There's a look to pictures from the 1950s. They feature the blissful consumerism of the era's advertisements, the big smiles of suburbanites in domestic settings that are part of so many family snapshots, the frank social revelation championed by the decade's documentarians. Jennifer Greenburg plays off this visual vocabulary so successfully that, at first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking The Rockabillies series was contemporary with hot rods and Howdy Doody, rather than photographed over the last few years.
They'd like that, the Rockabillies. Indeed, they've gone to a lot of trouble to make just that impression. Yet as you look at Greenburg's pictures you realize these aren't vintage prints, they can't be. Maybe you see the extension cord snaking through the living room. Perhaps you notice it's a modern television enshrined in that carefully restored case. It may simply be the print's color palette that tips you off, but there's always a clue that these photographs are really quite recent.
In a way these little incongruities testify to the extensive insulation of Rockabilly culture, but such intrusions of the present day serve more importantly to remind one that all this is real life. What's remarkable is not that the Rockabillies have constructed a reality so completely, it's that this is their reality. A real child lives in that meticulously - designed period cowboy room. Meals will be cooked in that picture - perfect kitchen, no doubt served on the sought - after Fiestaware displayed on its well - ordered shelves. It's not a theatrical set you're looking at - it's a home.
Rockabilly grooming and decorating are unmistakably conscientious, but to characterize Rockabillies as reenactors misses the point. A true 1950s house, if you think about it, would probably have contents from a previous decade - a hand - me - down sofa, a family heirloom of some sort, an antique or two. In contrast, a Rockabilly house and its contents will reflect only a strict span of mid - century America, perhaps a specific window of only two or three years. And while their courting and patterns of family life seek to replicate values popularly espoused in the fifties, the Rockabillies have proved less eager to adopt the racist, anti - Semitic, and red scare mentalities that were also notable features of that time. If the Rockabillies have succeeded in recreating anything, really, it's a particular brand of idealism.
The tangibles of Rockabilly life, exactingly restored and reproduced, make up the symbols and props of an ideology heavy on post - war optimism and small town glamour. Voodoo Larry and his family cluster proudly against a polished station wagon flanked by lawn flamingos, defiantly surrounded by the trappings of middle class success. Mrs. Hughes projects a domestic satisfaction Life magazine would envy. The selectivity with which Rockabillies choose to recall the past leads to a kind of hyper - realism as they inflate a few fractured elements to constitute a whole lifestyle. In doing so they conform to a set of roles and types with a zealous commitment not even demonstrated by the original models they appear to emulate. Though Rockabillies spend their time in vintage homes wearing vintage clothes listening to vintage music, the fact remains: what they have now, properly speaking, has never existed before.
These are people who have figured out how to guard their own innocence, and Greenburg respects that and has a critical admiration for it. She initiates a photo shoot knowing the home reflects its owner, and she trusts her subjects to select their own poses and the place in which to make these portrait tableaux. Perhaps it's not surprising that the members of an insular community choose to be photographed in interiors, and tend to face away from the outside world. This is illustrated in the way Tom Colbertson seems contained in the expansive turquoise shadow of his thoroughly replicated living room, keeping no more than a toe in the patch of streaming sunlight that interrupts an environment otherwise expertly controlled.
Greenburg's 1955 view camera is a credential in itself, but its great advantage with the Rockabilly community is how it provides a flattering formality while negating the element of surprise. There are no candid pictures of people that are always posing. But if they are comfortable enough to display and really exhibit themselves, their staging can reveal everything about who they are by articulating just exactly what they wish to be.
(c) 2006 A. Kendra Greene
Jennifer Greenburg lives in Chicago and teaches at Columbia College Chicago. She participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in July 2005.
Kendra Greene is a writer in Chicago, where she manages the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
A Just Image
As it plays out in the headlines, justice means equality, fairness, and the rule of law. Yet beyond the events broadcast on television and the news alerts flashed instantly to laptops and PDAs, there is a large realm of justice that eludes reporters. Throughout daily life - at home, in school, doing errands, tending children,m making dinner, playing sports - perceptions of justice often float just below the radar.
The Light Work Collection offered plentiful proof that photographers frequently make images of routine daily life and its relationship to a sense of justice. However, as members of the Fine Arts 395 "Art and Identity"class noticed, scholars seldom extend the concept of justice into aspects of living that are legal, but sometimes ethically questionable. Counselors, social workers, and therapists seem to take over where the justice system stops. Nevertheless, the line between the legal system's purview and personal life is not fixed. Class members were careful to insist that the law is often less subtle in its grasp of situations and unaware of complexities than are the images included in this show. Nowhere in the law is it written that by embracing a stereotype one can sometimes achieve influence skin to contesting the mold. Thoughts and feelings such as these coalesced as the subject of this exhibition.
Work and family emerged as sites where what is fair is not always what is equal. , and what is equal is not always fair. However fair or unfair, the triumphs and annoyances one experiences at work mostly fall below the threshold of the law. It is conventional wisdom, not the IRS, which suggests that wealth carries no guarantee of happiness. Creating this nuanced exhibition about justice in everyday life led the class into hearty and un-nuanced discussions about the slights, snubs, and rebuffs of an ordinary day.
The students chose the title A Just Image for this exhibition before they read about the expression in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. With the phrase, he and they recognize that art coaxes the world of appearances to create symbols signifying ideas for which there are no words. Just an image becomes A Just Image.
Mary Warner Marien
A Just Image: Selections from the Light Work Collection is the result of a collaborative effort by thirty-one Syracuse University students enrolled in Professor Mary Warner Marien's "Art and Identity" course. The exhibition examines the Fall 2007 Syracuse Symposium theme of justice. The students chose images from the Light Work Collection, considering the personal and societal meanings of justice. They have created an interactive exhibition, where, as the students write in the exhibition catalogue, "ironically... the viewer is still judging."
A Just Image invites viewers to explore the photographs and rethink their definition of justice. As the students of the "Art and Identity" course discovered, though justice is a universal concept, it does not necessarily carry the same meaning for everyone. This can be seen in the different perceptions of stereotypes, families, occupations, and leisure activities, which are some of the topics examined by the class. According to the students, " The Pictures we have chosen require more than just superficial judgment; they require the viewer to acknowledge their own stereotyped projections."