Marcia Resnick, "David Byrne" (1981), Gelatin silver print (© Marcia Resnick)

Marcia Resnick, “David Byrne” (1981), Gelatin silver print (© Marcia Resnick) (all images courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

What is cool and why do Americans care so much? That’s the hinge on which the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has fixed American Cool — an exhibition of portraiture that opened in February — and its accompanying catalogue.

Cover of “American Cool” (courtesy Prestel)

Published by Prestel, the photography book includes essays by curators Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III who delve into all the vague questions about this most coveted of attributes. Just 100 figures have been selected, all of them celebrities, all seductive in some way, with James Dean, Hunter S. Thompson, Barbara Stanwyk, Missy Elliott, Raymond Chandler, Bessie Smith, Jimi Hendrix, and even Frederick Douglass captured in ambrotype, gazing away from the 19th century lens with early aloofness.

What all these people have in common, aside from being famous, of course, and having a fondness for the coolness of cigarettes as many of the portraits capture, is a bit hard to define. As to why select only those from the United States (aside from the fact it’s an exhibition at the US’s National Portrait Gallery), Dinerstein explains in the forward:

First, new cool personae mostly trickle up through popular culture, and American pop culture has functioned as something of a global lingua franca for more than a century. Second, a set of conditions for generational cool are often forged at the intersection of youth culture, popular culture, and African American culture, from swing to rock and roll to funk to hip-hop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics.

He also notes that, “cool figures are the successful rebels of American culture.” In this land, “to be cool is to have an original aesthetic approach or artistic vision — as an actor, musician, athlete, writer, activist, or designer — that either becomes a permanent legacy or stands as a singular achievement.”

Inside “American Cool” (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Zora Neale Hurston in “American Cool” (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Like the exhibition, the book is segmented into stages like “The Roots of Cool: Before 1940” and “Cool & Counterculture: 1960–79.” Each of the icons are given little blurbs that attest to their coolness, and for Walt Whitman, who is represented by an engraving, Dinerstein writes that the portrait graced the 1855 edition of Whitman’s most famous book, Leaves of Grass: “He left his name off the title page and offered this image instead: a plain workingman, relaxed, hat cocked at a rakish angle, a bit arrogant, ready for anything.”

But despite the lone wolf of Whitman, it is photography that has defined much of what is perceived as cool. Goodyear emphasizes in his essay that photography “does more than simply document the cool aesthetic; it plays a constitutive role in making it real,” through permitting a public persona, developing a visual vocabulary of posture and expression, and offering a place to experiment. It also holds something aspirational for the masses, to examine in the carefully positioned poses just what about the mix of detachment and confidence is so desirable.

Kate Simon, “Madonna” (1983), Gelatin silver print (© Kate Simon)

William Claxton, “Steve McQueen” (1962), Gelatin silver print (Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; © William Claxton Estate, courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA)

Carl Van Vechten, “Bessie Smith” (1936), Gelatin silver print (© Carl Van Vechten Trust)

Linda McCartney, “Jimi Hendrix” (1967),
Platinum print (©1967 Paul McCartney / Photographer: Linda McCartney)

Roy Schatt, “James Dean” (1954), Gelatin silver print (© Roy Schatt)

Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion” (1970), Gelatin silver print (© Julian Wasser. Courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California)

American Cool continues at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (8th and F Streets, Washington, DC) through September 7American Cool by Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III is available from Prestel.

The Latest

Alone in a Dirty, Sacred Space

Whatever else Mire Lee’s Carriers is about, it seems to me that has to do with sending you back into yourself, which is not necessarily a soothing place.

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

3 replies on “What It Is to Be Cool in America”

  1. “Leaves of Grass got some excellent reviews, many of which were written by Whitman himself. In one anonymous review, he wrote: “An American bard at last!

    One of the most famous photos of Whitman appeared in the 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass, showing the white-bearded poet sitting in a lawn chair, and marveling at a butterfly that has landed on his finger. Fifty years later, a scholar discovered that the butterfly was cardboard, wrapped on Whitman’s finger with some twine.

    Scholars have discovered that there are two versions of the engraving, and in one of them the bulge of Whitman’s crotch is noticeably larger. He identified himself partway through the first poem: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual … eating drinking and breeding.” He also wrote: “I […] make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipped.”

    Cool still involves a little smoke and mirrors.

  2. oh man, madonna is the definition of NOT cool. In fact only jimi, mcqueen and Dean on this list are cool. Maybe Zora……thats it. Where is miles et al? If you had to pick one american who was *cool*…..i think its miles.

Comments are closed.