A hip-gyrating Elvis, Einstein with a stuck-out tongue or the windblown dress of Marilyn Monroe. They’re iconic images from America in the 1950s. But what did the ‘50s look like to us? KU Leuven scientists examined this for the European project ‘Kaleidoscope’. They dove into various photo collections and set up an online exhibition that visually captures the post-war decade. Now they’re sharing their knowledge about heritage digitisation in a free online video course.
Since the Corona lockdown, numerous museums have offered their collections online, allowing you to take a digital visit to your favourite cultural locations. For many, this can be a surprising journey of discovery, but for Professor of Cultural Studies Frederik Truyen, it‘s familiar territory.
Truyen has been working on digitising cultural heritage for about ten years. He does this for the online platform Europeana, which makes European art and heritage available to the general public. Truyen helped lay the foundation for a photo collection that today contains five million photos. Together with his team at the research group CS Digital and various European partners, he continues to add to that image bank.
For their most recent research project, The Fifties in Europe – Kaleidoscope, the scientists homed in on European photography from the 1950s. ‘It’s no coincidence that this was the decade when the unification of Europe started,’ says Truyen. ‘After the Second World War, the continent was in ruins. Although war trauma had barely been processed, people started to rebuild. "No war ever again" became the adage, and people dreamed of a joint European project.’
This took shape in the early 1950s with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the current EU. Truyen and his team noticed that this period is no longer very well known to the current generation.
‘Many young people – and older folks too – no longer know why the EU was founded or don’t see the point of it,’ he says. ‘I also see that with students. They see the EU as a technocratic vehicle unconnected to its citizens. In terms of content, we therefore wanted to highlight the How and Why of the union. We also focused on the lives and dreams for the future of the post-war population and put them up against those of the present. How did a European see themselves then and how do we see them from our vantage point today? What did he or she want to achieve and what actually happened?’
Vespas and greasers
The research culminated in the exhibition ‘Blue skies, Red panic’. It ran in numerous European museums, including the well-known Museum für Fotografie in Berlin, and can also be enjoyed online. Truyen and his team blew the dust off of thousands of Fifties photos from various European collections and gradually discovered a common thread. ‘We focused on a number of overarching themes in the exhibition,’ says Truyen. ‘Think of the beginning of the Cold War or Western European culture trends such as the Vespa or British rock 'n' roll.’
Current topics such as migration are also discussed. ‘We sometimes forget that migration is timeless,’ says Truyen. ‘Millions of people emigrated after WWII alone. In Britain, for example, you had the Windrush generation; tens of thousands of men and women from British colonies in the Caribbean travelled to the United Kingdom to work in the understaffed factories. In turn, thousands in Greece left their country due to civil war, and 200,000 Hungarians fled after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising....’
While many were driven from their homes, others were forced to return back there, specifically women. ‘The ideal woman in the fifties ran the household,’ says Truyen. ‘Not long before that, things were different. During the war, women kept the factories running while their men were at the front. That "emancipation" was consequently reversed. At the same time, the image of the "modern housewife" made its appearance. You saw photos of ladies in magazines with the latest household appliances that were supposed to “make life easier for them"...that was the result of consumerism that drifted over from the U.S.’
In addition to the iconic images from the West, the researchers also looked through photo collections from other parts of Europe. They realised that they had to refresh their view of the Fifties.
‘What happened to us is only one part of the story,’ says Truyen. ‘Here you had the fear of “the red menace”, but that wasn’t the case in, say, Italy, where certain regions voted for communist parties. Let alone Eastern Europe, where the hold of the Soviet Union had strengthened. The "freedom-happiness" ideal for us in the West is also difficult to reconcile with the situation in Spain at the time, which followed a separate course and where the dictator Franco was in power. In addition to the contrast between Eastern and Western Europe, there were also clear differences between North and South.’
According to the researchers, we also need to adjust our view of propaganda. ‘We easily recognize Soviet propaganda – think of the photos of healthy, ruddy workers – but we need to admit that propaganda was also utilised over here,’ says Truyen. ‘Although it wasn’t about the dream of a workers' state, but rather an “American dream”.’
The researchers did most of the work with the naked eye, but they also experimented with self-learning algorithms to help categorise the photo collections.
‘To distinguish large thematic lines in our photo collections, we organized intensive workshops with experts,’ says Truyen. ‘And in collaboration with research group imec ETRO, we had series of photographs screened by a computer with the aim of detecting similarities and recognising patterns. You can compare it to the facial recognition that Facebook applies. That way we could have a computer do some of the work of a curator.’
The latter is especially important when opening up large digital collections. ‘The experiment is only in its infancy. It may take a while before we get really good results. That’s no disaster; there is a reason why we teach students of Arts or Cultural Studies at KU Leuven to recognize cultural patterns. Having a computer identify technical aspects of a photo is one thing, but I don't see that sort of machine quickly processing a complex analysis of gender relations (laughs)....’
The researchers are also committed to public participation. A special part of the project is the KU Leuven-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community. With the help of this online course, students, researchers or others from the cultural world can learn how to start digitising our cultural heritage.
‘Think of it as a kind of citizen science. We want to involve interested parties in expanding virtual collections and making photo stories, ”says Truyen. ‘In addition, we teach them how to use all that for educational purposes.’
Using examples from the Fifties project, participants learn more about curation and annotation. How do you build a digital exhibition? How do you explain what can be seen in a photo? What’s the larger picture hidden behind it? ‘We teach them to work with the latest tools to describe photos, and then let them get started with photo collections. In addition, we pay attention to the technical side of the matter, while other experts go over the specific features of photos.’
How do you recognize a photo from the 1950s? ‘Much of it is the photo material you work with,’ says Truyen. ‘The main cameras at that time were the Rolleiflex – which made the typical square news images – the Kodak and the Leica. All were devices that delivered a specific type of image. Initially those photos were still black and white, but in the late 1950s you also saw colour photos popping up with the characteristic pastels of the time.’
You can also deduce a few things from the subject of the photo. ‘In the fifties, there are many photos of the ideal family, whether they were posing in front of the recently purchased TV set or not,’ says Truyen. ‘The man is looking down protectively at the woman, and children are unnaturally dressed “in their Sunday best”. You also see the emergence of open space. Many cities were in ruins and rebuilt to new standards. And people had cautiously started to build highways. The family car had become affordable and became the symbol of freedom.’
Just like every decade, the Fifties also had a specific ideal image of men and women. ‘During the war, people suffered from hunger and weight loss. That period had to be forgotten as soon as possible. People were happy that there was plenty of food and that meat was brought back to the table. "Healthy" translated into "a little fuller". In Eastern Europe, for example, you see farm workers with a round face and healthy blush on the cheeks. And in the West, Marilyn Monroe's voluptuous curves were characteristic of the perfect woman. Quite different from today's sleek vegan or hipster look (laughs).’
What’s on the program now that the Fifties have been “visualised”? ‘We’ll soon start with an even more ambitious project that will examine themes of European photography from the entire twentieth century,’ says Truyen. ‘Once again, we’re going to digitise photo collections and build stories around them. We hope that through the MOOC we can inspire people and offer them the knowledge needed to help in some way with that project, or one of the other Europeana projects. There are certainly more good heritage stories on their way.’
CS Digital researcher Sofie Taes was responsible for the stories surrounding the photos and the organisation of the (online) exhibition Blue skies, Red panic. The MOOC Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community was created with the help of the KU Leuven MOOC team and was coordinated by CS Digital researcher Ana Schultze. The project’s European partners are part of the European Photo Heritage Association Photo Consortium, which originated from a KU Leuven project.