Friday, August 1, 2008

L.A. Noir - and fashion

Divorce, 1951 - USC Digital Archive

I recently stumbled upon a great resource. As someone obsessed mildly intrigued with history, I love how so many libraries now have their digitized collections of photos and images available online.

I've explored the Library of Congress photo collections for years - it's so broad and comprehensive it's a challenge to narrow down your search. Also, the Los Angeles Public Library has a great online collection. Most big-city libraries have digital collections. Yours probably does.

Someone recently sent me a link to the University of Southern California library collection. The USC collection includes the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper collection of news photos. Back in the 50s, if you wanted a divorce, you had to go to the courthouse and go to trial. The Los Angeles Examiner's photographers were there, waiting to snap the photos of L.A. celebrities and commoners alike trying to end their marriages.

Van Buren divorce trial, 1952 - USC Digital Archives

The photos are striking, because they are stark, high contrast, and show their subjects in situations where they would really prefer not to be photographed. Their divorce proceedings. For some reason, the photographers liked shooting the women far more than the men. Wonder why?

And can we talk clothes? Don't you just love the face-veil on this lady's hat? And look at the detail of her jacket lapel!

Kathryn Grayson, 1952 - USC Digital Archives

Some of the shots are of famous people, like this one actress Kathryn Grayson - I love how demure and poised she looks.

One thing I love about these photos are the way they so clearly depict the fashions of the time. The high-resolution versions online are rich in detail. You can zoom in on the stitches of Grayson's crocheted bag, and her cunning little hat with the pheasant feather.

Divorce proceedings, 1952 - USC Digital Archives

Most of the subjects aren't famous, although they may have been better known in their time. This young lady reminds me of contemporary actress Denise Richards. One wonders why someone would strike this sexy pose in a courthouse vestibule. What's the story behind this? And don't you just love the way her jacket is tailored?

Ladies dressed more carefully in the 50s, and tried to make a good impression especially when participating in an important legal proceeding. That's probably why the lady at the top of this post pinned a nosegay of artificial flowers to her shoulder, and wore her best white gloves decorated with clocked embroidery.

But remember most of the people in these photos are ordinary, whose stories are unknown. They may be in the legal records, but we can only guess at the details - although we can make up our own stories, looking at the photos.

Divorce Case, 1958 - USC Digital Archives

The photos reveal subtle details. One lovely young lady, in a crisp cotton dress, looks bravely ahead while waiting her trial. Yet check her body language -

Divorce Case, 1958 - USC Digital Archives

She's so nervous she's clutching her body tightly, her handkerchief clenched in her hand. And who is the guy with the eye-patch in the background?

Divorce, 1952 -USC Digital Archives

This young lady looks as if she's coming out on the losing end of her trial, and knows it. Her cheap, fussy and overblown outfit reeks with flop-sweat. This photo is so immediate you can just feel her holding back on some smart-ass retort to the judge.

1958 divorce proceeding - USC Digital Archives

There's a young man, at the courthouse for a divorce with his mother supporting him, his hair styled in a pompadour and his face smooth and beardless. His mother looks at him; you ache at the expression on her face.

Many of the photo sets show the spouses and also the witnesses that testified. The captions don't reveal the details, so you can only guess - or make up your own story.

1958 divorce proceeding - USC Digital Archives

Above is a witness casting a skeptical and hostile eye at a divorcee. The witness is dowdy, rumpled in her unflattering plaids, shiny blouse, and mussed collar, while the divorcee is fashionable, slim, sophisticated and detached, snubbing the other woman. I love her fashionable ear-drops and the way the portrait collar on her jacket drapes. Is the divorcee at fault in the dispute? Is the witness speaking to her perfidy? Yet when you look at the next photo

1958 divorce proceeding - USC Digital Archives

The relationship between these two women in a courthouse corridor looks completely different!! Hmmmm....what can we make of this?

And isn't the divorcee's jacket divine? A fashion historian could pore over these photos for hours, drooling at the fantastic dressmaker details.

This collection is distinguished because, instead of covering so-called "official" photo-ops, it's a news photo collection. So in addition to the divorce-of-the-week, it includes some pretty gruesome auto accident and murder scene photos. Some of these are truly not for the faint of heart.

On the other hand - in their starkness, they are compelling, and at the same time connect us to these terrible events, far in the past. A crumpled Studebaker roadster is shown nose-down in Topanga Creek - a 1951 auto death. I showed it to my friend J___ and she said "Oh, that's actually B___'s driveway!" - as if it were there right now - that's how immediate the photos seem. Another crime-scene photo showed a living room with a chenille-upholstered couch, a shelf with art deco leaping-deer figurines, a glass on the table, a striped pillow - and the pale dead legs of a murder victim, lying on the carpet.

So - check it out. Use your own search terms and find your interest. Write your own stories. Think about how human beings lived in this big city of ours back before we were born, and how they were just like us, after all.

All photos above are from the USC Libraries Digital Archives. Go visit. Read the copyright info, and use them ethically.


Jason said...

Captivating! How times have changed.

Joy said...

I am completely and utterly intrigued. Heading over right now.

Teresa @ PlumWater Cottage said...

I love this post! The photos are wonderful...I love searching the Library of Congress website; the dustbowl quilting photos are almost heartbreaking. The 'dames' in the divorce pictures...the clothing and stunning style...wish we were still that put together.

McSwain said...

These are fascinating! I've spent a lot of time looking at the Library of Congress photos, but this new link will give me something new to do with my time. As if I need to spend more time online.

M. Bouffant said...

Reminds me of my favorite pseudo-noir telebision show, Perry Mason.

And the change in appearances & clothing from the 1952 to the 1958 photos is quite interesting. A mere six yrs.