Picks and Pans Review: The Fifties: a Women's Oral History

updated 06/14/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/14/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Brett Harvey

Halberstam's portrait of a muscular mid-century America only passingly acknowledges the frustrations of women. Harvey's interviews with 92 women who were in their late teens to mid-20s during the decade show how the exaltation of homemaking, motherhood and va-va-voom sexuality constricted women's lives as surely as pointy bras and tight girdles bound their bodies.

Harvey, a free-lance journalist and author of four children's books, asks her subjects about dating, birth control, abortion, careers, education and marriage. The candid responses describe the stigma of unwed motherhood ("My sister got pregnant so she was hidden away in the back room like an animal," recalls a Newark woman), or I he ubiquity of what was not yet called sexual harassment. Poor, privileged, black, lesbian, urban, suburban, rural, all these women speak of fear, dependence and lack of choices, but they also reveal a sustaining tenacity and resourcefulness. (HarperCollins, $20)


From its very beginnings the camera did not live up to expectations. It was supposed to be an impersonal recording instrument, stamping out industrial-strength realities like a steam press. Instead it proved to be a very subtle dream machine, spinning reveries, myths and poetry as well as the occasional true-life adventure. The shifting forms of the dream (ill this book, which was prepared to accompany the debut of the Oilman Paper Company Collection of photograph) at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The pictures cover the 100 years from 1839, when the British gentleman William Henry Fox Talbot and the French stage designer Louis Daguerre separately unveiled their different methods for making still images. From their chemistry sets would flow the twilit seascapes of Gustave Le Gray, Nadar's sharply limned portraits of Parisian-culture stars and the Depression-era docudramas of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

Though the Gilman collection, which was put together by the company's chairman, Howard Gilman, and curator, Pierre Apraxine, manages to represent most of the familiar names from photography's first century, the chief pleasure of ambling through this book is sampling the unexpected. Main people are familiar with Biassaï's scenes of Parisian nightlife in the 1930s. But how many know his dark and beckoning shot taken through the tunnel formed by a bridge that arches the Seine? And the mysterious formal portrait of an elegantly dressed woman seen from behind offers the strange thrill of a surrealist masterpiece by Magritte—but it was taken in 1862 by a now forgotten Frenchman, Onesipe Aguado. Assembling a collection is a bit like making a soup. There's a basic recipe, but the final product depends on personal taste and what's available in the market. It's the unexpected ingredients in this one that make it worth sampling. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, $60)

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