Visual Culture
These Photographers Captured the Rebellious Youth of the ’80s

From Netflix’s 2016 hit Stranger Things and newcomer GLOW to the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 thriller IT, the entertainment industry has responded to, and pushed forward, a 1980s nostalgia that is gripping all sectors of society. With haute couture designers like Balmain revitalizing shoulder pads, a jean-jacket renaissance, and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy’s recent revival of ’80s punk fashion in Russia, the decade of spandex, the fanny pack, and the boombox is aflame in the cultural mindset.

In the ’80s, new wave and hip hop exploded, graffitied subway cars and gritty nightclubs colored New York City, and John Hughes’s tales of teenage angst like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) seized the big screen. Meanwhile, an energized, punk-infused youth culture developed within the context of the ongoing sexual liberation that began in the ’60s, the AIDS epidemic, and the conservative leadership of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Below are eight photographers who captured the decade’s young people in all their vibrant individuality.


From Meryl Streep to Muhammad Ali, Corman has photographed actors, athletes, and artists from budding stars to major celebrities. He met Madonna through his mother, Cis Corman, a casting director. In 1983, Corman captured the 24-year-old singer’s effortlessly cool energy in 66 Polaroids that he used to pitch her for a role in a never-made film—just one month before she dropped her eponymous first album, Madonna. With her self-styled ripped denim, an armful of black bracelets, cat eyes, and bright-red lips, Madonna looks scintillatingly at the camera. Having sat in Corman’s warehouse for some three decades, the Polaroids ooze nostalgia.


Janette Beckman, Rock Steady Crew, New York City, 1983. © Janette Beckman. Courtesy of the artist.

Janette Beckman, Rock Steady Crew, New York City, 1983. © Janette Beckman. Courtesy of the artist.

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After capturing London’s punk culture through images of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, British-born Beckman made her name shooting hip-hop artists like Salt-N-Pepa and Run D.M.C. in New York, after relocating there in 1982. Beckman also photographed members of an East Los Angeles gang in that decade, continuing her interest in what she has described as “rebel cultures.” Influenced by pioneer documentary photographer August Sander, Beckman humanizes her subjects, letting them determine their own poses within their everyday environments. From a photo of a young man leaning against an old Chevrolet in California to one of hip-hop group UTFO in newsboy caps, tracksuits, and Casio-style watches in Brooklyn, Beckman images can be seen as edifying records of a bygone era.


Picturing kids wearing wide-rimmed square glasses and striped shirts, hanging out on bikes, or holding boomboxes on graffitied New York subway cars, Shabazz’s photographs are unequivocally of a certain era. Beginning in the early ’80s, the Brooklyn-born artist, then in his early twenties, repeatedly journeyed to Harlem, Manhattan, and around Brooklyn to record the “legacies” of the New York City neighborhood’s residents. His photographs capture people of color as individuals, and focus largely on children, adolescents, and young adults. Many of his subjects exhibit individual style that persisted independently from mainstream fashion brands. In one image, two young boys wear lace-up shoes that match their berets, as they stare defiantly out at the viewer.


Derek Ridgers

From 1978 to 1987, Ridgers trolled London’s clubs photographing the punk scene in images filled with brightly colored mohawks and outlandish makeup. More subdued are his black-and-white photos of teens sporting a mix of tattoos, shaved heads, button-up shirts, and suspenders. For five years, Ridgers shot these “skinheads.” The counterculture youth group was connected with racism and fascism but also with the working class, punk, and musical roots that characterized the group’s original iteration in the 1960s. In one 1981 image, a couple embraces at a party in north London’s Stoke Newington area; the girl, a tattoo on her arm and cigarette in her hand, stares dully ahead, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. Ridgers has stated that he “was wallpaper to them,” in reference to his skinhead subjects, most of whom paid him little mind.


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Goldin’s practice, and her work photographing young people, admittedly sprawls across several decades. Her work has explored topics including AIDS, drag culture, physical abuse, and both hetero- and homosexual romantic relationships. Her unguarded portraits of herself and others are testaments to love, loss, and sensual freedom, as she captures often dimly lit, voyeuristic moments that can hover between sorrow and joy. In the ’80s, her snapshots saw bodies go bare, couples hold each other, and Goldin’s lover smoke a cigarette in bed—intimate windows into coming of age in New York City. Among them, her self-portrait, which pictures Golden lying on a bed in her bra and underwear, is set in a classic ’80s bedroom sanctuary.


Sage Sohier, photo from her Americans Seen series. © Sage Sohier. Courtesy of the artist.

Sage Sohier, photo from her Americans Seen series. © Sage Sohier. Courtesy of the artist.

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In 1986, Sohier began shooting and interviewing same-sex couples in their homes in order to combat fear-based conceptions of the gay community that the AIDS crisis had spurred. Radical mundanity takes a different form in her images of Massachusetts teens from the early ’80s. Recently compiled in her monograph Americans Seen (2017), the photographs show young people drinking, smoking, weightlifting, and idly leaning on chain-link fences, passing summer days in activities that sprang from boredom and faded away with the appearance of the internet and smartphones. One striking image of four girls smoking on a South Boston stoop particularly satisfies a mental image of the decade, with cuffed jeans, Keds with high-ankle socks, and polo shirts. The teenagers seem dejected. Then again, as Sohier has stated, “Photographs are almost like a projective surface and people see their own experiences.”


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Morrisroe hustled for extra money in his teens; styled himself as Andy Warhol, among other artists, in a zine that he co-created in the mid-’70s; and later appeared in drag shows. This sexually liberated performativity continues in the some 2,000 photographs that Morrisroe shot before dying from AIDS at age 30 in 1989. Morrisroe was part of the Boston School, a group of classmates from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the city that included Goldin, Pierson (who was once Morrisroe’s lover), and David Armstrong. Nude self-portraits, intimate photos of Pierson, images of young men trying on makeup and personas—Morrisroe recorded everyday episodes in the lives of him and his friends that exude bohemian energy. Many of his works have signatures, titles, dates, and other words scrawled along their borders, making them feel both informal and personal.


Photo by Jack Pierson. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

Photo by Jack Pierson. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

Photo by Jack Pierson. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

Photo by Jack Pierson. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

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Known for the found-text-based sculptures that he began creating in 1990, Pierson also works in drawing, painting, video work, and photography. In the early ’80s, he left New York City soon after moving there from Boston; he felt he was “too late” to the scene, even at 23, because wunderkind NYC artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat were already famous. Pierson lived in and traveled to locations including Miami, Los Angeles, and El Paso, Texas, shooting between 35mm and disposable cameras. Pierson captured men in leather jackets, short-shorts, tank tops, and denim; kitschy shop decor; and friends in their homes. His melancholic, soft-focus photographs of young adults and inanimate objects alike tell of Pierson’s time as a struggling, young artist.

Rachel Lebowitz