There is something incredibly reassuring about looking at stock photographs from the United States in the 1950s. There’s a confidence, a white-toothed, blue-eyed happiness that beams out of every picture. My childhood understanding about what the 1950s were like in America was formed primarily by Happy Days and Grease. Even though the movie version of Grease flirts with controversy (a possible pregnancy, some choice language in Greased Lightnin’) and Happy Days is responsible for jumping the shark, both still present a glossy, clean-cut version of the 1950s. Danny Zuko may have been a greaser but we was probably the smartest dressed greaser ever to appear in cinemas, perhaps until Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby. Even John Waters’ version of 1950s Baltimore in Cry-Baby isn’t as sleazy as you might imagine coming from the director of Pink Flamingos. There’s certainly a deep-rooted affection for the fashions, the music, the style and the peppiness of the 1950s.
That’s not to say 1950s America didn’t have its share of conflict. The Cold War, the Korean War and the Suez Crisis abroad, not to mention the African-American Civil Rights Movement at home, all show that those images of cheerleaders and their beaus sharing a shake at the local drive-in were only a small part of a much bigger picture of social change in the USA and political shake-ups worldwide.
Nevertheless, the 1950s seem to us some sixty years later like a simpler, more hopeful time, a time of prosperity and peace after the ravages of the Second World War, a time when people focussed on their families and their communities and the mom-and-pop store thrived.
Happy Days and Grease were both set in the 50s but began life in the 70s. Happy Days premièred in 1974, the original stage musical of Grease is from 1971 with the film following 7 years later. During all the social change and uncertainty of the 1970s – Watergate, Nixon, Roe vs Wade – people looked to the 1950s as a stabler, more certain time.
We have just begun to represent the awesome collections of ClassicStock, an incredible archive of retro images and I couldn’t help but look through their 1950s Americana shots. We represent a number of photographers active in the 1950s but many of them focussed their attentions away from the USA, either in their home countries – France, Germany, Italy – or further afield in Africa and Asia. It is really exciting to see these quintessentially American images on our system and available worldwide through our website for licensing editorially and non-editiorially. The ClassicStock collection really is a slice of American apple pie! Here’s a tiny selection of my favourites so far.