These 8 Photographers Captured the Youth Culture of the ’90s
It’s hard to imagine the 1990s without Corinne Day’s portrait of a forlorn, 15-year-old Kate Moss striking a pose in skimpy silk underwear, following a fight with her then-boyfriend. Or Larry Clark’s decade-defining film Kids (1995), which blew the lid off a drug-fueled, sex-obsessed band of New York City teenagers. In the ’90s, documenting real life became increasingly en vogue, for better or for worse. Fashion shoots favored grunge over glamorized, staged tableaux, and photographers pointed their lenses to their realities and the fraught issues of the time—including identity politics and the AIDS crisis, among others. In the midst of our current nostalgia for the 20th century’s final decade, and the last generation to experience a world without omnipresent technology, we look to eight photographers who captured the zeitgeist of ’90s youth.
Salinger’s 1995 photography series “Teenagers in Their Bedrooms” sees American minors proudly manning their personal, parents-free shrines: their bedrooms. Over a period of two years, Salinger photographed 43 strangers she met in restaurants and shopping malls, primarily in upstate New York, asking them to pose in their respective private quarters. With every square inch plastered with paraphernalia—posters of heavy metal bands, punk show flyers, Thrasher magazine covers, and stacks of stuffed animals—the rooms reflect the coming of age of ’90s teens, preserving a way of life that is a far cry from the behaviors of the iPhone-wielding, Pokémon Go-chasing millennial.
In the spring of 1990, the young model-turned-photographer fixed her eyes on a Polaroid of an unknown, 14-year-old teenager, stashed among the books of a London modeling agency. Day brought the image to Phil Bicker, art director of cult British magazine The Face, who then commissioned a shoot. Within months, Day’s photograph of a carefree Kate Moss sans makeup—one of the first published fashion photographs of the soon-to-be supermodel—covered the magazine’s July issue. “She didn’t know how to model, and that’s what I’d been looking for,” said Day, whose raw, hard-edged documentary images would revolutionize fashion photography. Swapping glamour for grunge, Day photographed models with smudged mascara and straggly hair, capturing the music and freedom-hungry spirit of ’90s youth in the context of fashion photography.
Few artists better encapsulate the untamed beauty of youth than McGinley, whose snapshots today see skin-and-bones teenagers tree-climbing, cave-diving, cliff-jumping—wearing nothing but smiles and the occasional tattoos or battle scars. McGinley himself came of age in late ’90s New York City, where he settled into an underground East Village community of graffiti artists, skateboarders, and artists (Dan Colen and Dash Snow among them), who quickly fell behind the lens of his Yashica T4 point-and-shoot. These diaristic photographs of friends and lovers—rolling joints, having sex, tagging buildings, skinnydipping—culminated in his self-published book The Kids Are Alright (2000), which he mailed to 100 magazine editors and artists. These grainy, 35mm images immortalized the youthful hedonism of ’90s and catapulted McGinley forcefully into the new millennium. In the years that followed, his work would soon evolve from documenting friends to more precise and choreographed situations.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin said of the seminal 1985–86 slideshow that chronicled her life in New York in the ’70s and ’80s. Filled with some 700 intimate 35mm snapshots of youth—drag queens making out in bars, men and women suffering from domestic violence and AIDS, couples fighting, having orgasms, or shooting up heroin—the work bolstered the raw and confessional documentary photography that would spread its wings in the following decade. By the ’90s, most of her Ballad subjects had sadly passed away due to AIDS or drug overdose, but Goldin, and the wealth of photographers she’d inspired, forged strongly ahead. Her images ranged from tender portraits of friends living with and dying from AIDS, to snapshots of young drag queens, to the gaunt and dark-eyed portrait of 16-year-old supermodel James King that is credited (to Goldin’s chagrin) with the “heroin chic” trend of ’90s fashion photography.
Much of the confessional, documentary-style depictions of ‘90s youth—Day’s, McGinley’s, and Goldin’s photographs among them—were sparked by Clark. In his breakout 1971 photobook Tulsa he bared his own teenage life in the mid-’60s; No shots of sex, violence, or pals shooting up speed hit the cutting-room floor. But it was his 1995 cult film Kids that came to define an era of youth culture in New York City, bringing unseen teenage nihilism to the silver screen. The film follows a group of underage, sex-crazed skateboarders on a 24-hour spin through Manhattan at the height of the AIDS crisis, drinking, smoking weed, and deflowering virgins in what has become known as the definitive portrayal of a troubled ’90s youth. The photos above were taken while scouting the film, like the profile of a 19-year-old Chloë Sevigny, the decade’s undisputed it-girl.
Tillmans began his career shooting London’s and Berlin’s underground techno and rave scenes in the early ’90s. His gigantic photographs of male and female genitalia from that time currently hang in the Panorama Bar of Berghain in Berlin, arguably the world’s most legendary nightclub, where he is reportedly the only person spared the strict “no photos” decree. From intimate portraits of sinewy club kids to erotic closeups of gay sex, his analog, diaristic snapshots of youth and LGBT subcultures came to define the spirit of an emerging generation pushing for peace and gay rights. Published in magazines like i-D, Purple, and The Face and showed in galleries and museums all over the world, Tillmans’s photographs from the ’90s ultimately led to his taking home the Turner Prize (as the first photographer and the first non-Brit) at the close of the decade.
For nearly three decades, Schorr has snapped portraits of budding adolescents, from gangly high-school wrestlers in New Jersey to baby-faced teenage boys suited up like Nazi soldiers in a southern town of Germany. In the ’90s, androgynous young men became her subject matter of choice. “The pressure not to represent women in the ’80s was so strong where I was coming from,” she once said. “I felt like there was a real problem with how women had been packaged and sold back to women. I didn’t have a sense of how to solve that problem so I completely avoided dealing with women as a subject in my work. So any anxiety, desire or aggression I felt I directed towards boys, who seemed oblivious and quite safe under the scrutiny.” Her gender-bending subjects—often with waify figures and androgynous clothes—strip male and female binaries from art and fashion, which is telling of the time, in which fluid definitions of sexuality were embraced by American youth.
Snow picked up a stolen Polaroid camera at age 16 to record nights he otherwise wouldn’t remember—and never put it down. Almost two decades later, the infinite stacks of instant film (some 8,000 photographs) are mementos of the life of the young artist—who died from an overdose in 2009—and forgotten nights throughout New York’s downtown art scene. Filled with images of sex, drugs, blood, and vomit, they chart the escapades of Snow, often pictured in the frame with tattoos and waist-length blond hair, and his tribe of twentysomething artist friends. And while the Polaroids offer an explicit view of the youth culture of the ’90s, Snow was quick to acknowledge the legacy of Clark: “If you ever think you’re good at taking pictures, all you have to do is take a look at Larry Clark’s Tulsa or Teenage Lust, and you’ll realise there’s someone out there who is so much better.”