The people who are STILL living like it’s 1951: Captivating portraits take a look inside America’s Rockabilly community
By OLIVIA FLEMING
It may be 2014 to the rest of us, but for the subjects in Jennifer Greenburg’s photographs, it is still 1951.
The assistant professor of photography at Indiana University Northwest has been photographing America’s Rockabilly community for more than ten years; people that not only dress like it’s the Fifties, but also drive perfectly preserved Cadillacs and decorate their homes with furniture to rival the retro sets of Mad Men.
‘At first I thought the culture was about fashion,’ the 36-year-old photographer told MailOnline. ‘Then I realized it was much, much, more than that. I realized that this was a culture of people who functioned as a community.’
From bankers and laborers to teachers and doctors, Ms Greenburg says there is ‘not just one type of person who joins the Rockabilly community’.
‘Some participants make their living inside the culture, but most have the same gamut of jobs that all people have. There is no trend,’ she explained. ‘Some dress at work to blend into the generally culture, some do not. Some have a hybrid way of dressing that is just toned down and not necessarily identifiable as 1950’s.’
‘We did not have a disposable “Made in China” culture like we do now. When you bought a toaster, it worked for decades, and it looked good just as long. If it broke, you had it repaired. You did not simply toss it into a landfill and head out to a big box store to buy another. . . Yes, even the toaster was joyous in its design.’
The community of people Ms Greenburg has documented, she believes, usually have a desire for this kind of joyousness that was lost in the 21st Century. ‘Happiness, I believe, is everyone’s primary full-time job. And living a life that resembles, visually, the 1950’s helps make that just a little easier,’ she said.
From re-wiring a lamp, to re-sewing the seams of a Fifties cocktail dress, Ms Greenburg added that most true participants of the culture are skilled at repairing and restoring most of their possessions.
‘It is not as easy as going down to the shopping center and buying “a look” off the rack,’ she said. ‘The Rockabillies take preservation into account as
they sculpt their existence. And the culture existed long before it was commonplace to “recycle.”‘
Ms Greenburg, who has collected vintage clothing and jewelry since she was a child, said she started the project because she is ‘as much of a participant in this culture as in any culture’.
‘When I became an adult I started running into young people who liked the same things that I like,’ she said. ‘At first I thought it was just about fashion. Then I dug deeper and started to discover how much more of a subculture it was.’
She added that she took the time to get to really know the people in the Rockabilly community before she began photographing them.
‘I am friendly, and I am not a tourist in this world. So I began to meet people and get to know them. And that’s how the work happened,’ she explained. ‘It’s also why it took ten years to work on. I felt that a trust and mutual understanding between myself and the person in front of the lens was essential. And that is why the images are successful — that trust.’
She points out that, after all, fashion has not radically changed that much in the last 65 years. ‘A pencil skirt now is the same as a pencil skirt from the 1950’s. The only difference is the one you buy now was probably made in China, and won’t last three washings.’
It is this affinity for quality that Ms Greenburg believes the Rockabilly community, which spans across pockets of people in almost every city, is most attracted to: the ‘joyous’ design and ‘beautiful’ functionality of furniture, clothing and ephemera of the Fifties.
‘The middle of the 20th Century in the United States was a time when design was in its heyday,’ she said. ‘Everything American’s owned at that time was designed, and made by, an industrial designer who labored over not only how things should function, but also, over how things should look.
The children growing up inside of the Rockabilly culture, including the boy in the cowboy getup, seem to love their eccentric lifestyle.
‘They don’t usually like Justin Beiber, which actually, gives them a lot of cache among their peers,’ said Ms Greenburg, who still keeps in touch with many of her subjects, even spending New Year’s with the family she photographed sitting in the front of the television.
‘I realized what a special and lovely thing I found myself a part of,’ she said. ‘I have a friend in every city in America that I can call today and go visit tomorrow. That friend will open up his door to me, and, help me with anything that I need — a laugh, a drink of water, a shoulder to cry on — just like only the best of friends do.’