Deanna Templeton, What She Said

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Embossed linen hardback with tipped-in cover photograph, 19.5 x 24.5 centimeters, 168 pages, with 114 reproductions in monochrome and color and an essay by the artist. Designed by the artist, Ed Templeton, and Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Deanna Templeton (née Deanna Michelle Sola) was born in 1969. As a member of Generation X, she enjoyed a unique perspective on the digital world, with a lifespan roughly straddling the watershed between analog and computers. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to remember something, you put it on paper. Perhaps it is still that way for some, but most have shifted to more forgettable forms. The bygone paper world included diaries, schedules, addresses, ticket stubs, fliers, photographs, and all the other accoutrements of daily life. Templeton collected thousands of such mementos during her adolescence. These papers were eventually shuffled off into storage, “stuffed into envelopes and boxes and hidden away in a closet, a closed chapter, to be forgotten…” At least for a little while.

As the artifacts of her past sedimented into history, Templeton embarked on her future path as a photographer. Part of her artistic practice involved making portraits of strangers encountered in passing. She was especially drawn to teenage girls. Some of these photographs were collected in her early monograph Scratch Your Name On My Arm. But the teen portrait project remained somewhat amorphous and open-ended. She continued to photograph young women, but “with no particular plan for what I would do with the images.” 

It was perhaps inevitable that these two strands—old archives and contemporary explorations—would eventually braid into one. In a spate of nostalgia, Templeton decided several years ago to dig into her old papers. What she found there helped to unlock the mystery of her portrait work. “I came to a striking realization,” she writes. “[These women] were either me when I was that age, or what I wished I could have been—beautiful, strong, independent bad-asses.” 

Templeton’s epiphany has now precipitated a monograph. What She Said (titled from an old Smiths’ lyric) combines physical ephemera from Templeton’s teen years with her portraits of girls shot at roughly the same age. Considering the variety of original dates and sources, the blend is surprisingly seamless. Templeton sets the tone early on with a teen selfie, the first photo in the book alongside her heartfelt introduction. Sitting behind the wheel with blank stare and snotty nose, she is a caricature of teen angst and uncertainty. If she has taken liberties with her own visage that she would not impose on her subjects, that’s just fine, for the picture gets its point across: Templeton was adrift. 

Sequenced in chronological order, Templeton’s journal entries scaffold a natural framework for What She Said’s material, which quickly settles into a varied rhythm of teen portraits, diary entries, and concert fliers. The diaries span mid 1984 though mid 1988 (ages 15-19). Some are excerpted into typewritten blurbs while others are shown as facsimiles of the original pages. For many journals, Templeton favored pages with an impossibly hot pink hue, a color adapted by MACK for the cover and end pages. When laced with loopy handwriting and phrases like “Hates school”, “Ugly. Fat. Zits.” and “God it’s so damn boring!” they outline a blunt archetype of suburban teen malaise.

Every adolescence has its awkward moments, and Templeton was unexceptional in this regard. Her diary entries musing about fickle friendships, sexual prospects, and recreational drugs might be found in any teen journal. But Templeton’s alienation careened into darker territory. Her daily writings plunge into hopelessness, suicide clinical depression, even going as far as crafting a handwritten will directed to “Mom, Dad, Joey, and anyone else that matters.” Reviewing these old notebooks from the comfortable distance of middle age, she writes, “I wished I could go back and hug that person and tell her she’s going to be all right.”

Music provided some solace for Templeton. She lived in Huntington Beach, and the active clubs of Los Angeles were an easy drive away. Her brief journal entries describe Templeton out on the town many nights, and the book supplements this material with reproductions of period fliers (improbably saved from the dustbin). For musicphiles of a certain age, the quality of concerts advertised is mouth-watering. PiL, Butthole Surfers, Weirdos, Ramones, Motorhead, Jane’s Addiction, Nina Hagen, and RHCP are among the highlights. Diary entries reference her adventures in clipped language, the bare bones of what must have been immersive experiences. October 13th, 1984, Social Distortion at Fenders…June 27th, 1985. The Smiths at Hollywood Palladium. Went with Jill…Love-n-Terror. They sucked! What a waste. P.S. Stacey’s a bitch. 

