A raw journey into America’s rebellious youth culture

A raw journey into America’s rebellious youth culture
Wesley Knoll’s newly published photobook ‘Fading Smile’ is an unflinching window into life as a young person in the USA.

A few years ago, photographer Wesley Knoll was with his friend in Humboldt County, Northern California, waiting nervously. With recreational marijuana still banned in their home city of New York, the pair had travelled cross-country to find get their hands on some high-grade, but had found themselves in uncertain, potentially dangerous territory.

“We were going out there to buy weed, and we met this guy who basically became our chauffeur took us to this area that’s nicknamed ‘Murder Mountain’, because so many people have gone missing there – more so than any place per capita in the United States,” Knoll recalls. “I didn’t know that place had the reputation that it did at the time, and we went to a farmer’s house, picked out the plants that we wanted and then when it came to pick them up, he gave us a location [to meet].”

At the designated spot the pair were met by the farmer’s employees, but instead of what they ordered, the men had brought a completely different batch. Knoll and his friend attempted to explain that there must have been a mix up, but the employees didn’t understand English, and ended up leaving the pair on their own in the mountains. Realising that they were in sketchy territory with tens of thousands of dollars in cash in their pockets, no phone signal, and trying to reason with men who had no idea what they were saying ­­– it gave Knoll pause for reflection.

“I had a real life moment where I had to sit and think to myself and ask ‘What is it that I’ve gotten myself into, and is it worth it?’” he continues. “And that is a conversation that will stick with me forever.”

In the end, the men returned with trash bags filled with the weed that they wanted, and they returned home without a scratch. But a photograph taken that night – featuring stacks of $100 bills in a sink tied up with rubber bands, is now featured in Knoll’s newly-published photobook Fading Smile. It’s just one of the several brushes with reality that Knoll has found himself confronting into over the years, from the time that he first picked up a camera aged 13 as a doe-eyed teenager from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Since then, he’s been documenting his activities with his friends from across the city as they came of age – via parties, rooftop hangouts and urban exploration. Taken across the city’s five boroughs, with plenty of shots featuring drugs, sex and kids spraying graffiti – the book is a raw, unflinching window into life as a young person in the USA’s largest city.

“The process was immersing myself very organically and naturally with the group of friends that I had formed at the time and going out of my way to document any and every adventure,” he explains. “Whether it be exploring abandoned train tunnels underneath Riverside Park, going on month-long road trips to ultimately illegally fund this project, or just parties where I knew that people’s personalities would be on full display.”

Writing graffiti and tagging spots around town feature heavily in the photographs, which Knoll explains is as intrinsic to the city as bagels and pizza slices. “It’s extremely ingrained into the city. It had its phase with the trains in the 70s, 80s, and then streets in the 90s, but in today’s day and age I feel like graffiti has almost eclipsed mainstream alt youth angst outlet forms that used to be held by skateboarding.”

Filled with grainy film shots and dense collages – Fading Smile has a nostalgic, scrapbook-esque feel to it. It captures a moment in life and a moment in the city, while also serving as Knoll’s photographic love letter to being young and rebellious. “I was striving to capture what it’s like authentically to grow up here,” he says. “Because so many people tell the coming of age, adolescence story, but I feel like there’s tons of unspoken rituals, rites of passage that people who are born here find themselves going through, [like] writing graffiti or trying your hand at selling drugs.

“I love New York – it’s my bread and butter,” he continues. “It’s definitely formed the person that I am and I’m now spoiled because I’ve travelled to many places and there’s nothing quite like home.”

Fading Smile by Wes Knoll can be purchased from his official website

“I had a real life moment where I had to sit and think to myself and ask ‘What is it that I’ve gotten myself into, and is it worth it?’” he continues. “And that is a conversation that will stick with me forever.”

In the end, the men returned with trash bags filled with the weed that they wanted, and they returned home without a scratch. But a photograph taken that night – featuring stacks of $100 bills in a sink tied up with rubber bands, is now featured in Knoll’s newly-published photobook Fading Smile. It’s just one of the several brushes with reality that Knoll has found himself confronting into over the years, from the time that he first picked up a camera aged 13 as a doe-eyed teenager from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Since then, he’s been documenting his activities with his friends from across the city as they came of age – via parties, rooftop hangouts and urban exploration. Taken across the city’s five boroughs, with plenty of shots featuring drugs, sex and kids spraying graffiti – the book is a raw, unflinching window into life as a young person in the USA.

“The process was immersing myself very organically and naturally with the group of friends that I had formed at the time and going out of my way to document any and every adventure,” he explains. “Whether it be exploring abandoned train tunnels underneath Riverside Park, going on month-long road trips to ultimately illegally fund this project, or just parties where I knew that people’s personalities would be on full display.”

Writing graffiti and tagging spots around town feature heavily in the photographs, which Knoll explains is as intrinsic to the city as bagels and pizza slices. “It’s extremely ingrained into the city. It had its phase with the trains in the 70s, 80s, and then streets in the 90s, but in today’s day and age I feel like graffiti has almost eclipsed mainstream alt youth angst outlet forms that used to be held by skateboarding.”

Filled with grainy film shots and dense collages – Fading Smile has a nostalgic, scrapbook-esque feel to it. It captures a moment in life and a moment in the city, while also serving as Knoll’s photographic love letter to being young and rebellious. “I was striving to capture what it’s like authentically to grow up here,” he says. “Because so many people tell the coming of age, adolescence story, but I feel like there’s tons of unspoken rituals, rites of passage that people who are born here find themselves going through, [like] writing graffiti or trying your hand at selling drugs.

“I love New York – it’s my bread and butter,” he continues. “It’s definitely formed the person that I am and I’m now spoiled because I’ve travelled to many places and there’s nothing quite like home.”

Fading Smile by Wes Knoll can be purchased from his official website

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