Since the 1970s, some photographers have presented text with photographs to clarify social and political complexities or to enable their subjects to explain themselves, with Bill Owens' Suburbia being the great popular success. A contemporary iteration of this approach can be seen in Dawoud Bey's Class Pictures, a traveling exhibit on view at Silver Eye Center for Photography. This exhibit by the Chicago-based photographer focuses on racially and ethnically diverse high school students, with large portraits accompanied by statements about themselves and their lives.
The portraits are formal, carefully posed and composed, involving the setting up of equipment and the accompanying sense of a serious occasion. The teens sit or lean with flourishes of arms and hands, or even repose to the extent possible in a standard-issue school desk, their expressions generally neutral with an occasional smile or furrowed brow. Most of the portraits are half-length and life-sized, to dramatic effect. Yet in a world in which, as John Szarkowski observed, there are more photographs than bricks, there is a limited potential for a portrait to grab us, unless we're talking celebrity. The text panels are essential to the impact of this project.
"Kevin," a slouching teen in a graffiti-ed cap and a FCUK-logo jacket that's enough to give a chapter-and-verse-citer a coronary, is accompanied by his discussion of growing up without a father (prison, followed by early death) or mother (nominally present but detached and depressed). As here, we are repeatedly presented with indications of seriousness, self-awareness and maturity, often in the face of hardship. Acting out and other problems are indicated as well, such as "Robert" discussing a history of fighting, or "Odalys" and her teen pregnancy.
Such accounts of hardship and the teens' response to it are an important part of their life histories and an aspect of their evolving character. And what is teen-age if not a trial performance of self-in-progress?
By presenting sensitive portraits in conjunction with revealing and often profound statements by these teens, Bey succeeds in countering stereotypes of youth as frivolous and/or dangerous — stereotypes that just might be the most intractable obstacle they face.