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American Idol: 1956

American Idol: 1956

More from the South Carolina roadhouse. So far I've found five pictures of these two mixing it up, either wrestling or dancing. The captions don't say anything about what's going on, but the girl seems delighted. Color transparency by Margaret Bourke-White, Life magazine image archive. View full size.

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The guy in the checkered shirt seems to be a bit of a pain in the the first picture out of this "roadhouse" series he can be seen about to slap the neck of another gentleman who is dancing with a young lady...maybe the guy in the apron owns the place and wants to put this "rambunctious youngster" in his place..."people came here to dance not fool around with you"...

"Freedom to be your best means nothing
unless you're willing to do your best."
(Colin Powell

Kodatron Speedlight

For a discussion of how Margaret Bourke-White worked when she was at Life, you might read her memoirs, which I believe I read circa 1970. For these photoessays, you had a choice. W. Eugene Smith favored a Leica with a really fast (f:1.4 or at least f:2.0) lens and obsessively, neurotically overdeveloped-by-inspection black and white Tri-X
Margaret Bourke-White favored larger cameras (Rolleis or bigger), often moving a great deal of studio equipment to the location (e.g. floods, or large studio strobes with humongous power-packs sitting on the floor). She would re-stage sequences of events so that a series of flawless, sharp, grainless photos could be captured for a carefully-designed layout.

Kodatrons were introduced by Kodak for portrait studios and the like in 1939, with 400 units shipped before World War II shut down civilian production for the duration Kodak resumed production of the Kodatrons after WWII, and by 1948 the literature is chock full of references to use of Kodatron for studio and commercial work. A competitive brand also introduced in 1939 was Speedotron. To me, the photos have the rather naive "flat" lighting I always associated with what you got if you had studio strobes you had to set up using the modeling lights, or worse, the units had no modeling lights and you had to imagine how the light and shadows fell.

As to the film used, I think I see what I called the "purple mud" color cast perpetrated by Anscochrome. Though grainy and plagued by color casts, Anscochrome was thought to be quite useful in the mid-fifties for 120 (think Rollei) and sheet film commercial work. For one thing, by this time Kodachrome had been discontinued in sizes larger than 35 mm, and Anscochrome was cheaper than Ektachrome. In the larger sizes, the grain didn't really matter, and Anscochrome color rendition could be worked with.


The photos, lit to a fare the well with electronic flash, are nothing more than a performance for the photographer. The pictures take place inside the space determined by the flash, and work at the photographer's direction.

["Electronic flash" didn't exist in 1956. Supplementary illumination for professional photography back then (as now) was usually done with floodlights. Look at the shadows. These photos are illuminated from above. - Dave]

The guy in white

The fella in white is an employee of the roadhouse. Look at his apron.


More of the guys cutting up and getting down. On the floor. In Technicolor and VistaVision.


The man in the blue shirt, blue jeans and suspenders looks like a cool, but aloof outsider, sort of a wolf in the henhouse, so to speak. The workmanship of the wooden booths is neat. Coke had gone up a bit by 1956--no more "Still 5-cents!" Smoking among teens was still prevalent, too.

[Coke was a nickel or a dime. The 80 cents on the sign is for the Small Steak Plate with Coke. - Dave]

Slap boxing

I would say they are "slap-boxing". boxing in which the blows landed - at least to the face - were delivered with an open hand. Hence the open hands on both participants and the "proper" fighting stances. In the old 'hood that's how we deciphered who was the baddest without ripping school clothes (which would result in something else getting ripped a new one if you get my meaning). A real fight wouldn't be nearly so neat and tidy.

"Freedom to be your best means nothing
unless you're willing to do your best."
(Colin Powell)

Are you sure they're not dancing?

Are you sure they're not just dancing? Everybody's dancing in the other photos in this series.

It sure doesn't look like an angry fight

It looks like a bluff - the result of boasting between two, otherwise, friends. Neither the girl nor the guy watching appears concerned about what this stand-off might lead to; they're both enjoying the show too much. My only reservation is about the look in the eyes of the man facing us. I've seen that kind of look before in a cat's eyes. It's half playful, but on the edge of turning serious - if events turn in that direction. It would all depend upon which one of them was the challenger - and which one was challenged. That's impossible to tell without seeing the other guy's face. This is a good photograph to compare with one you posted a long time ago of teenagers at a waterpark in The Bronx. That photo, from 1915, held no interpersonal tension; this one is nothing but: Exhibit #2 in the ongoing travails of THE ETERNAL TEENAGER.

Something about the color

Something about the color tone of these pictures is very soothing. If the clothing were a bit more couture, it could almost be a high fashion photograph.

Fighting Over Womens

Now they would bring out 9mm semi autos.
In the good ole days fists were plenty fine.

Hard to tell

With the way that one guy's hand appears to be in a fist, it looks like the beginning of a fight. Explain something else to me.....why would you wear a t-shirt and wear an undershirt under THAT?

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