what these photos of 90s teens in their bedrooms can teach us about being young today
Photographer Adrienne Salinger’s iconic 1995 book In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms is presently enjoying a digital second life. We catch up with her to find out why.
One of Christopher Shannon's best menswear collections was spring/summer 15 —a parade of oversized tees, windbreakers, and sweats replete with cut-and-paste pockets and roughly collaged graphics. Shannon's chief reference for the season? Photographer Adrienne Salinger's 1995 book In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms, portraits of teens inside their most personal spaces — some covered in Thrasher tears and homemade punk posters, others splashed with bold blue paint and piled high with stuffed animals. Each room is home to a talismanic collection of youth signifiers. "When I found the Adrienne Salinger book, it was more about the way people decorated their bedrooms rather than the bed — what they collaged on the walls, just like, trying to make your space your own and find your own identity," Shannon told i-D. "It's about that enclosure that I don't think we have anymore because we live in a very digital way."
It's perhaps a little ironic, then, that Salinger's images are presently enjoying a digital rebirth. Her teens are all over Tumblr, their spaces neatly catalogued on Pinterest — platforms that aim to virtually replicate the physical identity formation In My Room captures but differ crucially.
Having first begun the series in the 80s, shooting teen spaces on the west coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles, Salinger scrapped the project because she hadn't thought to conduct interviews with her subjects, a vital component of In My Room. "I felt like I was doing the thing I'd been initially accusing others of: not listening enough," Salinger explains over the phone from the University of New Mexico, where she presently teaches the competitive graduate photography course. When she moved to upstate New York in the 90s, Salinger got a grant and started the project over, his time conducting a two-hour interview with each subject that would later be included, in condensed form, in the book. "Teenagers have everything they own in their room, past and present, and they're changing identities all of the time. What's on the walls is, somehow, kind of in opposition to who they are in that space — and what they say is completely at odds with it," says Salinger. "I'm interested in those contradictions that arise as you're trying to figure out who you are."
Why did you start shooting teens?
My initial interest came from the way teenagers were always reduced and stereotyped in the media, despite the fact that it's actually a point of great transition in a person's life. It's the last time you live in your parents' house, so you can have pretty strong opinions about the world — you don't have to compromise yet. I'm also interested in how people define themselves in space. No matter their socioeconomic status, most teen's bedrooms are 12 x 12 and they have a 60 watt bulb right in the centre.
I was really struck by the diversity among the teens, spaces, and stories represented. They're all different colours and sizes, some are straight edge, some are religious, one is a single mother. How important was that to the series?
It's not a documentary project. It has the look of one, but I'm not a believer in documentary because that suggests there's a truth — one truth, and one way of looking. So I wasn't attempting or pretending to have a cross section that hit every group or every person.
How did you find such a compelling range of people, then?
I met them in a variety of ways. I'd go to the mall, where all different kinds of teenage girls would be doing their thing and congregating in the restrooms. I'd find people in places like that, and through each other; it'd be this kind of broken chain, where someone might connect me with another person. I was wandering.
Tell us about the collaborative process of shooting each teen in their space. A few of them are holding musical instruments or their pets.
I had a rule: you couldn't clean up or change your bedroom. I spent about six hours with each person, including the two-hour interview. One of the things that was important to me was to not rip them off in any way. It's so popular in making photographs to be on the "ingroup" and show the "outgroup" — to use your power and make your image in a way that kind of diminishes other people. That's something I'm really opposed to, so I made the choice to use continuous light rather than strobe. When you use strobe, you can photograph someone in the "out" moment — you can catch the in-between. As a maker, you become the insider while they become the outsider, and create a way for your viewer to see them. I didn't want strobe because they would lose control; they wouldn't have any power or agency.
In order to give the individual power while still making sharp images using a view camera that produces large negatives, I needed long exposures — a quarter of a second, too long for a human to stand still. With a quarter of a second, the subject really has to be a part of making that image, so I asked them to pose, hold the gesture, and control it themselves. That's why there's kind of an intensity to their gaze, because those exposures are so long. That's how I dealt with trying to be responsible for the exchange of power; I was trying to share as much of that power as possible. I tried to let them express their own voice as much as possible.
Tell us about the interviews, then.
Initially, my idea was not to make a book, I just got approached to do books after I exhibited the work a bunch. When it came time to do that, I transcribed every word from the videos. I had releases for everyone, but I called and told them I was going to edit some of the interviews down, and asked if there was anything that they'd said that they didn't want in there. At that point all of them were not teenagers anymore, but they all vetoed sex. They talked about sex a ton, but they didn't want it in the book; I still find it interesting that they censored themselves after the fact. They told unbelievable stories — things that are heartbreaking, amazing, and brilliant, that show teenager are not one-liners. Even though we change a lot as we get older, there's something very direct and true at that age — something already formed.
You're right. There are uncertainties, but some very strong declarative statements in there — about religion and addiction and family. It helps illustrate what the portraits are communicating: these are autonomous, individual people.
Exactly. These are people. The way teenagers are reduced to a one-liner is such an error in the way we look at things.
I also liked how the stories didn't directly relate to the objects on the wall. The words illustrated different, sometimes unexpected facets of the subjects.
Yes! That's the point: you look at the photograph and you want to immediately stereotype — well he's a skater, she's a punk. The texts are very important to me because they complicate that so much, and they're often in opposition to what you think you're seeing; I'm asking people to critique the veracity of an image. I want people to take them seriously. I have enormous respect for them.
Let's talk about the impact these images have had.
At the time, the myths and stereotypes of being a teenager were totally mediated by TV and advertising, and I was trying to dispel that by making these images. About five years after the book was published, I started to see things that looked like the rooms that I went to in films and TV. I remember thinking, "Why did I even do this project? Everybody already thought this." But then I met a director who's worked on projects like Breaking Bad, who told me the book is still used by set designers. The very thing that I was trying to show became the thing everyone was seeing in the context I was working against — it was co-opted and copied so quickly. I thought that was fascinating and horrifying, but kind of awesome.
They're enjoying a real digital resurgence right now. Perhaps because there's such a physical component of identity formation in the 90s images, while teens today might accomplish that more online.
But it's very different when you're describing your various identities on digital platforms to when someone is in your space asking you things. The pressure of constructing multiple identities online is a very different kind of pressure, because you're aware of how you're being seen, so you can curate a self for each site and do it multiple times a day. It requires self-consciousness; you're in charge of that persona and are trying to create a unified presence. I'm not interested in how someone wants to see themselves in the third person, I'm interested in the conversation that's real — that meanders and wanders. Somehow we all got the message that coming of age means you're supposed to have this unified sense of self. That's not interesting, it's just not. The only thing that makes human beings fascinating at all is that we're not a unified personality or presence; we're formed by so many different things that collide.
See more rooms and discover their stories at adriennesalinger.com.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Adrienne Salinger