Open Mike

Remembering the ’50s


By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Photography by Jennifer Greenburg

Open Mike

Jennifer Greenburg’s fascination with vintage clothing and accessories started with her grandmother’s closet. “By the age of four,” the Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of photography and printmaking says, “I was already demanding my own vintage costume jewelry. My parents would laugh and shake their heads in disbelief any time we passed a yard or garage sale.”

Greenburg, MFA’01, has turned her love of all things ’50s into a photo series and a 2010 coffee-table book, The Rockabillies (Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago), about a subculture that lives as if it were mid-20th-century America. She had worn the clothes long before she knew about the community, but once she found like-minded people, she says, "I couldn't believe that I had a group of friends who could talk at length about gabardine and rayon crepe."

In her closet
I have been collecting seriously and without interruption for 20 years at this point. ... I have 1940s alligator platform pumps, rayon Hawaiian sarong dresses, Lucite purses, a staggering amount of Bakelite everything, Renoir copper jewelry, beaded purses, full-circle skirt dresses, an impressive amount of Lurex. Basically, if it was made between 1940 and 1964, I probably have at least one example of it.

Getting to know you
I got to know each person I photographed very well before I photographed them. The individual had to trust me and to like me, and I had to feel the same about them. In the few instances where I rushed taking the photograph or photographed someone who I felt didn't have a good spirit or wasn't fully committed to the culture, the image was a failure.

Open Mike

Rock around the clock
Many of my subjects live the life 24/7. Some of them make their entire living catering to the community and therefore have no reason to dress or conduct themselves in any other way. Now I am sure that those who work out do not head to the local Bally Fitness in cabana outfits, PF Flyers, or in gabardine gym shorts. However, most do attend work in some form of vintage attire.

Polite company
Many of the parenting styles among the rockabillies mimic the style of parenting popular in [1950s America]. All of the children that I have ever come into contact with say, "please," "thank you," have impeccable table manners, know how to talk to adults, and never seem to have tantrums or break down.

Her next project
If you show someone who lived through the 1950s my images from The Rockabillies, they will tell you that the 1950s didn't look like my photographs. The rockabillies base their homes and visual appearance on period films, television, and magazines that add a surreal quality to my images. In my new series, Revising History, I have created new images using vintage found negatives. ... When I look at old photos, I want to know what it must have been like to be in the moment when the image was taken. Digital manipulation allows me to reconstruct that moment and to step inside the image.