Search For "populuxe"
Mad Men may well have been a form of mod/modernism for grown-ups – this was a world of childhood toys for grown-ups.
Essentially, a whole mini-cultural genre of sharply styled, populuxe-esque Barbie dolls and home made (but far from home made looking) accessories.
I don’t know if this was before, after or a similar time to when I was discovering David Levinthal’s diorama and Barbie based work but it put me in mind of such things but arriving from a more homespun, less fine art base.
One of my early discoveries was the “official” side of such things – the Joan Harris of Mad Men Barbie doll released by Mattel (and hence an overt connection otherly than purely aesthetic ones to the series) that can be seen at the top of this post but soon wandered into this world of handcrafted objects that summoned forth a Mad Man-esque world and its ambience.
Lovely stuff. Much of the furniture, fixtures and fittings that populate this place and the accompanying outfits are often one of a kind (or ooak in modern abbreviated searching and seeking parlance). Even many of the dolls have been modified from the “official” releases.
The image below of such work intrigues me. It’s part of the same series but in its style seems to harbinger the later series of Mad Men, when the sharp 1960s styling began to meet looser late 1960s/early 1970s style.
Stylistically Mad Men ended at a liminal point – there had not yet been a transition from one era to another’s style.
It is something that I would have been interested to see how that aspect would have developed if the series had continued through the years.
There could be seen to be a connection between the affluence and opulence of populuxe styling and that of say affluent 1970s glamour but the former is intrinsically connected to a corseted (uptight?), ideal nuclear family, genre division of home and work roles way of being or philosophy while the latter is founded more in a sense of decadence, (over?) indulgence and the like – the perfect housewife becomes the perfect playmate.
I’ve been drawn to David Levinthal’s work for a while… he creates photographic dioramas and still lifes that reflect particular cultures, activities and periods in history, work that could be seen to be a forerunner to the likes Slinkachu’s miniature street life photography that is also created in a similar manner.
On some levels David Levinthal’s work such as his Barbie Millicent Roberts series could be seen as technically proficient photographs of, well, toys…
…but something else seems to happen in the stillness of his photographs and their objects, even when they are shot without overtly contextualising backgrounds or used to create or recreate particular actions, stories and histories.
The Barbie Millicent Roberts series predated the Mad Men-esque trend for the revival of populuxe styling by nearly a decade, alongside a return to Marilyn Monroe like glamour and it takes an iconic toy/doll from over the seas and seems to return it to its pure archetypal form – almost becoming 1950s/1960s prototypes for an idealised American womanhood.
…and here and there, although not as inherently dark in subject matter as say his late night hustler Modern Romance work, the dolls in this series start to tumble towards a Cramps-esque, Poison Ivy-like take on such things and to step closer to mondo, b-movie, beach-party, bad girl-isms.
Visit David Levinthal here (tread gently some of his work is of a more grown-up nature, shall we say).
Peruse the Barbie Millicent Roberts book here.
One of the big draws for me was the ambience of the world that it created and projected – that populuxe, sharp very late 1950s/1960s American styling, which was a kind of grown-up Mod thing but from over the other side of the sea.
(A form of mod with a few more sheckels in it’s pocket of course – more than for a tailor made suit or two and a cup of that new fangled Italian style coffee down Soho way.)
It was that ambience and its richness, the lushness, a vintage recreation/reimagining without grit or grain – Erwin Olaf’s Grief, Hope, Rain series of photographs brought to smoothly flickering, storytelling life – that stayed with me after the series.
In honour of those aesthetics, here I gather a few of my favourite promotional related images that to my mind and eye seemed to summon up that world particularly well.
And why not a touch of Roger Sterling channelling Harry Palmer?
As a postscript: Mainstream. Hmmm. It’s interesting how these things work. Mad Men conquered the world while Magic City, which shared some not dissimilar aesthetics was seen by relatively but a few. Visit tales of Magic City around these parts here.continue reading
Along Afterhours-esque lines, I would probably look towards Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm and its gathering of characters factual and fictional in 1960s Soho and Peter Doyle’s Get Rich Quick which tours with Little Richard and other early rock’n’roll-ers around Australia.
Recently I stumbled upon another fine slice of such things: Bill Morris’ Biography Of A Buick.
This is set in 1954 and based around the American car manufacturer General Motors and its staff.
This was a point in America’s history where things were on the up – inflation is low, employment is high, to a degree ownership of consumer items such as televisions and automobiles were becoming more widespread and the populuxe aesthetic is coming into being.
