For anyone on Tumblr afflicted with severe ’90s nostalgia and a Daria Morgendorffer fetish, you will have undoubtedly seen at least a couple of very specific photographs in your feeds lately. They show teenagers in their bedrooms – some vacant, some proud, some seemingly willing the ground beneath them to swallow them whole. But with their oversized sweaters, denim overalls and Denise Huxtable hair, they’re decidedly teens of a very different era.
The images stem from a 1995 photography project called, unsurprisingly, Teenagers in Their Bedrooms. Artist and photographer Adrienne Salinger, repulsed by the FOX TV glam of Beverly Hills 90210, sought to represent the actual realities of young people growing up in early ’90s America – their thoughts and dreams, their hidden traumas, and the universal pain experienced during adolescence. Because surely there was more to young people than Aaron Spelling-approved fantasy?
A key inspiration for designer Christopher Shannon’s SS/15 menswear collection, and a regular influence for Hollywood set decorators, Teenagers in Their Bedrooms continues its unstoppable relevancy. Huck was beamed through the magic of Skype to Salinger’s New Mexico home to talk about its legacy. The conversation got pretty varied.
Teenagers in Their Bedrooms seems to have taken on a second wave in the last couple of years. Fashion designers have said they’re influenced by it, they’ve blown up on social media, particularly Tumblr. Were you aware of that?
No! I tend to hear from people about that work, and it’s most often from people who send me pictures of their rooms and want to talk. But I was surprised it was on Tumblr, because I didn’t put it there.
Yeah, Tumblr is very much the zone of appropriation. I’m not sure it’s great on copyright.
I didn’t know that I’m popular again, though. Yay! [Laughs] But I’m glad that it’s coming back. It’s had more than a couple of lives already, and I think that’s pretty interesting. That it still evokes something.
Do you have any idea what it could be? When you made the photography, was there any part of you that had an inkling that it would have relevancy long past the time it was made?
Are you crazy?! Yeah, I saw the future. [Laughs] I actually worked on that project for a long time. I started it on the West Coast, when I lived there, just out of frustration at the ways teenagers were being depicted. Because this was before the internet, this was before computers, and our reliance on television was huge. There weren’t a lot of outlets for people to represent themselves, especially young people. There was this TV show I remember around that time, Beverly Hills 90210, and it was just… it was just atrocious.
I think, when you make art, that everything originates from your own circumstances. Even if it’s not about the artist, it’s from the artist. And I remembered that sense of isolation when I was a teenager, that inability to get anyone to take me seriously. So the work started as a desire to give some kind of a voice to the contradictions that occur when you’re on the edge of change.
Right in that place where you still live with your parents, and no matter what socio-economic group you’re from, your room is still 10 x 12 feet, with one 60-watt bulb above you, and everything you own is in there.
It’s interesting, because at that time in particular, the bedroom was so significant in projecting your true self. It was your fortress of solitude. But now there are so many different ways to project your identity, or at least your own version of it.
I was reading somewhere that girls of 13 change their profile pictures up to 18 times a day on different forms of social media. I read it online, though, so who knows if it is true. But I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to keep up with multiple online versions of oneself. Even on Facebook, I can’t present a coherent personality. I only get ‘likes’ when I post pictures of sinkholes, and even then I get maybe four.
Are you intrigued enough to pursue the same ideas in young people today?
I’ll always be interested in teenagers. But I’m not sure I could do a project like that again, given the way we use images now. I’m not sure the same issues of power exist – I don’t think television holds the same weight in terms of defining identity. And it’d be really hard, given how many people have used that work and called it their own and copied it. It would be tricky.
But you still seem invested in its themes at least. Does anything about the ’90s work still surprise you?
When I started working on the book, I began by transcribing all the [interview] tapes, word for word. Although I had all the signatures and releases from all of the teenagers I photographed, I thought I’d call all of them and ask if there was anything they didn’t want me to use. It was important to me not to betray their trust.
And it was about three years after I had taken the initial photographs, and you know what’s interesting? They were all over legal age by the point that I talked to them again, and every single one of them vetoed my inclusion of anything about sex. So the book, oddly to me, has no sex in it. And the tapes are dripping with sex. Hilarious, teenage, crazy-ass sex.
Do you have any theories why they were so against it?
I think it probably has to do with shame. And yet they didn’t mind me including stories about drugs. I think there might be something about coming of age, a little bit later than teenage-hood, where there might be more regret or nervousness about sex. But I think that’s interesting. Because I’d think that sex is something everybody does, but not everybody does drugs.
I think it’s pretty ingrained, particularly back then. We like to imagine we’re less repressed than we actually are.
That’s what I think. And it was interesting because it was so universal. I’m sure they’re still having sex though.
We can hope.
But probably fewer of them are getting high. Because they’ve got their own kids, and they’re probably freaked out about getting caught. [Laughs]
All of the images are accompanied by a quote from the subject that completely illuminates and seems to encapsulate that person’s life. Was it difficult to find that anecdote that seemed to best represent that person?
I wasn’t actually looking for an anecdote that represented the person, but something that would interrupt our desire to reduce individuals to stereotypes and one-liners.
I was trying to do everything I could to not abuse power. The images that we had of teenagers at the time — think about Larry Clark’s work. It’s not like I didn’t like Larry Clark’s work, because how can you not have a voyeuristic thrill, right? [Laughs] Under the guise of like, “This is high art – I was transfixed by seeing dick pics way before the internet.” I mean, I respected it as art, but we were all looking at the same stuff, right? We just weren’t saying it out loud. We were saying things like, “ooh, how gritty with the needle.” “Ooh, what happened to her baby!?” “These are real social problems.” [Laughs]
I think there was a part of that work that bothered me, because it seemed to me like it was a questionable use of power. And because Larry Clark was a participant with very young people – that coercion, if there was any, was problematic for me. So I wanted the teenagers [in my own work] to have as much power as they could.
