I got to know each person I photographed before I ever took out the camera. Establishing true friendships and immersing myself in the culture was deeply important to me.
A lifetime love of all things vintage led photographer and Associate Professor of Fine Art at Indiana University Northwest, Jennifer Greenburg, to her discovery and documentation of the nostalgic Rockabilly culture and lifestyle
Rockabilly music had its first mass exposure in the 1950’s and is considered the earliest form of rock and roll music. The sound is a mixture of Country Western and Rhythm and Blues, with Swing and Boogie-woogie mixed in. The genre was popularized by musical greats such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. How did you come to discover that there is a modern day subculture of people who have immersed themselves in the Rockabilly lifestyle?
I began collecting vintage clothing and jewelry when I was a small child and have taken no breaks since my first purchase at age 6. While other children were asking for skateboards or Nintendo systems, I asked my mother to take me to iconic Chicago vintage shops like Flashy Trash or Hubba Hubba to pick out something nicer than I could find at the thrift store. I also had a deep fascination with 1950’s popular culture, which was something that was everywhere during the 1980’s.
In November of 1991, I went see Morrissey play at the historic Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, IL. The opening act, queercore legend, Phranc, had cancelled her performance and The Planet Rockers had been booked in her place. Half way through the very first song, I was spellbound. The music they were playing was exactly what I liked, and until that night I had never heard a word to describe it. Rockabilly. In those days you did not have Google to look things up. You had to work to get information! Even the bravest 14–year old was not going to walk into Wax Trax Records and start asking “dumb” questions! And so I tried, very earnestly, to figure it all out. And I kept collecting but added rockabilly music to my pursuit. The music was, at the time, much harder to locate than the ephemera because most of the music was out of print. King Records had not begun re-issuing their originals, and smart companies like Bear Family Records did not exist yet. Learning about music was a real challenge…
…Ten years later, after I had gotten my MFA from the University of Chicago, the thrift store scene started to dry up. You just could not find anything good anymore. The Internet had just started to “be a thing” and so I started using it to find out about vintage clothing sales and farm sales. I also began joining message boards that revolved around vintage clothing and music. And for the first time, I began to meet people my own age that also knew a lot about the clothes and the music. Previous to the Internet, I collected in a vacuum. Collecting vintage was a “weird” thing to do at the time. My initial thought was that the people who were part of these groups were other artists just interested in the style of mid-century Americana. It was a utopic period for design, after all. But what I discovered was so much more involved than I ever would have predicted. I found an entire culture existed around the music, the clothes, and the ephemera. It was a culture that also gravitated toward the conservatism of post-war America, like marriage, children, etc. To me, this was quite surprising and radical! “Marriage? Children? YOU’RE MOVING TO THE SUBURBS? What is going on here?” And so I began photographing.
What is so special and different about this portion of the population that you decided to cover it in your photographs?
In the early 2000’s, when I began the project, I noted that most Americans did not identify easily within the constructs that historically have been important in most societies. Most Americans have multiple cultural identities, which means they are unable to assemble into cultural groups. At the time, I also noticed that most educated young people were disillusioned by religion and therefore did not find community through worship either. (This has radically changed in the past ten years.) The question on my mind was how do you find “your people” if you cannot join a congregation and you are outside a cultural identity?
In my personal search for the answer to this question, I came across this population. It was and is a very welcoming group. One person would introduce me to another and that next person would welcome me into their home without suspicion or hesitation. I often invited to stay for the duration of my travels. I began photographing because I was desperate to hold on what I was experiencing because I thought it was so rare. If I could make the right picture, maybe the moment would last forever. That I could somehow hold on to my new coterie.
How does Rockabilly music and culture reflect American history and culture?
The realities of the historical time period associated with rockabilly music are complicated. The history and significance changes depending on whom you ask. Numerous books have been written on the topic over the past several decades and offer far greater insights than I ever could.
It seems that your subjects live all over the country. With their retro styles and affinity for an earlier time, do they find it difficult to blend in with modern day society?
With very few exceptions, this is a friendly, happy group who go about their lives either without, or by ignoring, adversity. Having passions, and immersing oneself in those passions, is quite satisfying and is probably the secret to happiness. Do I have girlfriends who have trouble finding a partner to understand a closet full of “old clothes” and a house full of “used” furniture. Yes, I do. But I also have family members who cannot find a partner within the “right” sect of Judaism. I think we all have some difficulties blending into society in one way or another.
Do Rockabillies listen to other genres of music?
Absolutely. I cannot imagine a person who only listens to rockabilly.
