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American Youth: The Young and the Restless

He’s a thin man: a black sweater, sloping shoulders, an expression somewhere between fear and defiance. In his hands, he holds a board bearing the plaintive words, “God, can I bring my boyfriend to heaven?” He is only one of hundreds of people between the ages of 18 and 24 captured in the new photography book American Youth, put out by New York photography agency Redux Pictures, but he embodies the simultaneous hope and bewilderment, humor and gravity, that characterize the 240 vivid pages of the book.

For most of us, looking through American Youth is a bit like looking back on our own adolescence: an often pleasurable, sometimes queasily awkward exercise. It shows us familiar extremes — indulgent excess and violent excess — in unfamiliar faces: cheerleaders and inmates, lesbian gangsters and mourning war widows, hunters, lovers, strippers, party-goers, kissing campaigners, tailgaters, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps most tellingly, contributor Ben Baker, instead of making individual portraits, uses demographic data to make a massive grid of portraits, creating a kind of fused face of American youth today. Like Baker’s photographs, the individual pictures in American Youth are often visually striking when viewed singly; but, when taken all together, they form a fascinating sociological study of this generation as it transitions into adulthood.

If you long to make the opposite transition, Redux is giving you a chance to get a little closer to youth tomorrow, when the New York Photo Festival launches American Youth with a panel discussion featuring Redux photographers and an exhibition of work from the book. In anticipation of the event, we catch up with Redux’s Jasmine DeFoore to hear a little more about how the agency’s photographers captured their own slice of eternal youth.

Flavorpill: What was the genesis of American Youth?

Jasmine DeFoore: As support from young people started growing for Obama in 2007, Marcel Saba (Redux founder and director) thought this would be the perfect time to have the agency’s photographers take a look at the lives of young people across the country.

When we told Roberto Koch at Italian publisher Contrasto about it, he loved the subject matter and offered to publish it. So it took on a life of its own pretty quickly.

FP: How many of the Redux photographers are included in the book?

JD: Twenty-five photographers contributed work to the book. The photographers’ different styles make the book — and the agency — what it is. Everyone is approaching their subject matter from their own perspective and with their own unique style. So we have things as different as Eros Hoagland’s take on soldiers in Iraq (which is gritty and black and white and puts the viewer on edge) to Ben Stechschulte’s quiet and introspective portraits of organic farmers.

FP: Steve Appleford’s introduction describes today’s youth as hyper-connected; an iGeneration plugged into virtual unreality. Did you see this as a defining feature of this generation when you were putting the book together?

JD: When we were casting people in New York City for Nathaniel Welch’s “What would you ask God” shoot, I remember thinking that the subjects probably didn’t think much of anything about the prospect of being included in a book. For them, their whole lives have been “published” on MySpace or Facebook or on their own blogs. They are an open book. I wonder if the power of photography is diminishing with them, since every moment is chronicled and published immediately for the world to see.

FP: Many of the pictures show these kids in formal settings and highly ritualized rites of passage — proms, ROTC training sessions, debutante balls, graduation ceremonies, traditional farming. At one point in the introduction, Appleford labels the subjects, the children of the baby boomers, “boomerang kids”. Did you see a “boomerang” trend toward a certain kind of traditionalism and conventionalism in your subjects?

JD: These rites of passage remain an important part of the coming of age process. They give each generation a sense of grounding and link them to the generations before them. And they happen in the real world, not on screen.

FP: Psychologist Dave Verhaagen calls these youth the “next hero generation,” comparing them to the “Greatest Generation” that weathered the Great Depression and World War II. We seem now to be suffering the reverse chain of events. How much do you think these youth are defined by the current political and economic circumstances?

JD: Only time will tell but I think this generation, despite being labeled entitled and spoiled, is going to have an opportunity to rise up and really show the world what it is made of. They are so lucky in so many ways, to come of age in a world with so much technical innovation, where old racial boundaries are being torn down, where large scale awareness of environmental issues is finally mainstream. But they are also faced with a huge challenge. To be graduating from high school or college in this bleak job market is daunting. Hopefully the bad economy will lead to more creativity and entrepreneurship.

FP: Or more new artistic enterprises like Redux. What is the next project for Redux?

JD: We’re looking for a new project now. Stay tuned to our Facebook page for updates.

Exhibition of work from the book will be on view at the Festival until May 17 at the Tobacco Warehouse across from Brooklyn Bridge Park, at 1 Main Street.

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