06 May 2014

American Cool

Jazz saxophonist Lester Young is credited with popularizing the word “cool” back in the 1940s. Since then it’s become a label that often leads to hotly contested debates over exactly who deserves the moniker. Friday I headed down to Washington, DC and checked out what the National Portrait Gallery thought about the subject with their photo exhibit “American Cool.”

Gathering together images of 100 “cool” Americans, the curators used the following criteria to decide who should make their list (candidates had to fit at least three of the four): “an original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; iconic power or instant visual recognition; and a recognized cultural legacy.” Apparently, it was so hard to choose that a "100-Alt list" was created of those who didn't make the cut (it's included at the beginning of the gallery). 

"Bessie Smith" Carl Van Vechten (1936)

"Louise Brooks" Nickolas Muray (circa 1924)

The exhibit is broken up into four sections: “The Roots of Cool: Before 1940,” “The Birth of Cool: 1940-59,” “Cool and the Counterculture: 1960-79,” and “The Legacies of Cool: 1980-Present.” Beginning with Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass it moves through the 20th century and ends up in the present with Missy Elliott and Johnny Depp.

I was immediately drawn to “The Roots of Cool” section where I found some old friends hanging out—Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway (shot by Robert Capa), and Buster Keaton among others. I agreed with their inclusion but thought Clara “It Girl” Bow should have been there as well (she's on the “100-Alt list”).

And so it went, room after room of mostly actors and musicians sparking either a nod of the head (Charlie Parker? Of course. Steve McQueen? So cool.) or a frown (Elvis Presley? He fits the criteria but cool? John Wayne. Um.) And here lies the problem when using the word “cool.” Regardless of the criteria, it’s almost impossible to find a general consensus because it is so personal; everyone has their own idea of who they think is cool.

"Patti Smith" Lynn Goldsmith (1976)

"Bob Dylan, Singer, New York City" Richard Avedon (1965)

What can be agreed upon is that the images in the exhibit were taken by an amazing group of photographers. In addition to the Capa image of Hemingway, there’s James Brown by Diane Arbus, Jon Stewart by Richard Avedon, Malcolm X by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lauren Bacall by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Great Garbo by Arnold Genthe, Audrey Hepburn by Philippe Halsman, Johnny Depp by Annie Leibovitz, Deborah Harry by Robert Mapplethorpe, H. L. Mencken by Edward Jean Steichen (Mencken, seriously? Mencken was never cool), Georgia O’Keefe by Paul Strand, and James Cagney by Edward Henry Weston.

The day I went there was a lot of discussion going on in the gallery about the people in the photos: who they were, what they had achieved, and who should have been included (or not). The exhibit had sparked a dialogue among the visitors and that's cool. 

“American Cool” is on display at the National Portrait Gallery through September 7, 2014. For more information and a list of the official 100 cool people, visit here.

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