Visual Culture

These Photographers Captured the Youth Culture of the Early 2000s

Demie Kim
Sep 22, 2017 5:41PM

If you remember Silly Bandz and Tamagotchi, Team Edward versus Team Jacob, and obsessing over your MySpace Top 8 and AIM away messages, you probably grew up in the early 2000s. As young millennials and Generation Z-ers come of age, a wave of nostalgia for the decade that’s notorious for its bad fashion and auto-tuned music is looming across the internet. Youth culture in the noughties, much like youth culture today, was defined by the rise of technology and consumerism—except then, it was flip phones, iPod Nanos, and Juicy Couture tracksuits that were status symbols amongst high schoolers. It’s also the generation that was raised in the wake of 9/11 and the “War on Terror,” and either graduated college in the midst of, or saw their parents cope with, the nation’s largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. This, along with the predominance of social media and hyper-publicized celebrity culture, created an unprecedented level of social pressures amongst 21st-century youth.

Below, we highlight five photographers who captured the energy and angst of the 2000s generation. Some, like Sandy Kim, are inspired by the snapshot aesthetic of the reigning documentarians of ’90s youth, including Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark, and the late Dash Snow. Others, like Lauren Greenfield and Danielle Levitt, take a closer look at the individual stories behind teenage archetypes.

Danielle Levitt

Danielle Levitt, Rachel 19, Brooklyn, NY, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.


Levitt’s interest in youth culture started young; growing up in Los Angeles, she received her first camera at age 10 and began photographing her friends and eventually, in her teen years, the bohemian subcultures of Venice Beach. Though she started her career in New York as a street style and fashion editorial photographer, she became interested in local youth while traveling around the U.S. as a freelancer and eventually started to approach them to shoot their portraits.

The resulting body of work, published in her 2008 monograph We Are Experienced, features just about every teen tribe, from emo kids, goths, and punks to cheerleaders, jocks, and band geeks. Yet Levitt is conscious to see beyond these stereotypes and builds relationships with her subjects to gain their trust—it’s the opportunity to give the kids a platform that motivates her. “For some of these kids who don’t feel like they’re being heard or being seen, it’s a powerful feeling,” Levitt has said. “I get e-mails from mothers telling how significant the experience was for the kids.”

Ed Templeton, from his series Teenage Smokers, 1994-2015. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts &  Tilton, Los Angeles, California.

Templeton cut his teeth in the ’90s documenting the drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll lifestyle of young skateboarders on tour—a world that was intimately familiar to the professional skateboarder. He then turned his lens to another familiar world, southern California, where he grew up and lives today. Templeton’s photography of candid moments on the streets, from sun-kissed couples to eccentric musicians performing on the pier, is a love letter to the West Coast’s notoriously carefree and hedonistic spirit, as well as its iconic youth culture. His “Teenage Kissers” series (1994–2011), in which young people are entwined in passionate, and sometimes awkward, embraces, seems to have anticipated our contemporary obsession with documenting our private lives on social media. Another, “Teenager Smokers” (1994–2015), features underage smokers from around the world posing with pride, feigned nonchalance, or timidity.

Leeta Harding

Leeta Harding, Scarlett Johansson for Index, 2001. Courtesy of the artist.

A 16-year-old Scarlett Johansson on the brink of staring in cult classic Ghost World (2001), gazing coolly at the camera in a red v-neck tee; the singer and feminist pioneer Kathleen Hanna of the punk “Riot Grrrl” movement, sporting side bangs, pink lipstick, and a high pony; photographer Juergen Teller in the era of his decade-defining Marc Jacobs campaigns. These are just a few of the iconic subjects captured by Harding in the early 2000s, when she was working in downtown New York as a portrait photographer for magazines like Index and Vice. Harding used overexposed film and posed her subjects against bright backgrounds to mimic the fluorescent-hued rave aesthetic of the time. Following a battle with cervical cancer, she eventually left New York and magazine work and shifted her focus to documentary photography in the south.

Photo by Sandy Kim. Courtesy of the artist.

Kim was first noticed for her raw, behind-the-scenes photographs of the San Francisco-based band Girls, whose members she had befriended while living on the West Coast (she’s now based in Brooklyn). The Ryan McGinley protégé is gaining much recognition her photographs, which include nude selfies, intimate moments with her boyfriend, and group shots of her friends partying, all captured in a carefree, unstudied snapshot aesthetic. “She reminds me of when I was young—out partying every night, snapping away so that the pictures can provide evidence of the night,” McGinley has said. “I think my friends enjoy being photographed by me because I’m capturing a time of their youth,” Kim said in 2012. “And just like for me and everyone else 10 years from now, things are going to be different but we’ll have photos to remind us of our wild youth.”

Greenfield began photographing wealthy Los Angeles kids in the early ’90s, embarking on 25-year-long photo project that examined America’s growing obsession with wealth. Her photographs from this era include the young Kardashian children, pre-reality show fame, attending a school dance; Kate Hudson at a bat mitzvah; and kids lounging in pools and hot tubs in the backyards of their Malibu mansions. Another photo from 2007 shows Paris Hilton at the peak of her influence, bedecked in a gold corset and headband and chatting on her Sidekick. Greenfield’s work—which is currently on view at the International Center of Photography—traces the effects of the media and global consumerism on the American Dream, including among young children and teens who strive for unrealistic faces and bodies, and read brand-name clothing as a status symbol.

Demie Kim