With the text – there are so many ways to create work where the viewer is part of the in-group, and the subject we’re viewing is kind of the out-group, right? We all love looking at those kinds of pictures, because we feel a sense of superiority. And I had that sense a little bit with Larry Clark. Though I really respect the work, I don’t want to reduce it in any way, but I didn’t want to do that myself.
I think it’s evident though. Even though they’re your images, they feel very dominated by their subjects. There’s control on your part, but not so much that it eclipses everything else.
Here’s something that happened though, that shows how little control one has over one’s work. So I was trying to work in opposition to advertising and television and that kind of one-liner reduction of teenagers, and a few years ago I met a guy who was a director on Breaking Bad, and he let me come on set. It was my best day ever.
And I started noticing, maybe ten years ago, that in films and advertising and on TV, I was seeing lots of teenager’s rooms that looked like my pictures. And this director said to me, “You know, that book of yours is the bible for set directors in LA.”
Which I thought was kind of horrifying. Because that meant it was sort of being used by the enemy camp, right? And at the same time it told me how little I have control over anything. Like “Woah! They’re all using this work to make lots of money!” How strange is that? That art is always the thing that is mined and ripped off for commerce. Which we all know, but still. When it happened to me… [Laughs]
It’s sort of ironic. You made something that deliberately rejects everything that has been pushed by the machine, and yet it ends up just becoming the bible of the machine.
I was co-opted completely. Not only did I not realise it, I even started questioning my own work. Like “Why did I think this was interesting? – It’s everywhere!”
Do you still feel ownership of the work, though?
In a funny way, I’m telling my own story on some level in all of my work. Like somebody who writes a novel – it’s not directly autobiographical, but it includes bits and pieces. In every one of those pictures and texts, I’m there in a very real way.
I’m kind of short and noisy and nosy – I’m weird. I don’t really fit in. So who I am and how I acted at that moment created a lot of what happened. I don’t know if a lot of artists who use photography acknowledge that.
Do you consider yourself an outsider?
I’ve never really followed the rules. I never had interest in reproducing, or eating dinner in a normal way. I mainly eat snacks over the sink. I mean, I’m not bragging about this, it’s generally to my detriment. [Laughs] But I don’t follow many conventions. A person my age should be married with children and I guess maybe have grandchildren. I should be, I don’t know, somebody who wears dresses or something. But I’ve always lived a little bit more… outside of convention, I guess. Does that sound snotty?
Not at all! I just thought it might relate to your affinity for young people, or at least your interest in representing the ‘truth’ of young people.
I don’t know. I don’t aspire to youth. I’m an old person now. I think getting older makes you more interesting, because you get so much smarter as you get older. Things make so much sense.
I’m not a very nostalgic person. I know we live in a culture that suggests we’re all nostalgic – look at Instagram, Jesus. Everybody with ’70s Polaroids and everything. It’s hilarious. But I’m not nostalgic. I don’t think I was happier when I was younger, or freer. I think a big part of being a teenager is that you’re not free, and you’re struggling with your own voice, and you’re still being financially supported by your parents, and I think that’s what makes it possible for them to try on so many different identities. You’re supposed to do that when you’re young.
I think the way I am is just the way I am. I wish I was interested in the kinds of things that I’m ‘supposed’ to be interested in, but I never was. It’s not holding onto youth or anything like that. [Pauses] I wish I had the skin of somebody who is young. [Laughs] Who doesn’t want an 18-year-old’s skin? Actual skin. It’s springy and moist and unlined. Then it absorbs a lifetime of bad habits.
You seem to have an ease about you, though. A sense of freedom. Would you agree with that?
That’s an interesting question. But I can’t see myself from the third person.
I think a lot of young people do, at least. We’re pretty navel-gazing, us millennials.
Oh god, are we going to talk about millennials? [Laughs] Every single generation gets creamed by another generation. It’s our human instinct to find the generation that’s young at the moment, generalize about them stupidly, identify the flaws of that entire generation, and talk about it endlessly.
People sit around in meetings saying, “Ugh, millennials!” “They don’t have attention spans!” “They’re not gonna have jobs!” That desire to simplify others, to make it comfortable for the rest of us – I reject that. I can’t stand it when I’m reading new things and they’re saying that this generation is all going to be a certain way. We’re talking about people who are still being formed. And when people start to complain about or categorise a generation, I just think it’s over for them. It’s so uninteresting.
I teach photography at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which has a nationally ranked program. It’s really exceptional, and I’m around young people all day long. I just love my students, and it’s just as hard to come of age now as it was when I came of age. I don’t think it’s interesting when people say that it’s harder now, or even that it was harder back then. Who comes up with that? It’s always like, ‘I walked a million miles in the snow to get to school.’ But it never happened. Nobody ever walked that far in the snow to get to school.
Every person navel-gazes as they’re trying to figure out where and how they want to make a difference with their life. People get older and just forget that they did that when they were younger, too. We continually edit our pasts to make ourselves seem more awesome.
But you shouldn’t stand for this, this millennial thing. You’re only just beginning your life and trying to figure it all out, and everywhere you’re reading about your so-called limitations. Of your whole generation! Just don’t buy into that. Don’t even!