powerful portraits of teen tribes throughout the decades

‘The Teen Years,’ a group exhibition on view in Southern California, spans decades and zipcodes to share an elegant depiction of adolescent awkwardness and confidence.

by Emily Manning
02 August 2016, 4:15pm

Joan Albert, Martin, July 1980

While there are common struggles faced by young people coming of age, everyone's experience of teenagehood is different — colored by the beautiful, awkward, complex facets of family, faith, geography, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and subcultural self-expression. It makes sense that so many photographers find this age so creatively inspiring. From Larry Clark's rough and tumble Tulsa kids to Adrienne Salinger's homebodies, some of the most iconic images by contemporary photographers have been born from teen bedrooms and back seats — in that space between finding yourself and starting your life.

Elaine Mayes, Haight Street, 1968

The Teen Years — a new group photography show at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California — collects photographs that capture adolescence across decades. In the early 60s, Edward Sturr shot car culture and swaggering boys from Coney Island to Chicago. These images are presented alongside Mark Steinmetz's quietly poetic photos, taken over 40 years later along Highway 441 — Georgia and North Carolina's state line. The Teen Years documents Detroit prom nights, Haight-Ashbury street kids, and South Boston summer camps — vintage and contemporary photographs that form a portrait of the vibrancy and struggle of being young. 

Mark Steinmetz, Highway 441, Georgia/North Carolina Stateline, 1997

The exhibition features images from a few series that will be familiar to eagle-eyed i-D readers, like Bill Yates' snaps of the suburban teens who congregated at Tampa's Sweetheart Roller Rink in the early 70s. Back then, Bill was a student who'd spent a summer studying and working under street photography icon Garry Winogrand. When he returned to college that September, he was eager to seek out his own subject matter and found it at a raucous wooden roller rink built in the 1930s. To South Florida's teens, it was an important site of identity formation, a place where they experimented with style and sexuality as America's social fabric shifted.

Christine Osinski, Two Girls with Big Wheels, 1983-84

The show also includes images from photographer Christine Osinski's slice of suburbia: Staten Island in the early 1980s. After Osinski moved from Manhattan to the further flung borough, she began lugging a large-format camera around the neighborhood as a means of exploring her new surroundings during the summer months. Rather than Manhattan's commuters and crazies, Osinski mostly found local, working class teens wandering Staten Island's wide, empty streets. "There is something to be said about youth," Osinski told i-D earlier this year. "Even the saddest picture of a young person is still hopeful — it's kind of future-looking."

'The Teen Years' is on view at Joseph Bellows Gallery through August 26. More information here

Michael Mulno, untitled, from Young People, 2010


Text Emily Manning 

coming of age
Bill Yates
christine osinski
joseph bellows gallery
the teen years