Wide Angle

Portraits of 'American Youth': The Many Faces and Phases of Millennials

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

I was born in 1983. On the day I became a legal adult in 2001, I began my "American Youth." A paradox? Sure. But that's part of being young (and American).

"American Youth," a glossy new book of photography, celebrates the millennials (those who came of age in this decade) as we ricochet between childhood and adulthood, desperate to be taken seriously and loath to abandon wildness. We are slaves to circumstance and masters of opportunity. We are beautiful, simple, ugly and complicated. We deserve a label. We warrant a photo book.

Redux Pictures, a photo agency in New York, dispatched 25 photographers to capture our essence. They came back from the field with images of energy and inertia, progress and peril. "American Youth" is more than 100 pages of paradox:

-- A photo of young debutantes, gloved and gowned in a gold-hued stairwell at the Plaza Hotel, is quickly followed by a portrait of a 20-year-old alcoholic panhandler, counting coins on a dim, dank city street.

-- Clean-cut Wisconsin superdelegate Jason Rae, 21, holds a miniature American flag tacked to a toothpick in one vibrant photo; 40 pages later the flag functions as a black-and-white backdrop in a gritty series focused on Baltimore boxing club manager Marvin McDowell.

-- Two white-shirted Mormon missionaries spread their evangel in southeast Tijuana, Mexico, and on another page college women suckle from a multi-tubed beer bong before a football game at Louisiana State University.

It's easy to use "we" and "us" when talking about one's own generation, but a browse through "American Youth" reveals how vast the millennials are. We (they) are strippers in Oregon, military widows in Texas, lobstermen in Maine and rabbinical students in New York. They (we) run the gamut of colors and creeds, but are nevertheless bound by shared youth, a shared country and a shared mini-era of Obama, iPods, Iraq, eco-consciousness and economic uncertainty, as defined by Redux Pictures.

What separates us from, say, the subjects in "The Americans," Robert Frank's 1958 volume of black-and-white photography that depicted the blunt, tense nature of living 50 years ago? The emotional distance between subject and camera separates us. "The Americans" hums with austerity. In "American Youth," many of the millennial subjects are keenly aware of the critical lens. They seem moments from striking a pose, and the photographers are co-conspirators in this intimacy.

But a certain timelessness emerges when the photos are considered by chapter, of which there are four: "Live," "Love," "Work" and "Play." We may be the latest, wildest generation of teens and 20-somethings, but we still lie, uncertain, on our beds, like generations before us. We still jump off rocks into rivers. We still serve our country. We still celebrate and struggle with religion. We still smoke and drink and do drugs. We still achieve. We still fail. We still love. We still lose.

As images of our follies and victories cascade from television and the Internet, there's something quaint about a coffee-table book of photos. It's still, and final. There's no updating or editing or refreshing it. Strange for a millennial, but also kind of comforting. A book like this is a gambit for definition. It's a stab at an answer to the question, "What does American youth look like now, today?" Sometimes it helps to hold that answer in your hands, in artful images between the hard covers of a book, rather than try to pick it out from the whizzing cacophony of social networking and instant communication and unchecked media. Stillness becomes our zooming generation. Another paradox.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company