Music has always provided a sense of personal identity for teenagers. Punk, thrash, and goth owe some of their popularity to their defiant spirit, a chronic beacon for disaffected youth. The clothing worn by Templeton’s subjects declares various band affinities. A girl in a Circle Jerks T-shirt smiles warmly at Templeton. Another sports a patch for The Unseen near her skateboard. There’s a girl with Beat Massacre T-shirt to match her split-dyed hair. Iron Maiden makes an appearance, as does a generic call for “Death Metal”, along with Rancid, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, The Clash, and others. As far as I can tell, there is no band called “TEEN CUNT”, but for the purpose of a young girl’s T-shirt, it may as well be one. Templeton finds a dyed blonde teen boasting this phrase across her chest to go with her painted nails and 32 oz Starbucks smoothie. In the book her photo sits across the spread from a flier advertising Meat Puppets, Scratch Acid, and Firehose. All of the words seem generally interchangeable as fractious signifiers, as do the book’s various other fashion accessories: studs, chains, piercings, dyes, rips, and graffiti.

Templeton’s visual style is snappy and casual. Her subjects are shot as found, generally in public settings, and they appear to involve little primping, lighting or prep, just “Nice to meet you and look at me please”. One might think that such fleeting technique would unearth mere surface level revelations, and for some of her photos that is true. But as a whole they exhibit surprising depth, a reminder that when artifice is cast aside, reality can be laid bare. Some subjects smile. Some are expressionless. Almost all of them stare directly into Templeton’s camera. They might not be sure exactly what she is looking for, but they’re willing to give something of themselves. Their open mood dovetails nicely with Templeton’s diaries, which are frank and vulnerable.

With no captions, names, or locations, What She Said’s portraits are rather rootless on their own. They have no dates, nor visible signs of technology on which to make an educated guess. In this form, the pictures can be harnessed to any project. Templeton has cast them as stand-ins for her teenage self, but they might also be a general adumbration for teen ennui. This is of course a rich topic for artists in all media, from Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye to James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause to The Who’s Teenage Wasteland to the photographic books of Lauren Greenfield, Joseph Szabo, Rania Matar, and Jim Goldberg. 

What She Said is created in the same spirit. This is the photographic equivalent of a coming-of-age memoir, but told visually through strangers. Just as Templeton views her own past through the prism of others, the reader might think of their own adolescence while reading What She Said. This was certainly my experience. Not only did my teenage years coincide almost exactly with Templeton’s, I now have three teen boys of my own. So far—fingers crossed—their adolescence has been less volatile than hers or mine. In any case, that period is now alien to me. I am 52. What do I know of teen life, especially one which is now largely digital? Templeton’s book opens a fresh channel into youth. For a middle-aged parent like myself, it’s a thought-provoking twist on self and otherhood.

Templeton scatters a few breadcrumbs teasing the reader into the present. Her mother had given her a camera at age 15, and a journal entry from 9/30/86 mentions a burgeoning interest in photography. “I don’t know what I want to do,” she writes. “1/2 of me wants to be a photographer, take pictures of bands and beautiful things. 1/2 of me wants to quit.” 

She had the same indecisiveness with boys. A series of crushes, flings, and misfires eventually leads her to a boy named “Ed”, three years younger. As the book closes, things with Ed are becoming more serious. This is of course Ed Templeton, the noted skateboarder/photographer/artist whom she would marry a few years later, taking his last name, and perhaps a few lessons from his coming-of-age monograph Deformer. A bedroom snapshot of Ed and Deanna posing happily portends a brighter future, and the book closes with some smiling shots of Deanna herself. A note to her parents attempts to patch things up: “Mommy and Daddy, I’m sorry for making your life what I imagine was a living hell when I was a teen.” After so many pages of aimless gloom this rather upbeat coda seems like a misfit. But it lends the entire book a welcome narrative arc. The back cover has a small imprint of a compass rose, a sign that the author has found her bearings, and landed on her feet. 

Collector’s POV: Deanna Templeton is represented by Gallery Fifty One in Antwerp (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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