A young girl looks into the camera. Trying to hold still, she suppresses a smile. Her eyes shift, then composure is regained and her face looks straight on for a time. Nearby, another video begins; is this the same girl, but older? Her features have sharpened; her gaze has, perhaps, become more knowing. Patiently, she engages; we are allowed to look back, secretly, in the darkness. Who is the person in these multiple moving frames, when or where did she become ‘herself’? What influences have moulded and shaped this individual? Existential questions from Melanie Manchot’s powerful moving image work 11/18 introduce many of the ideas explored in this year’s Photo50 exhibition, Gravitas, whose artists use the photographic lens to explore the shifting and settling social space and temporality of adolescence.
Gravitas constitutes one of the ancient Roman ‘personal virtues.’ It referred to a depth and seriousness of character; a pre-condition of the youth’s transition to adulthood. Whilst the extended period of identity formation constituting contemporary adolescence is a relatively recent social construct, numerous attempts to delineate universal critical stages were proposed through the 20th Century. These remain influential today. Cycles of crisis must be resolved, and ‘virtues’ (paralleling those of ancient Rome) achieved in a chrono-linear manner. As psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) would famously note, the ‘identity crisis’ precipitates and potentiates the crystallization of a character’s ‘fidelity’ around age 18. The very possibility of committing to a role, a way of being in society, relies upon this period of exploration and disorientation. Photographers’ attempts to capture the fluid and shifting identities of today’s youth straddle a parallel crisis: they face a seemingly unbounded choice of modes and moments through which to represent individual ‘emerging adults,’ amidst enduring icons and numerous subcultures of ‘youth.’ Thresholds of all forms appear to proliferate, to attenuate and dissipate. Increases in life expectancy accompanied by societal changes may further extend the iterative process of identity evolution. Is 30 the new 18?
In Gravitas, photography can be seen to lend itself to identifying both new and enduring exterior signals of maturity. How these representations reveal the inner worlds of youths, at points of transition, is fraught with challenges. Very real restrictions exist in the form of taboos encircling media portrayals of young children. Autobiographic examinations provide an alternative point of departure. Artists examining the completion of their own adolescence manifest their personal histories visually for this exhibition: nostalgia for a childhood very recently completed, or relating to the support and loss of a role model/ sibling.
In other works, the very positioning of the artist outside the generation of the subject presents a form of ‘looking in,’ to document change and status, as well as examining the importance of peer and familial bonds. Here, the scientific meaning of ‘gravity’ as the ‘force attracting a body towards the earth or another mass,’ usefully points us to the centrality of inter-personal relations and interactions in forming the individual persona. These intangible, invisible forces are at play among communities, families and friends, as well as between artist and subject.
Further to this, we consider the perceived existence of pathologies of youth – both unseen and perhaps overseen by lens-based media. Individuals’ body image, mental health, even expressions of gender and sexuality can be used to package communally owned ‘issues’. Intense scrutiny of adolescents can sometimes be unkind, especially when the study of young people focuses on difference. Many of the works explored in this exhibition directly confront issues of slippage between private self-reflection and the sometimes widening unwelcome public forum.
Pathologies of the young are in some cases framed more broadly. Lamentations abound over the apparent displacement of zones of play and learning first indoors and then online, maybe leaving home every now and then to chase a Pokémon. Considering further the physical landscape, the gravitational tug of one’s roots, origins and sense of place are explored through multifarious perspectives within the exhibition. Have the crises of identity explored here already been pre-decided if the roots are very strong? Does a screen-mediated world inevitably distort, or even simply alter, the positioning of the self within it? The digital traces we leave are now as ephemeral as they are annoyingly permanent, with far reaching effects on identity formation.
As the gap between childhood and maturity fills with lived experience and memory, questions remain as to which guiding virtues will see children through their identity formation, and how (and when) the adult presents him/herself today. These questions may have multifaceted answers shadowed by their own rapid obsolescence. Thirteen artists surveyed in Gravitas provide a window into the world of adults-in-waiting, whose virtues and vices can appear as timeless as the lens-based image, which freezes these fleeting moments in their development.
-Christiane Monarchi, curator of Photo50 2017
Photo50 is kindly supported by Genesis Imaging