A Disquieting Metamorphosis

One of my favorite houses is the fictional house in North By Northwest, owned by spymaster and villain, James Mason. The building is structurally impossible, and is a symphony of glass, flagstone, and steel. It is telling that the bad guy lives in a modernist avant-garde house. He is also British. If you pay attention, you will notice that movie villains in the 1950s are almost always European and live in modern houses. The hero, or typical American protagonist, lives in a traditional colonial house with a wife and children. Why is that?

Think of it this way: modernism was a European construct before 1945. In the 1950s, Americans looked back into the past and European modernism and rejected it. The past represented the depression and World War I and II. Due to the Nazi party’s concept of a utopian society, any European utopian movement, including high modernism, was deemed suspicious. House Beautiful editor, Elizabeth Gordon, recognized this and waged a war against all modernist residential architects. She understood the consumerist needs of the public and knew her audience wanted to buy things. The photographs she commissioned from Maynard Parker support the agenda she called, “The Station Wagon Way of Life.”

Parker’s images are traditional, filled with paintings, furniture, objects, and the human element. Whereas Julius Shulman’s photographs celebrate the minimalist form, Parker’s celebrate the post-war traditional domestic sphere. The inside-outside concept of California living is represented often. The images are casual and have no sense of elitism. At their best, they are playful, fresh, and authentic. Jennifer Watts’ book, Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream is a beautiful collection of Parker’s work. Jennifer A. Watts, is the photography curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and oversees the Huntington’s vast Parker archive


This, however, is not a simple appreciation for a group of cheerful 1950s domestic scenes. While most of the photographs feel optimistic and light, there is a subset of images that reads differently for me. When I look at the empty rooms, dark corners, and incessant domesticity, I think, not of Leave it to Beaver, but of Herb and Bonnie May Clutter’s Kansas house (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood). There is something that is airless, stifling, and relentless in certain photographs.


Parker images courtesy Huntington Library, Photo Archive