It’s no secret that Monroe Gallery of Photography houses some of the coolest art around. Owners Michelle and Sidney Monroe are taking their edge to the next level with When Cool Was King, an exhibit focused entirely around the concept of cool, which graces their walls through April 20.
The Don Gaspar Avenue spot is centered on black and white photography, and as Sid puts it, “even more specifically on photojournalism.”
“It took a few years to put together,” Sid continues. “It was inspired from us meeting Alfred Eisenstaedt.”
Eisenstaedt was the German-born LIFE magazine photographer responsible for candid photographs featuring the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, as well as the emblematic V-J Day celebration image that features a sailor passionately kissing a nurse in Times Square.
“There was a window in the late ‘80s early ‘90s when Eisenstaedt was in his 90s, he had no living relatives, and he still kept an office in the Time-Life building,” the gallery owner reminisces.
The encounter cemented the couple’s passion for photojournalism, and seeded what would eventually become Monroe Gallery.
“We were extremely passionate about his work and his colleagues’ work and he knew that we really got it,” Michelle says. “We left our respective jobs and decided to open a gallery and he agreed to join us—which was crazy because we were in our 20s.”
That same spirit lives on in When Cool, with shots depicting everyone from Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, to the Rat Pack, Jane Fonda as “Barbarella” and Steve McQueen relaxing at home while aiming a pistol.
The term “iconic” comes to mind, though it’s clear, at the time, the people behind the lens were just doing their jobs.
“It’s interesting,” Sid says of the images that compose the show. “Because we’ve spoken to these photographers and in the day, in the moment, it wasn’t iconic.”
He cites chatting with veteran newsmen covering the Civil Rights Movement and other major events across US history, who didn’t realize in the moment what the transcendence of the moments they were recording would one day have.
“They didn’t know those images would go viral, so to speak,” Michelle says.
“Cool was really a rejection of the paradigms that were available to men and women,” she continues on the show’s theme. “It was a rejection of either the white-collar job, the blue-collar job, stay at home, raise your family and go to church America..cool was a very dangerous rejection of those shapes and that conformity.”
Expect images that defined a generation and put cool front and center—images developed way before what she calls “an American pushback on free press.”
One that is “extremely frightening and shocking.”
Just don’t hold your breath for any twerking shots.
“Miley Cyrus is not cool,” Sid says. “She’s great. She’s pushing boundaries and making people feel uncomfortable, but that’s not cool.”
More than a stagnant time capsule, the Monroes hope the exhibit serves as a jolt of energy and a reminder that documentary photography, like any other branch of the arts, should be buttressed.
“It was supported,” Sid says of the photography of that time gone by represented in When Cool. “You had institutions like LIFE magazine or the institute at CBS News; these were trusted institutions that employed journalists both visual and reporters.”
“It was a source of great American pride,” Michelle points out. “Our press was free, our press was dynamic and revolutionary…where is that now?”
Expect for the black and white shots to be peppered with some equally cool color stills.
“Our younger photojournalists, of course, they have to work digitally and they have to work in color,” Michelle says of the sign on the times. “You can’t be a photojournalist now without being able to transmit your images immediately.”
She pauses and continues her reflection: “The black and white happens to represent the history of photojournalism, but that is not our singular devotion. Sid says we like to preach the gospel of photojournalism—not only as an art form—but frankly, as the hands that hold civilization together because most great photojournalism is revealing something you’re not meant to know.”
WHEN COOL WAS KING
Monroe Gallery of Photography
112 Don Gaspar Ave.,