David Travis Introduction
From The Age of Adolescence (Los Angeles: Greybull Press, 2005)
Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart.
And they hawkeyed us from the sidelines,
Holding their rulers without a heart.
And so with just a touch of our fingers
I could make our circuitry explode.
All we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold.
—Joni Mitchell, “Come in from the Cold,” 1991
Back in 1957, Joe Sterling turned twenty-one, a real adult. Tall, thin, and painfully shy, this Texan, recently sprung from adolescence and his hometown of El Paso, had come north to study photography in the tough and sophisticated city of Chicago. It was a time of big changes. The Civil Rights movement had begun. Russia launched Sputnik. Cars were growing tail fins. Rock and roll was here to stay. Television was replacing magazines and radio as the mass medium of choice. And youth culture was an established social phenomenon that wanted much more than to come in from the cold.
Unlike many teenagers of his time, even before high school Sterling had a notion of what he wanted to be: a photographer. He proved to be as diligent as he was eager and in Chicago earned a bachelor of science degree in 1959 and a master of science degree in 1962 at the Institute of Design. Even if art school training was unusual in photography and could not be counted on for guaranteed success, it gave him a genuine goal and provided him with an identity.
Goals and identity were troubling for many American adolescents in the 1950s. It was not a difficulty that they had created entirely for themselves, although they were often fully blamed for the behavior resulting from their aimlessness. When acute, it was a problem of such national concern that it had a newly named category of its own: juvenile delinquency. It also developed its own mythic status through the movies. The subject was appearing more and more in films because everyone admitted to there being a “youth problem,” but no one seemed to understand what the problem really was. In portraying Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953), Marlon Brando sought spontaneous weekend kicks with a motorcycle gang to overcome some indeterminate, unnamed anxiety. He rode out from the big city into the countryside rebelling against anything the small, properly named town of Wrightsville had. And two years later in 1955, shortly after playing the role of a high school adolescent, James Dean became the everlasting embodiment of a Rebel Without a Cause (1955) when at the age of twenty-four he was senselessly killed in an accident while speeding his Porsche Spyder to a race.
The age of adolescence—generally from thirteen to nineteen—is, of course, not a figment of a screenwriter’s imagination; rather it is a result of Western industrial societies expecting something different in the way people become adults. In agrarian societies before the mid-nineteenth century, youth was a shorter period than it is now. Young people had preassigned roles within the workforce. And in the Islamic and Jewish religions, ceremonial rites marked the age—twelve or thirteen—when one became responsible to God. In other traditions teenagers were also expected to adhere to long-established cultural roles and responsibilities as they married earlier. Thus, they had little time to become confused about who or what they would become. For most of their lives, they had few choices about their own immediate or distant futures.
Industrial societies changed all that. So did the practice of compulsory education, begun in Britain in 1847. Under these conditions teenagers were isolated within large peer groups at school and were required to stay enrolled longer in order to become productive members of a new, more technologically demanding society. And after World War II, when all social classes in the United States began to prosper like never before, a separate world for teenagers was born, delivering its adolescents from their parents and, as Chuck Berry sang in 1957 in “School Day”: “Hail, hail rock and roll / Deliver me from the days of old.”
The Chicago that Joe Sterling entered when he arrived in the fall of 1956 was a city with a plentitude of the days of old sequestered in its ethnic neighborhoods. In politics Richard J. Daley had been elected mayor in April a year before, and his Democratic Machine was forming itself into a an entity unto itself that would last until he died in office twenty-one years later. Beyond the world of politics, Chicago was home to famous and outstanding figures in the arts such as the architect Mies van der Rohe and Sterling’s own teachers in photography, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. In literature, the city was already famous as a setting for the works of novelists Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Those worlds of politics and fine arts, separate from one another, were even further removed from the world that Chuck Berry walked into at Chess Records on Cottage Grove Avenue just a year before Joe Sterling arrived on the Southside a bit further north. The city’s blues scene boasted three resident legends: Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, all of whom had moved north from Mississippi in 1932, 1943, and 1953 respectively. The city had also attracted younger talents such as Little Walter, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Guy, among many others. But it was Chuck Berry, writing and playing his own songs, who helped create the teen music scene, along with Elvis Presley in Memphis who was covering many black rhythm and blues songs, and set it on fire. It was not a trivial shift of audience; by the end of the 1950s nearly seventy percent of all record sales were to teenagers. The new music and its market only helped to move the worlds of teenagers and their parents further apart.
