life’s Manhattan headquarters, Mrs. Burrows helped assemble the regular magazine as well as a special edition on the assassination. In an essay for the Digital Journalist, she recalled that “two burly FBI agents” approached her at her office seeking the negative of Eppridge’s photo, which unbeknown to them had been placed under her desk blotter for safekeeping. She stalled for time so that the image could be processed for publication, offering platitudes and an ample dose of coquettish charm.
“The miniskirt too may have helped them believe in my innocence,” she wrote. “We were anxious to help, but with one negative, possibly the best lab in the country, and no such thing as a digital copy, we weren’t taking a chance on losing that negative and its image.”
She spent much of her career cataloguing the work of renowned photojournalists, among them Carl Mydans, David Douglas Duncan, Gordon Parks, George Silk and Alfred Eisenstaedt, whom she called Eisie, becoming a guardian of their visual legacies.
She recalled a deluge of phone calls and letters after Life, amid a renewed interest in World War II, sought to identify the subjects of Eisenstaedt’s 1945 cover photo of a sailor enthusiastically kissing a nurse in Times Square as they celebrated the war’s end.
Eisenstaedt, who died in 1995, did not obtain the couple’s names, and their faces are obscured. Mrs. Burrows became a bulwark against sentimentality and lore, against those — however well-intentioned — trying to stake a claim to a piece of photographic iconography.
“We received claims from a few nurses and dozens of sailors, but we could never prove that any of them were the actual people, and Eisenstaedt himself just said he didn’t know,” she told the Associated Press in 2008. (Competing claims by Edith Shain, who died in 2010, and Greta Friedman, who died in 2016, have been most widely accepted for the identity of the nurse; Glenn McDuffie, who died in 2007, insisted he was the sailor.)
Barbara Jean Baker was born in Boston on Jan. 27, 1944, and grew up in Hamden, Conn. Her father was a troubleshooter for General Motors, and her mother was a homemaker.
After graduating in 1963 from Colby Junior College (now Colby-Sawyer College) in New London, N.H., she set out for Manhattan with a vague ambition to work as a dancer. Her husband said that the need to eat led her to a job at Life.
Besides her husband of 43 years, of Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, survivors include a daughter, Sarah Burrows, a picture editor at People magazine, of Manhattan; a son, James Burrows of Santa Monica, Calif.; a sister; and twin grandchildren.
Her father-in-law was Life war photographer Larry Burrows, who died in Laos in 1971 covering the conflict in Southeast Asia.
In a 2008 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mrs. Burrows said she did not care for online or digital photography for many reasons, noting that pictures could far too easily lose their “integrity” by being altered. Above all, she called herself “old school” in the pleasure of riffling through countless images and finding a gem.
“Now photography has become an art, but we were journalists,” she said. “We would make up hundreds of prints, these wonderful old gelatin prints, and we’d throw them around across the table and were moving them around as a layout and were pinning them on our walls. There are stick pins in some of the old pictures. I appreciated it at the time, but in retrospect I appreciate it so much more now.”