Blast From the Past

Posted March 10, 2004 at 3:28pm

The 1950s is often considered a simpler time of innocence and conformity, a time older generations recall fondly. With this in mind, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on Friday opens a photographic exhibit, “The Tumultuous Fifties: A View From the New York Times Photo Archives,” that may shed new light on a decade often viewed through rose-colored glasses.

Featuring more than 100 original print photographs from

the Times’ archives, the exhibit presents in black and white a stark look at the gray areas too often forgotten and dispels the misconceptions too readily remembered in the years 1950-1959.

“I think that’s what this show is about, is that the decade wasn’t necessarily so happy- go-lucky ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” said Stephanie Montgomery, a public affairs associate for the museum.

Along with the photos of a young Stanley Kubrick behind the camera, there are intense shots of steel workers protesting, Ku Klux Klan members holding a rally in Montgomery, Ala., and white students cursing at blacks during the integration of the Little Rock, Ark., public schools.

With photographs such as one of President Harry S. Truman reiterating the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the exhibit shows the difficulties the United States faced as a young superpower in the post-World War II world.

The photographic displays also show a rapidly changing culture that was witnessing the birth of rock ’n’ roll, the advent of television and the growth of political activism.

“There is industrial history, political history, popular culture, science, medicine, basically every topic we have represented [in the American History Museum],” said Helena Wright, the exhibit’s curator, on how the exhibit fits in with the rest of the museum.

The exhibit also features a baby-faced John F. Kennedy shaking hands with well-wishers in 1952 and Elvis Presley driving a tank during his stint in the army in 1958. Political buffs will also get a look at then-Vice President Richard Nixon 20 years before Watergate was even a twinkle in his eye.

“It was definitely setting the stage for the ’60s,” Wright said.

Like the decade itself, several of the photographs at first glance appear glossy and unscathed, but upon closer inspection several scratches and scars are revealed.

“Well, some of them do have tears and some have wrinkles, but they are not copy-prints. But that’s part of the authenticity,” Wright said.

The exhibit features more than just photographs published with New York Times stories; it also showcases originals taken for the Old Gray Lady by freelancers.

“Everything here is from The New York Times’ archive, but not everything here was taken by Times photographers,” Wright said.

For example, several of the pictures of the rebellious and ill-fated James Dean on display were taken by studios and sent to the Times to promote one of Dean’s films.

The exhibit was produced with help from The New York Times Photo Archives and was organized by the Albright-Know Art Gallery with funding from ABC industries Inc. and the New York Council of the Arts. It will be at the Smithsonian American History Museum until May 9. The museum will put on a series of talks related to the photographs and the events of the 1950s illustrated in the exhibit. For more information, visit americanhistory.si.edu/youmus/exhibits.htm.