Gardner "Mike" Cowles, Jr. (1903–1985), the magazine's co-founder (with his brother John) and first editor, was executive editor of The Des Moines Register and The Des Moines Tribune. When the first issue went on sale in early 1937, it sold 705,000 copies.
Although planned to begin with the January 1937 issue, the actual first issue of Look to be distributed was the February 1937 issue, numbered as Volume 1, Number 2. It was published monthly for five issues (February-May 1937), then switched to bi-weekly starting with the May 11, 1937 issue. Page numbering on early issue counted the front cover as page one. Early issues, subtitled Monthly Picture Magazine, carried no advertising.
The unusual format of the early issues featured layouts of photos with long captions or very short articles. The magazine's backers described it as "an experiment based on the tremendous unfilled demand for extraordinary news and feature pictures." It was aimed at a broader readership than Life, promising trade papers that Look would have "reader interest for yourself, for your wife, for your private secretary, for your office boy.
Within weeks, more than a million copies were bought of each issue, and it became a bi-weekly. By 1948 it sold 2.9 million copies per issue. Circulation reached 3.7 million in 1954, and peaked at 7.75 million in 1969. Its advertising revenue peaked in 1966 at $80 million. Of the leading general interest large-format magazines, Look had a circulation second only to Life and ahead of The Saturday Evening Post, which closed in 1969, and Collier's, which folded in 1956.
Look was published under various company names: Look, Inc. (1937–45), Cowles Magazines (1946–65), and Cowles Communications, Inc. (1965–71). Its New York editorial offices were located in the architecturally distinctive 488 Madison Avenue, dubbed the "Look Building."
Look ceased publication with its issue of October 19, 1971, the victim of a $5 million loss in revenues in 1970 (with television cutting deeply into its advertising revenues), a slack economy and rising postal rates. Circulation was at 6.5 million when it closed.
Filipacchi Publications brought back Look, "The Picture Newsmagazine" in February 1979 as a bi-weekly in a slightly smaller size. It lasted only a year.
The Look Magazine Photograph Collection was donated to the Library of Congress and contains approximately five million items.