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How dare we be so beautiful?!

On the teenager portraits of Rico Scagliola & Michael Meier.

An androgynous character dressed in white shoes, jeans, and a nearly half-open black shirt sits relaxed and slightly leaning forward by a tiny pond in a garden, posing for a photograph. (S)he is looking downwards at his/her mirror image, reflected from the surface of the water. This image, in its general composition not quite unlike Caravaggio’s painting depicting an actively forward-leaning Narcissus, offers some clues about a giant photographic enterprise which resulted in a multimedia installation named Double Extension Beauty Tubes, combining still and moving images with a soundtrack, and a hefty paper volume called Neue Menschen (New People).

Collaborating with teenagers over the course of almost three years from 2008 until early 2011, Swiss photographer duo Rico Scagliola (1985) and Michael Meier (1982) had accumulated a vast archive of about 8,000 photographs, showing a cross-section of some of the more extravagant stylish expressions of teens’ subcultures of the day. According to Rico & Michael, henceforth colloquially calling them like they call themselves via their web site, in an introductory video they produced for the book, it shall be a testimony to the love affair of today’s teenagers’ real and virtual lives. Their cultural life is very much colored by pop and underground music, film, fashion, and the internet. Glimpses of the backgrounds and stages of their daily lives can be seen in some of the photographs; IKEA-styled suburban middle-class homes and poster-ridden bedrooms.

Feeling that somehow they had missed out on their own youth, Rico & Michael started making friends with teenagers and photograph them the way they would like to see themselves and want to be seen. Through film and photography, clearly. Starting to photograph Emos who were hanging out at and around the main railway station of Zurich every night, other youngsters belonging to neighbouring subcultures (Goths, Punks, Indies, Metalheads et cet) were soon to follow. The different groups were blending easily together, and some people would change styles as if changing clothes. Youth subcultures are not as clearly distinct anymore like they were in pre-internet times.

Rico & Michael sensed that the newest generation of teenagers was being dismissed as not having a proper voice of their own. But do people in the midst of the transformation from children to adults ever really have a voice of their own? Adolescence is one of the most formative stages in the lives of human beings for the discovery and development of a voice of one’s own. However, in the technologically advanced world, today’s young generations (often called “digital natives”) are being born into fast-paced digital times, in which developing a vision on the creation and dissemination of images of one’s own is equally important to – if not more important than – the formation of a unique and opinionated voice on real life and public events. Many of the adolescents who were portrayed by Rico & Michael are astoundingly mature in their skills of posing for cameras. In their virtual universes they are masters of masquerade and disguise. They have an almost inborn talent for staging and for compository framing. The boundaries demarcating what is real and what is fictitious are more fluid than ever before. This perhaps being one of the reasons for the disavowal of the new people by older generations (the “analog natives”). Today’s children and teenagers demand to be seen rather than to be heard. Visual style is everything.

Whereas the mythological Narcissus was not aware that he was merely gazing at his mirrored self-portrait, today’s image-saturated youth is very well aware of the carefully constructed artificiality of their reflected myriad selves. The iGeneration falls in love (or tries to do so) with their transformed selves inspired by the appearances of fashionable pop stars (Lady Gaga to whom Neue Menschen is dedicated being the most important), or with their new selves collaged together from bits and pieces found within the gargantuan digital image junk heap. Unlike Narcissus, they fall in love with faces that they recognize as theirs although they have been consciously transformed into other temporary identities. For many of the teenagers who are maturing during the times of facebook and flickr playful metamorphosis and sharing photographs thereof becomes a proof of their existence. This encompasses a self-consciousness that is literally a form of ex-istence – a being out of oneself.

Modern life is one of the best subjects for photography, according to photo-critic Gerry Badger, albeit being a subject that quickly fades into history.(1) Rather than playing the snake biting its tail (photography reacting on other art or photography), photographers make more interesting work when they turn their lenses outward. And what subject could be more intriguing and ambiguous than the teenagers of the image-saturated online age. Photographing teenagers with such a keen visual aptitude means both an inward and an outward turning of the lens. It is a focus on real people as they imagine themselves based on images of other real people.

As quickly as an actual subject may fade into history, it fades into nothing if there is no history to be made through imaginative documentation. A sensitive, imaginative, and collaborative documentary approach is one of the strengths of Rico & Michael’s portrayal of the teenagers. The photographers wanted to blur any clear distinction between their roles as authors and their subject’s roles as models. The kids were as much involved in the image-making process as the photographers, and when they had not yet conceived of how exactly they wanted to be photographed, Rico & Michael would stage and picture them in ways they deemed fitting to their respective self-perceptions. The series is not a documentary about teenage subcultures per se. Most importantly it is about today’s teenagers’ visual awareness, their fashions as an essence of their self-consciousness and their aptitude of cultivating self-images. In Rico & Michael’s words their project is a documentation of “the construction of [the teenagers’] pictured identity.”(2) It is a photographic document of the new generation’s inborn talent for mise-en-scène, for their talents for the staging of oneself as another.

The subversive somewhat provocative undertone of the otherwise tautological title Neue Menschen (the youngest generation is new per definition, physically at least) suggests that teenagers nowadays are somehow radically different in comparison to earlier generations. Is it the hypermedial online world basically informing them from birth on which accounts for this difference? Every change in technology changes the way people behave and interact with each other, and faster changes in technology tend to provoke quicker generation shifts. But in digital wonderland we are all too young still to already come to serious conclusions on this matter. Rico & Michael want to have their book title sound like a big and bold statement and at the same time clarifying that it deals with a contemporary subject. Its actual actuality may be part of history soon, the fantasized photo-selves in Neue Menschen will be forever young. Photographs don’t age any longer and fashion styles are part of an eternal cycle of renewal.

When asked about the importance of documenting the cultures of today’s teenagers, Lauren A. Wright, who in 2011 curated a large exhibition on twentieth-century youth cultures, had an admirable answer: “I think it’s always important to recognize the huge influence of teenagers on our culture past and present, particularly in light of the ambivalent place they occupy. We really do both love and loathe them.”(3) Young people can teach us as much as older generations can teach them. As long as we stay open and never forget about our younger selves within our older selves. In the end, all that Rico & Michael ask from us is to love the kids they portrayed with careful attention and love themselves. If we can’t embrace every teenager around for real, the least we can do is to immerse ourselves for a moment in the fantastic though often dark imagery in which teens show off their roles and their uncertain identities. A praise stronger and more concise than the following comment on a picture that’s up at one of the photographer’s facebook-pages is hardly possible: Luv it pic!

1.) Gerry Badger, The Pleasures of Good Photographs, New York 2010, p. 11.
2.) http://www.ricoandmichael.com/work/kidz-3000/ (page visited May 30, 2012).
3.) http://teenagefilm.com/archives/youth-happenings/nothing-in-the-world-but-youth (page visited 4 June 2012). The exhibition Nothing in the World But Youth ran from 17 September until 8 January, 2012 at Turner Contemporary in Margate, United Kingdom.
4.) All statements ascribed to Rico & Michael and some general background info were obtained through a personal correspondence with the artists per e-mail, June 2012.
The essay How dare we be so beautiful?! was written for the Foam 3H booklet, accompanying the exhibition Double Extension Beauty Tubes at Foam Amsterdam, 29 june – 29 aug. 2012.

Booklet PDF: Foam3H_RicoandMichael

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