You make the culture seem very sexy. Your female models look like pin ups and your male models are very James Dean-ish. In the 1950’s when Rockabilly music first became popular, its appeal to young people was its combination of rebellion, sexuality, and freedom. Is part of the modern appeal of this culture a retrospective, nostalgic memory of a sexy, rebellious America in perhaps simpler times?
YES! This subculture is seduced by the romantic innocence attributed to the middle 20th century. The harsh-realities of racial and gender inequality are ignored in favor of a nostalgic interpretation. That interpretation is crafted from Hollywood movies and commercial photographs, rather than from actual historical realities.
I would also posit that the formality and manners of American culture from that time period is another desirable factor that is widely emulated and celebrated within the subculture. When I share a meal with other participants, table manners are followed. When I am invited to someone’s home, the carpet is vacuumed and the dishes are put away. No one wears pajamas in public (unless they are going to a pajama-themed party). Life in the 21st Century is very hard for all Americans. It is very depressing, for me personally, to see someone in a public place in his or her pajamas. I leave my house dressed, not because I care what someone else thinks of me, but because I have respect for others and hope they will have respect for me. I safely assume others wish not to see me in my bedclothes with my lunch splattered all over my shirt. Being showered and presentable is a courtesy to all those around you and grants you polite interactions with strangers. Neither lady nor gentleman went out inappropriately dressed until about 10-20 years ago. I personally hope all Americans can come back around to this as an ideal.
Why are certain colors such as turquoise, lime green, hot pink, and reds so prevalent in your photos?
I am an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Indiana University Northwest and I have taught color theory for my entire academic career. Every decade has a color palette and the study of color theory throughout history is a fascinating endeavor that I encourage all readers to investigate. (Want a great online resource? Check out my colleague and friend, Pam Kueber’s website, Retrorenovation.com) The 1950’s palette included turquoise, pink, lemon yellow, fire engine red and black, and therefore cars, appliances, clothing and furniture all came in those colors. Since I was photographing in private homes that are furnished with original items from this time period, this color palette is present in all of my photographs.
There are wonderful “props” in your photographs. Are the pink flamingos, Tiki torches, Formica tables, cowboy wallpaper, etc. items that you set up before shooting the scenes, or is this just the way your Rockabilly subjects decorate their homes and workplaces?
I did absolutely no arranging for any of my photographs. I showed up, and I arranged myself around what was already there. I did not add nor did I subtract. I would arrive to someone’s home and ask where he or she would like to take the photograph. But I never brought anything to add into the picture. Everything depicted was as it was when I arrived. I also never controlled or intervened on what the subject was wearing. I documented what was there.
How has covering the Rockabilly lifestyle impacted your life?
I got to know each person I photographed before I ever took out the camera. Establishing true friendships and immersing myself in the culture was deeply important to me. I did not want to be viewed as a tourist because I was not, nor am I now, a tourist in this sub-culture. After a few years of making work, I realized that my life was forever changing, and that the relationships I was establishing were true friendships. True friendship is a very hard thing to find in this world, and through my work I have made deep connections that continue now 16 years after the project began. Though my work has moved on, my friendships have not. I even met my husband, who is also a participant, via the subculture. I was bold enough to introduce myself to him at an event because I knew if he wasn’t interested, I could make an excuse that I was simply interested in taking his photograph. Pretty smooth, eah?
What do you think modern day America can learn from the Rockabillies?
Passion is the key to happiness. I have not come across too many participants within the group who are unhappy people. Do bad things happen from time to time? Yes, of course; no one’s life is perfect. But in general, this is a spirited group that includes a lot of laughter and friendship.
I also would note that the subculture does not proselytize nor evangelize. We do not seek others to join. If you do your own research, and find that participation is something you want, then welcome aboard! But no one in the group spends their time trying to convince outsiders to “join.” No one in the group tells outsiders, “You are wrong, and we are better than you.” I think that is an important lesson. Perhaps the religious right in America has me thinking about this right now.
How much fun is it to shoot the beautiful cars Rockabillies own and obviously cherish?
It’s not nearly as much fun as getting to ride in one after I finish taking photos!
Is there a particular message that you hope people glean from your photographs?
The Rockabillies were made to remind the audience that personal happiness should be your full time job. There are so many things in the outside world that one cannot control, but you can control your own private life.
Jennifer Greenburg is an Associate Professor at Indiana University Northwest and lives in Chicago, Illinois. She holds an MFA from The University of Chicago and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute. Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at the Hyde Park Art Center, The Print Center, and many other places. Greenburg’s work has been included in numerous national and international group exhibitions. Light Work awarded her an Artist in Residency in 2005. Her work is part of the permanent collections of Light Work, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts. Jennifer Greenburg’s monograph, The Rockabillies, was published by the Center for American places in 2009.