For many, adolescence is a fraught, even harrowing chapter of life, a shaky bridge into adulthood that is marked by abortive identity trials and the multiple wounds inflicted by a hard, indifferent world on fading innocence. Looking back, Paris-based Australian Vee Speers understood that she had been ill-prepared for that passage, and last year she addressed it in her series Bulletproof. She had previously done a portrait series, Birthday Party, on her younger children and their friends — gravely posing against a flat white background, Avedon-style, while oddly garbed in clothing, props, and masks scavenged from Paris flea markets. Curious to see how her subjects had matured into teenagers, Speers tracked them down and conjured a sequel — reminding us of Michael Apted’s lifelong documentary project Seven Up! (He famously documented the lives of British children every seven years, on into old age.) It also recalls Nicholas Nixon’s annual photo chronicling of four sisters, though Speers takes a wholly unique approach. In Bulletproof, she assembled a symbolic “army of adolescents” by armoring them, in effect, with defensive accoutrements more notional than actual. The meaning that emerges has as much to do with the heartbreaking wobbliness and vulnerability of youth as it does the often comedic figures and their literal, specific appearance. Speers combines the formidable powers of costume, found objects, and animal imagery (she works regularly with a taxidermist) to lend the game teens a mythical aspect, individual personas melting into winsome archetypes. Given the hybrid human-fauna menagerie she creates with her models, it’s no surprise that she was “marked for life” by George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
W.C. Fields supposedly warned against working with animals or children, citing their hard-to-manage unpredictability. But Speers is adept at making the most of her young cast’s malleable and energizing assets.
We have to give children more credit. I think children are sublime and working with them is a real pleasure. But I’ve learned that you can’t take a long time; you’ve got to get that shot and finish quickly. Children are impatient and need to move on. You can’t dillydally, and you have to keep the energy high.
Speers relies on their spontaneity and enthusiasm, and tries to make her shoots more of a game than a job. As for technique, she shoots black-and-white (using Polaroids to work out the compositions) then adds desaturated color in Photoshop, giving the images a vintage hand-colored look that is ethereal yet empowering. Speers’s background in film and television is reflected in her work as a photographer, primarily in how she approaches narrative threads and “creating something from nothing, as you do on a film set, going from nothing to something that is completely fabricated.” Although her work stays close to home (brothels in her Paris neighborhood, people she encounters on the Metro, her children, etc.), she does not merely mirror the world but always rides along a story concept to a point where her imagination, and to some extent that of her subjects, is given free rein in the staging. She sometimes fiddles with conventional gender boundaries, as with a boy in a tutu or a girl brandishing a pistol, one more chance ingredient in an evolving mix that surprises her as much as it does us.
Vee Speers will display a new series, Botanica, at Photo London (May 19–22) with the Photographers Gallery, and another new series, Dystopia, later in the year at Paris Photo (November 10–13).
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