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IU Northwest Assistant Professor documents 1950s ‘Rockabillies’ subculture through photography

Greenburg’s true-to-life depiction recently published


Provided by Jennifer Greenburg
Published by The Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago, "Rockabillies" is available worldwide

For as long as she can remember, Chicago native Jennifer Greenburg has been collecting vintage items. Enthralled with the quality craftsmanship and “bold, unapologetic colors” of the 1950s era, she loves to scour antique marketplaces and thrift stores for beautiful, old treasures.

At first, the Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Fine Arts assumed the people who shared her hobby were merely likeminded artistic collectors. In getting to know them, she uncovered an entire subculture, typically people under the age of 40, who live every aspect of their lives as if it were the 1950s. Known as “Rockabillies,” these retro-minded folks are estimated to number more than 15,000 and live all over the U.S.

Greenburg, a documentary photographer and artist, felt compelled to capture their personality and artistry, and the bold aesthetics of their lifestyle, on film and set out over a decade ago to do just that. In 2010, a colorful, glossy, coffee-table-style book featuring more than 120 people in 55 photographs, entitled “Rockabillies,” hit booksellers world-wide.

“I was just part of this ‘thing’ (Rockabilly subculture) and I had to photograph it,” Greenburg says. “No one would ever believe it unless I showed it to you. I could tell you about it but unless you really see it, you don’t really know.”

Those unaware of the Rockabillies might assume these works of art that grace the pages of Greenburg’s book were artfully orchestrated and color-coordinated with expensive props brought in to match a 50s theme. Far from it. The photos, Greenburg promises, are a true-to-life depiction of how the Rockabillies really live.

“I wasn’t interested in making tourist photos,” she says. “It’s a very imperialistic thing to do to go into a culture and judge it and give your uninformed opinion about it and come out with a series of images. I think a lot of the history of photography has revolved around that tradition. That is something I was not interested in continuing.”

Greenburg asked to be invited to the homes of the people she had become involved with over the years. When she was, she left the high-tech digital equipment at home. Needless to say, her models were quite impressed when she hauled out a sturdy old tripod and a vintage 4- by 5-inch camera invented around the turn of the century.

The expense of working with the vintage camera is one reason the project took more than a decade to complete. Each frame cost her $10 to $15, and her budget only allowed for about 12 frames at each shoot.

Greenburg confesses that while she is deeply connected with the culture and enraptured by the aesthetic of the time, she does not live the Rockabilly lifestyle. They are a conservative group of people and she is anything but that. A self-described “liberal, feminist, Democrat,” Greenburg says she is outside the culture as much as she is in it.

Greenburg’s photographs are complemented by the essays of Bruce Berenson, a Rockabilly disc jockey on Sirius/XM Radio, whom Greenburg sought out for his vast knowledge of Rockabilly music, and of Audrey Michelle Mast, who manages the collections at The Museum of Contemporary Photography, where Greenburg’s work is displayed.

“Rockabillies” is published by The Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago, and distributed by The University of Chicago Press. It is available worldwide at booksellers everywhere, including Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and most museum gift shops.  

Greenburg’s next photographic endeavor is one she calls “Fancy.”

“It is about people who find their happiness through extreme individuality,” she says. “People that cannot be described in words because they are one of a kind.”

Greenburg joined the IU Northwest faculty in September 2010 and teaches digital photography and basic print making. Previously, she taught at Columbia College, Loyola University and Harold Washington College.

Greenburg earned her master’s degree in fine arts from The University of Chicago and her bachelor’s degree from The School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Published: 

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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications
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ebanas@iun.edu

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications
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erikrose@iun.edu

Related Links

IU Northwest Dept. of Fine Arts


Additional Article Photos

Provided by Jennifer Greenburg
Chicago native and IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Jennifer Greenburg

Provided by Jennifer Greenburg