One of the things that particularly intrigued me while reading the book was the number of cultural events that happened / began to happen at that time which have become archetypal or steadfast parts of the modern-day landscape and psyche:
Joe DiMaggio marries Marilyn Monroe and watches as she films her famous white dress heat vent scene, Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac were making the car journeys across America that would lead to the epitomic beat novel On The Road, Elvis made his first radio appearance, the template for assembly line, franchised fast food was put in place.
It can be a tricky thing to use real people’s lives in amongst fiction in such a way but Bill Morris carries this out in a respectful, informative manner.
When done well and informed by a particular level of interest, passion and research, such books seem to be a particularly good way of learning about pieces of semi-hidden history, of connecting the dots and lines between particular historical events and cultural figures / work / settings; a form of researchative entertainment.
Fine work Mr Morris.
Peruse Biography Of A Buick (also known as Motor City) here.
I think I first came across Oliver Sieber’s work via an exhibition of his called Skinsmodsteds and One Punk at The Photographer’s Gallery back in 2002, which was shown at the same time as documenter of 1950s rock’n’roll reinterpreters Karlheinz Weinberger’s work.
At The Photographer’s Gallery site it says this about Oliver Sieber exhibition:
“Where Karlheinz Weinberger’s irreverent teens, showing in the gallery at No. 8, dreamed of a different future for themselves, Oliver Sieber’s latter day sub-culturalists seem to dream about a different past.”
Which made me think about looking for utopias in the modern world.
In times gone by society seemed to look to some imagined future, a world filled with blinking computers, every day luxuries, easy and fast mass transportation, miniature communication devices, hermetically sealed homes controlled by the aforementioned computers and so forth. A kind of populuxe-esque vision of the future.
In the modern world, in the West at least, much of that has come to pass, albeit in a more day-to-day, less overtly grand or futuristic manner.
All of which made me think of the concept of hauntology and the idea “that society after the end of history will begin to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that are thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”; that is, towards the “ghost” of the past.”
Which to a certain degree seems to have happened; sometimes overtly with the ongoing popularity of vintage / retro / burlesque etc culture, sometimes less overtly whereby chart topping acts are essentially retro recreationists, though not marketed directly as so.
Maybe now, without strong utopian visions of possible futures and paths, a visionary, idealised or recreated past has become a place where subcultures and post-industrial society goes to dream (to paraphrase William Gibson).
All of which brings me back to Oliver Sieber.
In his 2013 book Imaginary Club, a vast array of subcultures are represented, intermingling in a, well, imaginary club.
There are two photographs in particular that I’m drawn to, one particular subcultural corner of the club; the vaguely workwear 1950s-esque cover image and a sort of reinvented neo-rockabilly – the second of which in particular puts me in mind of and seems to draw a circle that heads back towards Karlheinz Weinberger’s rock’n’rollers who had recreated their source material as though they’d only heard it via an out of tune radio (to paraphrase myself paraphrasing somebody else).
Visit Karlheinz Weinberger at Afterhours here (amongst other places around these parts).
My own Afterhours work draws in part from a longstanding mythology of a golden age folklore of Soho-esque shennanigans; a layered history found down hidden sidestreets, in the red-lit basements of unlicensed speakeasies and jazz allnighters.
If I was to cast an eye over the seas to the US of A for a comparable deeply ingrained mythology, I think I would probably look towards the stories of the Deep South, a certain gothic Americana or maybe towards the not too far removed overlooked and marginal world of dusty forgotten towns, roadside motels and diners.
Along which lines, I have been drawn to Jacques Olivar’s work, which takes that overlooked world as its locale, creating a youth filled, hyper-real, sometimes populuxe-esque vision and version of it, one with high-end fashion production values and gloss but which still contains a certain grit and the intertwined narrative of its homeland locale and stories.
There is an imagined, filmic quality to the photographs; they could be stills from or fully realised storyboards for a celluloid tale.
Along which lines, his works can put me in mind of Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard’s fine, moving 2005 film Don’t Come Knocking – which is set in just such a faded American town, one coloured with a certain velvet, neon-lit rock’n’roll here and there – but as re-shot by Erwin Olaf (see here at Afterhours).
Visit Jacques Olivar in the ether here.
Jennifer Greenburg’s Rockabillies and the occasional flickering frames amongst a high definition past
Often, when I think of subcultures I tend to veer towards nightlife activity and I think in general the word is quite closely associated with youth and youthful lifestyles.
This is one of the things that makes Jennifer Greenburg’s Rockabillies book interesting: it is a photographic consideration of those who subscribe to a particular subculture and style generally post the first flush of youth, often in domestic settings and with “grown-up” life accoutrements and signifiers.
