The Awkward Age
Leah Missbach's pictures of adolescence.
By Fred Camper
Leah Missbach sees her own youth in the candid poses of the teenagers she photographs. Seen flirting, preening, or making out, they are caught at that awkward transitional time in off-center or otherwise askew compositions. Beginning to have adult feelings, they don't have much sense of their own identities beyond their emerging sexuality. "I have this history of college, careers, relationships," Missbach says. "They're still developing all that."
Born in La Grange in 1958 and raised in Bedford Park, Missbach was somewhat of an outsider, both because she was raised by a single mother and because she "had opinions, as opposed to just watching TV." When she was about 12, her mom took her by bus to a peace demonstration in Washington. Intensely aware of the 60s, its counterculture and demonstrations, "I wanted to be older so bad. I was exasperated because I was so little. My room was always quite a mess--I had all kinds of posters up, rock posters and cars and concert tickets. I spent a lot of time there, staring at the walls, figuring out how to get away."
At Argo Community High School in Summit, "there was a lot of racism. The blacks and whites and Puerto Ricans didn't get along. There were fights every day. You could stay after school and do an after-school activity, or run and hope to get home safe." Schoolwork was so easy "it was boring. My girlfriend and I graduated in three years just to get the heck out of there." In the meantime she hung out with her girlfriend after school and with "loser boyfriends. They didn't go to the prom. They did drugs and got wasted--the bad-boy syndrome. Those were the ones I was attracted to. I was totally bored and confused. We were just real brats." She spent her time smoking in the woods and drag racing. "You could race from neighborhood to neighborhood and the police would be confused. They'd have to radio from one town to another. It was cool--dangerous and fun." Winning a prize in a poster contest led to a major in product design and advertising at Southern Illinois University, where "I was much happier--my brain kicked in." After graduation she moved to Chicago, where she was a partner in a clothing and costume shop called Studio Sew-Sew, now closed, and later worked as a stylist, finding props for TV commercials.
Five years ago, growing disgusted with her stylist work, Missbach moved to California for a year to be with a boyfriend. "I was really unhappy with the ethical aspect of my job, the commercialism." Her heart was in "the documentary process," and so, having been long interested in photography, Missbach began taking courses at the University of California. But she grew frustrated. "I couldn't figure out San Diego, all these homogeneous perfect people, so I would come back to Chicago and go to Maxwell Street to photograph vendors," she says. "In San Diego I did a whole project on Mexican migrant workers." Returning to Chicago after a year, she enrolled in the MFA program in photography at Columbia College. It proved demanding and rewarding, including history, theory, and criticism. "I had no idea that it was important to be able to discuss the photographs, I thought you just stuck them on the wall and they spoke for themselves. But knowing who has photographed adolescents before, whether Larry Clark or Jim Goldberg, and why, helps you know what you're seeing. Knowing this helps me create what I want to create. I love Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark, Shelby Lee Adams"; Missbach eventually took workshops with Adams and Mark.
Missbach started photographing teenagers three years ago. She'd been photographing children in her Wicker Park neighborhood when suddenly two families moved out due to gentrification. "I'm like, 'Damn! I don't know what to do now.' I looked around and there was this group of menacing-looking street kids." Soon she was photographing and befriending the mostly African-American boys who hung out on the same corner every day. "They loved it, because I gave them pictures." Some of them started asking her for help with college and job applications, and for other things. "The boys sometimes came on to me, but it was very important to me to keep this relationship going. So I wouldn't say, 'In your dreams, pal'; I'd just laugh, but I also wouldn't encourage it."
Missbach says she "finally figured out what I was interested in, which was the transitional aspect of their lives. These were no longer children by any means, yet they still lived at home--hence they had to hang out in the street. I was interested in their sexuality, their emotional desires. The transitional aspect manifests itself in the vanity, the posturing, the grooming of each other." She recalls one photo of "a young man in a chair with a woman braiding his hair. He's got this whole aloof thing going on, as if he's not even getting his hair braided, and she's like, 'Oh man, I'm braiding Andre's hair'--you could see it all over her face."
The inevitable critiques of Missbach's focus on the "other" led her to start photographing white kids. Starting with nieces and nephews of friends, she was soon approaching kids at Great America. She also photographs teens at an annual Unitarian summer camp for families that she attended as a child. Missbach finds a similar wide range of ambition among each group of kids: some of the street toughs wanted to become electricians, while one stunningly beautiful Lake Forest girl "was not about to do homework--she wanted to be cute and stay dumb." In a media-saturated world, "I think they see that they could get instant success like the overnight media sensations, flavors of the month. I think sometimes they forget that it takes hard work and study to create a foundation."
Missbach's current photographs at Bona Fide Gallery center on the girls. Boys are relegated to the periphery, sometimes with their faces hidden, as if they are the girls' fashion accessories. Adolescence manifests itself differently in girls, says Missbach, because of "the nature of our sensibilities. With the emphasis on what is beautiful according to magazines and television and movies, it makes it difficult for girls to turn into confident women."
Several photos taken at the Unitarian camp show kids preparing for "slut night," an event tolerated by the parents in which the girls dress up as sluts, the boys either as pimps or in full drag, complete with socks in their bras--using this in-between stage as "a safe place for trying on this other gender." In Control of the Situation, a boy whose face is hidden by his hair clutches a girl while facing another girl in a doorway; Missbach says he's trying to "win her approval." In Both of Them, two kids sit facing each other in chairs, their legs stretched out so that the girl, who's heavily made up, holds the boy's big toe. We don't see this boy's face, just that of another boy in the background, "also longing for her," Missbach says. The tenuous and uncertain quality of these kids' still-developing physical presence is especially strong in Erin's Room, in which we see the poster-covered walls of a girl's apparently empty room before noticing a barely visible couple, two of her friends, making out on the floor.
Missbach's method is to hang out with the kids, "waiting for a moment that speaks to what I'm interested in." The make-out session "just happened spontaneously" as she was sitting around with Erin and her two friends. "I didn't encourage them to stop." Though Missbach never sets up her photographs, she tries to balance "what exists" with the creation of "my own statement," and will ask subjects to hold a pose so she can frame it, giving "the two-dimensional form of a photograph the spatial elements I'm interested in." In this case, the media imagery on the wall seems to dwarf the kids, providing a kind of sociological statement about "what happens in a room like this."
Among other work, Missbach photographs for Chicago Social, trying to offer documentation that's more spontaneous and candid than the usual society "grip and grin" shots, but her greatest passion is for these photos of teens. Discussing the girl on the Wilson Avenue beach in Snacks, she recalls her own youthful trips to the beach, an hour-and-a-half away using public transit, "because it was the place to be--sand, fun, water, swimming, boys." Noting the triangular arrangements of boys and girls in her work, she remembers that "I tortured myself between two boys too--do I like him or do I like him. Ambivalence was a specialty of mine. I'm better now, but I guess I still question everything." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leah Missbach photo by Dorothy Perry; "Control of the Situation" "Erin's Room".