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What do we mean when we say someone is cool? To be cool means to exude the aura of something new and uncontainable. Cool is the opposite of innocence or virtue. Someone cool has a charismatic edge and a dark side. Cool is an earned form of individuality.

Each generation has certain individuals who bring innovation and style to a field of endeavor while projecting a certain charismatic self-possession. They are the figures selected for this exhibition: the successful rebels of American culture.

The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young created the modern usage of “cool” in the 1940s. At first it meant being relaxed in one’s environment against oppressive social forces, but within a generation it became a password for stylish self-control.

This exhibition does not reflect our opinion of who’s cool. Each cool figure was considered with the following historical rubric in mind and possesses at least three elements of this singular American self-concept:

  • 1.) an original artistic vision carried off with a signature style
  • 2.) cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation
  • 3.) iconic power, or instant visual recognition
  • 4.) a recognized cultural legacy

Every individual here created an original persona without precedent in American culture. These photographs capture the complex relationship between the real-life person, the image embraced by fans and the media, and the person’s artistic work.

What does it mean when a generation claims a certain figure as cool? What qualities does this person embody at that historical moment? “American Cool” explores these questions through photography, history, and popular culture. In this exhibition, cool is rendered visible, as shot by some of the finest art photographers of the past century.

Cool and the Counterculture: 1960–79

In the 1960s and 1970s, to be cool was to be antiauthoritarian and open to new ideas from young cultural leaders in rock and roll, journalism, film, and African American culture. Cool was a badge of opposition to “the System,” by turns a reference to the police, the government, the military-industrial complex, or traditional morality. Using drugs such as marijuana or even LSD was an indicator of risk taking and expanding one’s consciousness; not experimenting with drugs suggested a fear of opening one’s mind or perspective, of being “uptight” or “square.” The same was true of sexual exploration, social protest, and ethnic politics. The aesthetic of stylized understatement still held power, yet cool itself morphed under the era’s social upheavals. The counterculture valued being authentic and emotionally naked: being cool meant a person was “out-front” with others and comfortable in his or her own skin. For African Americans, what had once been suppressed under the mask of cool transformed into defiant civic engagement in music, sports, and politics. “Cool” meant to communicate a set of emotions without losing control, and rock and roll was the art form (and forum) best suited for this shift, especially for women. Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Deborah Harry, and Chrissie Hynde all carved out new iconic stances, styles, and voices for independent women who were sexy on their own terms. Cool became the supreme compliment for creative public figures who broke new cultural ground and maintained their personal integrity over time.


Who is on your cool list?
Who is not?
Let us know what you think.

       Exhibition sponsor:



Cick for enlargementMuddy Waters 1913–1983
Charles H. Stewart (born 1927)
Gelatin silver print, c. 1960
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Cick for enlargementSteve McQueen 1930–1980
William Claxton (1927–2008)
Gelatin silver print, 1962
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Cick for enlargementJimi Hendrix 1942–1970
Linda McCartney (1942–1998)
Platinum print, 1967 (printed later)
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Cick for enlargementJoan Didion born 1934
Julian Wasser (born 1943)
Gelatin silver print, 1970
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Cick for enlargementDeborah Harry born 1945
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)
Gelatin silver print, 1978

American Cool has been made possible by the generous support of HISTORY®.
Additional support provided by Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Watson, Jr. and by Peter and Rhondda Grant