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Remembering the Real Fifties

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(The following is a guest post by Tom Wiener of the Library’s Publishing Office and editor of “The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine.)

"The Forgotten Fifties: America's Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine" (Skira/Rizzoli and the Library of Congress, 2014).
“The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine” (Skira/Rizzoli and the Library of Congress, 2014).

Look Magazine was a large format, glossy-paged publication that emphasized photography as much as words. Published between 1937 and 1971, it is recalled now as the poor sister of the more heavily financed and successful Life. The magazine was owned by the Cowles family, which also owned newspapers in Des Moines, Iowa, before branching out with Look. After the magazine closed its doors, the family donated the entire Look photo archive to the Library of Congress. It comprises the largest single collection within the Prints and Photographs Division, with an estimated 5 million individual images.

Look was a late bloomer, struggling for respectability in its early years when it published pictures of female movie stars accompanied by simplistic stories. It became known as a barber shop magazine, and Look’s principal owner, Gardner “Mike” Cowles, admitted, “Not until 1950 did Look begin to reach that level of quality for which I had hoped.” In that watershed year, Look began running stories on foreign affairs, on the political scene in Washington and on American communities they dubbed “All American Cities.” 1950 saw the outbreak of war in Korea and the arrival on the American scene of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican who insisted that the United States government, and in particular the State Department, was riddled with members of the Communist party. Look reported on both of these stories and the anxieties they raised among their readers.

In March 1950, Look ran a story titled “Southern Catholics Fight Race Hatred,” about efforts in Alabama by the church to reach out to black citizens living in an officially segregated society, often in fear for their safety. It was a bold move by the magazine, and reader reaction was strong – both in praise and in condemnation – with many of the latter letters originating from the South. Thus began a decade-long fascination with racial issues in Look’s pages, which reflected the early days of the Civil Rights era.

Look also displayed a fascination with women, but not like in its early days with the plethora of features on starlets. Mike Cowles’ wife, Fleur, became an associate editor at the magazine in 1947, and her hand on the editorial content was evident until the Cowles marriage broke up in 1955. Yes, there were still pieces on female entertainers, from Marilyn Monroe to Lucille Ball, but there were also examinations of the lives of ordinary women, many of them working for a living. In 1950, Look featured a single mother living in New York who worked as an assistant to cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the popular comic strip “Lil Abner”; and on a middle-aged traveling saleslady specializing in lingerie.

Newly published by the Library of Congress, “The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine” (Skira/Rizzoli and the Library of Congress, 2014) by James Conaway brings the 1950s to life through images from the collection selected by photo editor Amy Pastan.

In preparing to assemble “The Forgotten Fifties,” Jim, Amy and I were guided by an outline of topics, including the Cold War, the rise of television and rock music, and the shifting dynamics of race and gender. We indexed all the relevant features on these topics, and Amy dove into the Look Collection in search of the most evocative photographs. Jim Conaway wrote his text to the photos in each of the 10 chapters, representing one year of the decade. Our book traces the story of how America evolved from its preoccupations with Communism to the dawn of a different era. The photo that opens the 1950 chapter is from the Korean War, and the last photo in the 1959 chapter is of Jacqueline Kennedy. (The author and editors will be on hand today at the Library to discuss the book. A webcast from the event will be forthcoming.)

The unexpected rewards of dealing with a collection so large was that Amy found many photos that never appeared in the magazine. Either they weren’t used for the article for which they were shot, or the article never ran. For example, in 1954, Look staffer Bob Lerner photographed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for a feature marking her debut recording for Columbia Records. We found no article corresponding to Lerner’s photos of Jackson at the Columbia microphones, and only after we completed the book did we learn that most of the film Lerner shot for the story was stolen and Look chose not to run an article. A strip of pictures of Mahalia at the microphone appear on page 126 of “The Forgotten Fifties.”

Researching the Look Collection was both exhilarating and exhausting. No book before ours had made such extensive use of the collection, and Amy immediately found that, as a working archive for a publication, Look rarely made prints of its photos. She was faced with poring over contact sheets, slides and color transparencies–all requiring the use of a magnifying loupe. Look wasn’t stingy; on most assignments, their photographers shot dozens, even hundreds of exposures.

Look’s vision of the 50s offers a nuanced view of a decade thought to be prosperous, simple and innocent. Though there are plenty of pictures in “The Forgotten Fifties” of well-groomed kids and smiling suburban housewives, there are also shots of tattoed beatniks and the Little Rock “mob” of angry white people that greeted the nine black teenagers trying to integrate Central High School. Perry Como appears on our pages, as do Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Doris Day is here, as is “Peyton Place” “bad girl” author Grace Metalious. Look took it all in, and we’re happy to share their view of a decade that’s richer and more complex than is remembered.

The 224-page hardcover book, with 200 color and black-and-white photographs, is available for $45 in bookstores nationwide and in the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540-4985. Credit-card orders are taken at (888) 682-3557 or

Comments (2)

  1. This nostalgia about the 1950s appeared earlier in Indianapolis-summer 2014. It was a political piece in NUVO-an allegedly independent weekly. It was only a brief article but it provided some context.

  2. Having grown up in the fifties, I look forward to reading this book – historians choose key pieces and often important cultural pieces are lost – seeing history through the lens of a magazine that was competing for readers will give us a broader perspective.

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