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The 1950s -- Caught in a Flash

February 26, 2009 |  6:00 am

Photograph by Neil Clemans

News photography as it was practiced in the 1950s.

Clemans_book_jacket The era of journalism when newspapers had easy access to celebrities, the police and just about anybody else lives again in Neil Clemans' " Picturing the '50s," a handsome, self-published book of crisp, large-format photos accompanied by Clemans' reminiscences.

Clemans recalls learning the ropes as a photographer for the Valley Times and his adventures in the radio car of the Mirror-News. These were the years of posed pictures, when a photo of a pretty girl could sell the most meager story. When it was hot, you fried an egg on the sidewalk or got a picture of strippers cooling off in an alley. When the Western Assn. of Tree Surgeons got publicity by voting on the loveliest limbs in the land: Ann Miller, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford and Cyd Charisse. 

"Picturing the '50s" is loaded with familiar names (at least to anyone who has studied the history of Los Angeles and its newsmen). Clemans mentions reporters Sid Hughes, Dial Torgerson and Paul Coates, and photographers such as Felix Pagel , Delmar Watson and Bill Beebe (who was still going strong the last time I saw him). The books fits nicely with Rob Leicester Wagner's "Red Ink White Lies."

It's easy to be distracted by the photos and ignore the text, but that would be a mistake because Clemans' simple narrative is a first-person account of vivid experiences like the Jan. 22, 1956, wreck of the San Diegan, the first incident in the demise of the cozy relationship between the press and the LAPD. (Clemans says he had no problem with the police that night, although Delmar Watson's brother Coy of CBS complained to the LAPD and Times photographer Robert O. Ritchie said officers roughed him up).

More notable in some ways are the pictures Clemans didn't take: A young wife caught by police having sex in a car with her boyfriend while her husband worked the night shift, and Judy Garland as her life crashed and burned.

Clemans also adds his voice to the dispute over which reporter was first to the scene of the Black Dahlia killing on Jan. 15, 1947. Although he wrongly credits the Examiner for coining the name "Black Dahlia" (which originated in a Long Beach drugstore), he notes Will Fowler's tale that he and Pagel were the first to arrive and says: "Other newsmen challenged his contention and were close to doing Fowler bodily harm for making such a bold claim." 

Photograph by Neil Clemans

Marilyn Monroe cheers during a game at the Coliseum. And yes, it was posed.

There are triumphs and pictures that got away (one year, Clemans came back from the Academy Awards with 60 blank negatives because the back shutter on his Speed Graphic was closed--ouch!). He also describes covering the beatnik coffeehouses of the late 1950s using a Rolleiflex and available light with a shutter speed of half a second. For all you kids who have only shot digital pictures, that takes steady nerves.

The famous names of the 1950s are here: Debbie Reynolds, Art Aragon, Cesar Romero, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Elvis.

At $76.95, "Picturing the '50s" is not an inexpensive book. But if you're in the market for candid pictures of a young Elvis Presley, this could be for you. And then there's Tempest Storm.