In 1958, the same year Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode” in Chicago, Elvis Presley gave a concert in the city in front of twelve thousand screaming fans. Hugh Edwards, then fifty-four and the Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago, was in attendance and observed that the audience was not just composed of teenagers. (Berry’s lyrics and music were exclusively written for teenagers. Elvis’s songs often originated from what was once called “race music,” a domain rich in raw, adult lyrics and innuendoes.) Nevertheless, many parents believed that rock and roll music, with its sexually suggestive lyrics and feeling of unrestrained freedom, would turn their otherwise good teenagers into juvenile delinquents. Edwards did not hold that view. He had, in fact, become so fascinated with the vibrancy of the youth culture that for a time he lived in the southern suburb of Harvey in order to make color transparencies and black-and-white photographs of teenagers at a local roller skating rink.
When Robert Frank’s first book Les Américans was published that same year in France, Edwards—who ordered countless books from French publishers—was not puzzled by or critical of it as others were. Rather, he was relieved and said later, “Finally, someone was photographing the kinds of people who should be in pictures.” When the book appeared as The Americans a year later in the United States, it made a huge impression on all photojournalists, as well as on many other kinds of photographers. Not everyone liked Frank’s darker flip side to the sunny view of American prosperity. Some were even incensed by the title, demanding that some summary or universal vision of America was required. An anonymous reviewer in the fine art photography magazine Aperture wrote: “No matter how true the fraction, when the juke box eye on American life is presented as a symbol of the whole, a lie is the flower of truth. A gross lie is ground in with a vengeance.” There was in Frank’s photographs not just a new attitude toward the selection of subject matter, but also a psychological element and a sadness. Consequently, Frank did not strive for universality or even editorial balance. Edwards’s immediate acceptance of The Americans helps to explain why he had such a keen eye for and instant understanding of what Sterling was attempting, even while Sterling was a student. In the spring of 1961, Sterling was hard at work on his thesis project, “The Age of Adolescence,” (first called “The Adolescent Comedy”) when Edwards included a selection of it in an exhibition at The Art Institute with three other young Chicago photographers, Rodney Galarneau, Thomas Knutson, and David Rowinski. That show was immediately followed by Robert Frank’s first solo exhibition in an American museum, organized by Edwards.
The Art Institute exhibit that included Sterling’s work prompted Aperture (9:25, 1961) to publish a selection of photographs by Sterling and four other ID graduates, Ken Josephson, Charles Swedlund, Ray K. Metzker, and Joseph Jachna, stating: “…only in Chicago does the city art museum acknowledge ‘arrival’ with a public exhibition.” It was Sterling’s first national exposure, a rare opportunity for someone at the very beginning of a career. Although Sterling’s work was the closest to Frank’s of the group, it did not have the same despondent tone that many people claimed was Frank’s condemnation of what he saw America becoming. Frank’s attitude closely paralleled Beat poetry, such as Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” from 1956, which was the anthem of that outlook if there was one:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix….
who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish….
But Ginsberg’s revolution was for selected adults. Perhaps not even one of the teenagers in Sterling’s photographs was headed for it, as only a small segment within the vast capitalistic empire of American commerce felt its pull. For Sterling’s teenagers life was more a matter of immediate hormonal urges or familial frustrations, as Little Richard’s own howls revealed in 1958 in “Good Golly Miss Molly”:
From the early, early mornin' till the early, early night
You can see Miss Molly rockin' at the house of blue lights.
Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball.
When you're rockin' and a rollin' can't hear your momma call.
When we look at Sterling’s photographs of adolescents now, we can see them as bits of a sentimental past if we choose to. After all, as documentary photographs age, nostalgia is a difficult category for them to avoid. What Sterling tried to do—at the urging of Aaron Siskind, his graduate thesis advisor—was to see what was right in front of him: the pose and visual façade of teenagers, which was as much a part of their adolescent identity as any of their inner anguish. After conquering his fear of coming face-to-face with his subjects, the photographic approach Sterling employed was informed by four factors that had developed in the 1950s. The first factor was the notion that photography was still a reliable and believable medium of reportage, as exemplified by the photographs that appeared weekly in magazines such as Life that Sterling absorbed in El Paso as did millions of other Americans nationwide. The second was the complete grounding in visual education, especially the design elements of constructing a picture, that he received at the Institute of Design through the enlightened programs initiated by László Moholy-Nagy in 1937. A third influence was undoubtedly Henri Cartier-Bresson’s masterful 1952 book The Decisive Moment, which clarified what good photojournalism was. And the last influence, just beginning to make itself felt, was the darker, psychological dimension dominating nearly every image of Frank’s work.