In Rockabillies kitchen towel sits next to a photograph of Elvis in the kitchen, proud parents hold their child next to their from back-in-the-day automobile, period detail lives picture perfectly amongst family life and the well honed quiffs.
On first glance the photographs seem to present an idealised, seamless recreation of times gone by; it is on closer, second and third inspection that the modern world can be seen through the cracks, the occasional frame flickering briefly amongst the whole film reel.
They are only occasional visitors in these highly curated, high definition selecting from the past homes and lives: the period television stood on an Ikea-esque media stand, the modern television quietly peering out from its new home in a vintage wooden case, a contemporary soft-drink held in the perfectly upholstered and kept interior of a Pink Ladies glamour car interior, a once taboo leg tattoo next to the lovingly kept sofa, a latter day Johnny Cash CD and accompanying player.
Interestingly, although I expect that cars and homes have had something of a brush and scrub up in preparation for the photographs and considering the vintage age of many of the items that can be seen in these homes, there is little sign of day-to-day wear and tear. Again, in contast to much of the more rough’n’tumble of nightlife/subcultural photography, this is a more polished, populuxe-esque, possibly affluent representation of passions and culture.
A brief precis: Magic City was a series that was set in late 1950s Miami and follows the stories that surround the owner of the (fictional) greatest hotel of the time and his battles with the mob, family, dames, showgirls, politicians, unions, the revolution in Cuba, the CIA…
Post Mad Men there seemed to be quite a slew of TV series that took as their aesthetic that kind of late 50s/early 60s American stylishness – or to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hines – that were populuxe-esque.
Few them seemed to quite live up to their inspiration (although I thought the short lived Playboy Club series showed promise)…
…until, well, I relatively recently discovered/saw Magic City.
Which at the moment, for my money, steps up to and over Mad Men’s mark.
To be honest though, I don’t think it’s probably really fair to compare and contrast the two: Magic City’s creator Mitch Glazer first wrote a version of the series pre the broadcast of Mad Men and it draws from his life growing up in and around the grand hotels in Miami, stories that he heard and things he saw.
It looks beautiful – this is a series where the screen is full of beauty, style, suspense, corruption, sexuality, greed, desparation, brutality and intrigue.
Quite frankly, it’s a work right up at the top of things – I discovered it at a time when Afterhours Sleaze and Dignity was recoalescing and its sense of glamour and its darker flipside seemed to help bring things together.
It was cancelled after just two series, which is a great pity to me and indeed the world of entertainment; one of those time where I thought if I had the money I would be putting it down on the table to help make and be able to see more of this world and its stories… though reading and re-reading about it just now I think it may have a future further life.
More about that possibly later around these parts…
Well, talking of archetypal images that seem almost too perfect to be real/that seem to exist in some other imagined world (see Florence Stonebraker and pulp fiction archetypes)…
This image of a showgirl getting ready for the Folies Bergere show at the Hotel Tropicana, Las Vegas in 1969 is something of a favourite of such things…
It puts me in mind of almost hyper-real fable like, populuxe-esque simulacras of America in the 1960s… not a million miles away from something that might tumble from Mad Men, Magic City or some of the work of Erwin Olaf.
Discovered I’m not quite sure where but rediscovered via here.
Well, talking of populuxe-esque aesthetics (see Day #71/365a)…
Erwin Olaf often seems to take the technical proficiency and some of the aesthetics / visual arrest of fashion and a certain type of high-end creative commercial photography and turns it towards his own ends – in a way that although different in immediate visual impressions and palettes, isn’t that far removed from the likes of David Lachapelle or possibly Nick Clements and his recreation / simulacra of previous eras – both of whom have also extensively worked in creative commercial fields.
It is these four photographs in particular that I am drawn to, from his Grief, Hope, Rain trilogy – they seem to be a stylised, even stylistically idealised casting back, recreation and simulacra of a previous eras aesthetics and a point in history at which a nation and individuals heard of the death of their leader (the early 1960s and the passing of Mr Kennedy in particular, which Erwin Olaf has said that he has a strong, haunting personal memory of).
Within them Erwin Olaf uses his tools of fashion or commercial aesthetics overtones to create an actuality of emotion, substantiality and reality has wandered into these imagined worlds and points in time…
Peruse his books here (the volumes simply titled Erwin Olaf and Erwin Olaf Volume II may well be the ones to wander towards if the Hope, Grief, Rain work catches your eye and interest).