What If I Were…1950s

Continuing on with the historical photo project I talked about last time, I’ve played around with some 1950s style photos.

The 1950s are an interesting time, because *everything* is stylized: models, makeup, clothes, photography.

Learn More under the Cut…

The 1950s photos can be broken down into two categories: color, and black and white.

Black and White photography in the 50s was all about contrast: literally black versus white.  Like in the 1920s, we’re still dealing with white faces, and selective focus, but now add in the use of artificial lighting, as well as outdoor “on the street” photos.  Here are some excellent examples from My Vintage Vogue:

Wow, contrast, and that was exactly the point.
Heavy eye makeup, dark brows, lipstick.
An example of the outdoor, “on the go” photo journalistic sort of shot
My original inspiration image, but I failed so hard at getting my body in this position.  Try it, you’ll see.

Now the color.  These fashion photos were used in magazines, and the quality we see today is a result of the printing techniques used back then, a four-color printing process.  Add to that the popularity of “cross process,” the intentional development of film using chemicals intended for other types of film.  This produces interesting color play, and that vintage quality we all love so much.  Have a look at these color photos from My Vintage Vogue:

Don’t think for a second that this photo has not been retouched and altered.  Her waist…yeah…
Nice use of blue-ing in the shadows, plus vignette.
Subtle cross-processing, plus grain, and that coy smile.
Try this position too.  You’ll find your feet unexpected far apart and turned at funny angles.
Lowered vibrance/saturation, dramatic pose.

The last element to 50s-looking photos, and perhaps the most important, is The Look.  Makeup played an immensely important role at this time, as well as pose.  The makeup was striking – all-over foundation, with heavy black eyeliner and mascara, dark red lips, and thick, highly arched brows.  Expressions ran the gamut from the Hauty, Detached Dior Girl, to the impish smile of the all-knowing house wife.

For the poses, *nothing* about what we see in these photos is natural.  Try one of these poses out and you’ll see – the hips are thrust in strange and uncomfortable positions, the legs extended and feet cocked this way and that.  Most notably, the neck is stretched and flexed as long as it can go, with attention paid to the line this created between the jawline and the shoulders.

So…for the photos today, I tried one in black and white and one in color, as you see here:

The black and white photo was all about contrast, with a white background, a black and white dress, and a huge black picture hat.  Here the neck is extended, and the camera is below the eye level of the model (me), so looking upwards at the face, which makes all things appear ever longer.

For technique, a lot of lightening and darkening (dodge and burn, in photoshop) was used to heighten the contrast on the face.  There is also a faint soft focus, keeping the face sharp, but the arms blurred.  Lastly, grain.

The color photo was much more difficult.  This photo was brightened considerably, with the vibrancy of the color knocked back to grey everything out.  I used the “Cross Process” filter at Picnik.com, followed by blue-ing out the shadows in Photoshop, using a light blue layer set to “Lighten” in layer styles.  More subtle soft focus and soft grain finish the look.  I don’t much care for this photo, in all my vanity, but I like the quality of the finish.

And last but not least, don’t forget your petticoats!  Costume is important in your vintage photos, naturally, and even though my final shots didn’t show the skirt, just having the right clothing on made a difference.  Sometimes you can find old puffy pettis at thrift stores, but I got mine for a darn good price from HalloweenCostumes.com, in the knee-length size.  It lends just the right amount of puff to the big skirts, and doubled up makes it, well, just huge and awesome:

So ready to try some 1950s style photos?  Here’s what to remember:

  • If you’re going black and white, contrast is key (black versus white)
  • If you’re going color, try using Cross-Process at Picnik.com
  • Heavy makeup, hauty or coy expression
  • Stretch that neck!
  • Play with your costume bits – dresses, hats, long gloves, cigarette holder, rhinestone jewelry.
  • Almost all of these effects can be done at Picnik.com, a free and very easy to use website, so try it!


  • ZipZip

    August 26, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Dear Lauren,
    What great research and explanation of how those effects were achieved. As an advertising gal in a previous life who remembers "bluelines" and literally cutting type to correct typos, I still had no real sense of just how complex photo shoots and photo effects could be.
    Bravo, and really those are very good portraits.
    Very best,

  • Lauren R

    August 28, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    Thanks everyone. I'm having a lot of fun with these. Surprisingly challenging, and oddly enough the 1920s ones are the most simple, compared to the 19th century and the later 20th century photos. These two 50s gave me troubles, lol

  • Angela Reichelderfer

    August 29, 2011 at 2:33 AM

    Lauren, you are so photogenic – a face for all eras! These historically inspired photos of you are just lovely – if only we can endeavor to look so good! 🙂

  • Lauren R

    August 31, 2011 at 2:12 AM

    Angela, thank you so much 🙂 but I beg to differ – I am NOT photogenic. These shots undergo "work." I don't alter my face or proportions, but I do blow out certain areas, or darken others, like the eyes or the lips. I should post up a photo comparison I saw recently, of Joan Crawford before and after retouching. It made me feel so much better about the lines and creases on my face in "real life"

Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading