A look back at ‘The Forgotten Fifties’

lookmag7In a nice bit of synchronicity last week, I had a chance to interview the longtime publisher of LOOK magazine — Tom Shepard, Jr. of Greenwich — just as a new Skira/Rizzoli book, “The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of LOOK Magazine” landed on my desk.

The magazine lasted from the mid-1930s through the early 1970s — when a scramble to keep subscriber numbers high led to huge losses and collapse — and was a powerful competitor to its rival pictures-and-text magazine, LIFE.

In the early years, LOOK went after a mostly male, downmarket audience.

“In its first decade, LOOK was, according to (creator) Gardner Cowles’ wife, Fleur, ‘barbershop reading…rejected by the serious advertising community’…LOOK wasn’t taken seriously until the 1940s,” Alan Brinkley writes in the book’s introduction.

LOOK took off in the 1950s thanks in large part to recruiting some of the best photographers in the country, including Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon.

The magazine also served as a launching pad for a young Stanley Kubrick who developed his remarkable eye for composition and mastery of natural light as a LOOK feature photographer (the book contains many fine examples of his work for the publication, including some amusing shots of the socialite/actress Betsy von Furstenberg).

“The Forgotten Fifties” reminds us of the high quality of this long defunct publication, as well as an unusually lookmag1divided decade, marked by financial prosperity for many, but a simmering anger among blacks, women and non-conformist young people that would explode in the 1960s.

Brinkley writes about the swift rise of television during the 1950s. “In 1946, there were 17,000 television sets among a population of 160 million people. By 1960, 87 percent of American homes had television.”

The book shows how the dominance of advertising-based TV during the 1950s made most of the programming bland and reflective primarily of the white populace that did so well during the post-World War II era:

“The world of television entertainment programming in the 1950s was, with only a very few exceptions, a placid middle-class world; and many middle-class Americans, seeing such constant confirmation of their own experiences and values on television, could easily conclude that those were the experiences and values common to all Americans.”

LOOK (and LIFE) did their part to report on and picture the facets of American life that were not being covered on TV, especially the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that overturned the foundation of segregation — separate-but-equal public school education.

LOOK published one of the most important pieces on the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and another big feature, “The Little Rock Story,” about the harassment of blacks trying to attend a formerly all-white high school.

The mix of show business coverage, politics, and world affairs in LOOK and LIFE filled in many of the gaps left by the very limited and sanitized TV news coverage of that period (when the major networks only supplied 30 minutes of news a day).

The beautifully designed 235-page book reflects the diversity of LOOK with pictures of TV stars like Milton Berle and Lucille Ball in action, along with haunting images of poor ghetto dwellers and “whites only” restaurants and bathrooms in the South. The book ends with a great shot, spread over two pages, of Jacqueline Kennedy, who would play such a central role in the massive upheavals of the decade that followed “The Forgotten Fifties.”


Joe Meyers