Even with the weight of these factors bearing down on him, Sterling still managed to find his own style and approach. This is undoubtedly because he was fully immersed in a subject so much bigger than he was. He thought about and lived among his subjects for years. If subsumed by them, he was not disoriented, even after taking twenty thousand photographs. His experience with adolescence was recent enough to draw upon, evaluate, and set a course from. And being just a few years older than his subjects, Sterling had a real sympathy for their dilemmas, perhaps still sharing a few of them himself.
Although the urban environment of Chicago is the focus of most of Sterling’s photographs, here and there we sense the hint of a drier West Texas solitude, something not recorded in the lively dance beat or passionate lyrics of the music that we assume so thoroughly infused his subjects. Sterling was adjusting to his subject, finding sense in something that was isolated, uncertain, and self-absorbed. As he wrote in Aperture, “… the world of the adolescent is totally interlaced within itself and incapable of freeing itself… But this world will grow, move on and be assimilated.” The sequence he described was, of course, the one he himself was on.
If adolescence in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a rising tide of confused identity, the period ahead would prove to be a tidal wave of emotional upheaval. The year 1964 brought a new element to the American rock and roll scene: the British Invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which would become another choice between hygienic lyrics and those prompted by lascivious blues songs. But as the teenagers in Sterling’s photographs moved on into the decade, they would be forced to face bigger issues such as using oral contraceptives and psychedelic drugs, as well as their political position on the escalating war in Vietnam. Again, popular songs would reflect their moods and dilemmas. In August 1965 Barry McGuire’s song “Eve of Destruction” topped the charts. The anti-war lyrics, unlike Bob Dylan’s, were not metaphoric but direct: “You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’ / You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’.” Shortly afterwards, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler answered by singing the patriotic “Ballad of the Green Berets,” which also shot up the charts illustrating how conflicted the country was. On a more personal front, Jimi Hendrix, sang openly about love and the influence of drugs that created Purple Haze at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival: “Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why / ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Finally, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the race and police riots in 1968, it becomes obvious that the teenagers we see in Sterling’s photographs represent something more than they themselves thought they were: the end of the innocence of American youth.
When linked to the serious issues of the time, we may wonder how valid mere photographs are. We might as well ask how real are the lyrics of rock and roll songs or the emotions of young girls screaming their lungs out during the first American performances of the Beatles. They are, indeed, expressions of something undeniably real, even if they are necessarily simplifications of a rapidly evolving and highly complicated cultural phenomenon. Although nothing in life, love, memory, or art is as simple as we ask pictures—and especially song lyrics—to make them, we nevertheless allow them to persist. Through them we describe or remember reality, imagining as we make them, that they help us control our fears and passions. Thus, we need them in the same way we need fairytales and fables.
The quiet, withdrawn, self-reflective nature of some of Sterling’s pictures is, most likely, a partial portrait of the photographer. In those instances, the photographer may see in other faces or postures more of what he is himself than what his subjects are. The fact that Sterling is, so to speak, in some of his pictures as much as his subjects are is what keeps the best of his photographs from becoming simple, nostalgic postcards of a time gone by. Being inside and outside in this way creates a complex dilemma for anyone who grew up with Life magazine and the idea that photographs show us the world as it is. But as Frank said in 1958 just before Sterling began his heroic series, “It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.” Back in 1957 when Frank was making his heroic series, this attitude of internal recognition was a new and suspect idea for most photojournalists. However, it seems some of this revolutionary view got through the formalistic strictures of the instruction program at the Institute of Design, at least in the eyes of one graduate student. And why not? It was a time of big changes. By allowing a subjective approach to alter how he used a medium that was honored for its cool, impersonal objectivity, Joseph Sterling found a way to come in from the cold and make his photographic circuitry explode.
© David Travis, 2005
Curator of Photography
The Art Institute of Chicago