Smith graduated from Wichita North High School in 1936. He began his career by taking pictures for two local newspapers, The Wichita Eagle (morning circulation) and the Beacon (evening circulation). He moved to New York City and began work for Newsweek and became known for his incessant perfectionism and thorny personality. Smith was fired from Newsweek for refusing to use medium format cameras and joined Life Magazine in 1939 using a 35mm camera. In 1945 he was wounded while photographing battle conditions in the Pacific theater of World War II.
As a correspondent for Ziff-Davis Publishing and then Life again, Smith entered World War II on the front lines of the island-hopping American offensive against Japan, photographing U.S. Marines and Japanese prisoners of war at Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. On Okinawa, Smith was hit by mortar fire. After recovering, he continued at Life and perfected the photo essay from 1947 to 1954.
In 1950, he was sent to the United Kingdom to cover the General Election, in which the Labour Party, under Clement Attlee, was narrowly victorious. Life had taken an editorial stance against the Labour government. In the end, a limited number of Smith's photographs of working-class Britain were published, including three shots of the South Wales valleys. In a documentary made by BBC Wales, Professor Dai Smith traced a miner who described how he and two colleagues had met Smith on their way home from work at the pit and had been instructed on how to pose for one of the photos published in Life.
Smith severed his ties with Life over the way in which the magazine used his photographs of Albert Schweitzer. Upon leaving Life, Smith joined the Magnum photo agency in 1955. There he started his project to document Pittsburgh. This project was supposed to take him three weeks, but spanned three years and tens of thousands of negatives. It was too large ever to be shown, although a series of book-length photo essays were eventually produced.
Perhaps one of the best-known pictures printed in the magazine was Alfred Eisenstaedtâ€™s photograph of a nurse in a sailorâ€™s arms, snapped on August 27, 1945, as they celebrated VJ Day in New York City. The magazine's place in the history of photojournalism is considered its most important contribution to publishing.
Life was wildly successful for two generations before its prestige was diminished by economics and changing tastes. Since 1972, Life has twice ceased publication and resumed in a different form, before ceasing once again with the issue dated April 20, 2007. The brand name continues on the Internet and in occasional special issues.