The Photographer's Eye: Kansas City through the Lens of Warner Studio (1950 - 59) -

In 1950s America, the multilayered cultural landscape was interwoven with post-World War II affluence and the optimistic perspective of "The American Dream." 64% of the American population lived in urban centers, and having a good paying job enabled individual families to afford houses and cars and to raise their children in small towns and suburbs. Many Americans were able, and compelled, to participate in the burgeoning economy of consumption. Household appliances and conveniences multiplied at the service of the stay-at-home housewife. The interstate highway system helped establish a more mobile public. Disneyland and McDonalds opened, and the first credit cards were issued. Television introduced a stylistically uniform pop culture into the living rooms of American families throughout different regions of the country. Rock and roll dominated the airwaves, while jazz and blues presented an alternative urban sub-culture in such cities as New York, Chicago and Kansas City. Additional varieties of goods and services were delivered to the middle class through expanded routes of transportation, new forms of advertising and broadcast media.

However, "The American Dream" was non-inclusive. Underlying the glossy surface of comfortable living was a political and social subtext of segregation, poverty and racial tension that led to the fight for civil rights. The Korean War, the Cold War with Communist Russia, the “space race” and nuclear arms struggle strengthened the military-industrial complex. Espionage, McCarthyism, political unrest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as the polio and Asian flu epidemics, contributed to a climate of apprehension, suspicion and unrest.  Robert Frank’s famous and controversial book of photographs, The Americans, reflected a way of life, sometimes joyous but often without hope and promise, which was in direct opposition to upbeat images promoting the good life that average Americans saw and read about in Life and Look Magazine.

By 1950 Kansas City was already known as a center for networking and the distribution of goods through established industries revolving around transportation, banking and insurance, the stock yards, garment production, printing and cinematic film distribution. Many American cities began competing with each other and promoting their individual characters and identities in order to establish their roles as significant players in the newly developing economy. The commercial photographer was part of the public world of special events, newsworthy and otherwise, that were being produced as part of this new marketability.   Warner Untersee was a creative entrepreneur in Kansas City who was able to make a living documenting and promoting this aspect of "The American Dream."  Similar commercial photographic studios were emerging nation-wide, along with advertising agencies and consumer-based industries that collectively would help shape the emerging American consumer culture and mass media market. As current styles replaced the old at increasingly rapid rates, the need for new photographs and representations became integral to this process. By producing images for sale, Untersee was helping to promote a local version of the new nation-wide consumerism and desire for goods, services and entertainment that would in turn help to define what "The Dream" was all about.

Present-day viewers of the work of Warner Studio are perhaps struck by the limited scope of society that is depicted.  However, it is important to remember that Untersee was neither a photojournalist nor documentary photographer presenting an overview of the political and social issues of the times.  His commercial work, however, does provide us with an invaluable database of information about one aspect of mid-20th century life and culture in a growing and changing post-war Midwestern city.  Fields of investigation ranging from history, sociology, architecture, urban planning, sports, leisure, fashion and pop culture can be researched through this extensive image archive.  Untersee’s compositions and photographic style are straightforward and present a clear view of the city through the eyes of this special kind of observer.  Untersee was, perhaps unwittingly, a visual anthropologist whose photographs provide a historical perspective covering a wide range of sociocultural information for future generations.

Gwen Widmer
Kansas City, Spring 2006