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Deanna Templeton, What She Said
BarbaraPhotography Deanna Templeton

Deanna Templeton’s photographs of California’s teen misfits

Turning to photography as a way to escape the growing pains of bittersweet adolescence in the 80s, Templeton’s work is now set to go on display in her hometown

When Deanna Templeton started taking pictures in 1985 on a Canon T90 camera her mother bought for her, she had no grand plans to become a photographer. As many teenagers do, she started shooting her surroundings as a way to cope with them; she shot the people she met on the streets and the punk shows she would go to in Los Angeles as a way to escape the growing pains of life in the suburbs of Huntington Beach, California, where she grew up. She also wrote about her experiences during that time in a diary.

As her photographic practice would develop over the next 30 years, Templeton amassed an extensive collection of portraits of young women – some directed, others not – that she would approach in the street. At first, Templeton didn’t understand what it was that drew her to these girls – archetypal misfits – but gradually they took on a personal meaning for the artist, as she realised they were extended self-portraits. Something in them resonated with her own feelings at that age. Her identification with their awkwardness, and at the same time, their need to be noticed, is portrayed with candour and empathy through her lens. The powerful exchange between subject and photographer is visible in the way the girls gaze back at Templeton’s camera.

Now, a selection of Templeton’s portraits of girls on the cusp of womanhood are going on show for the first time as an exhibition, What She Said (the title taken from The Smiths’ song of the same name), at Los Angeles’ Big Little Man Gallery, along with extracts from Templeton’s personal teenage diary in the mid to late 80s.

“I’m tired of all this bullshit, but no one seems to understand. I’m tired of being ugly and overweight.” She writes in one entry on 30th November 1986. “I’ll never be truly happy until I’m skinny.” Concludes another. The journal captures the gut-wrenching agony of being a teenager with the searing kind of honesty that can’t come from an adult, from arguments with her parents, the migraines she suffering hating school, feeling uncomfortable in her own skin, her first sexual experiences and suicidal thoughts, they are platitudes of adolescence, full of melodrama yet deeply empathetic. Placed next to portraits Templeton shot from the last decade and half, What She Said is an insight into the personal and collective experiences that bind us.

Rather than treating teenhood with nostalgia, Templeton’s perspective as an adult looking back is wistful: Times change but there are some things that don’t. There’s a sense of relief in her images that comes from getting through it. “As someone who survived a bumpy transition into adulthood, I hope that this look into my teen-aged mindset and dramas along with these modern girls evolving into womanhood will give hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we will all look back and smile at how intense life felt at that age,” Templeton explains. The therapeutic benefits of her art making are evident in the works of What She Said.

For Templeton, art and music were a refuge and a saviour. In the 1990s she started making zines, one of the pioneers of California’s self-publishing scene, an aesthetic that is still pervasive in youth and counterculture today. Templeton was one of the few female photographers of her day creating visual documents of teenage life – sex, relationships and subcultures of a neoliberal generation – predominantly focused on girls and their interactions with the world.

What She Said opens on June 25 and runs to July 31st at Big Little Man Gallery, Los Angeles. A book with Little Big Man Gallery will be published in conjunction with the exhibition