Nina Leen

Whenever I start admiring a nearly candid, vintage photograph of teenagers I inevitably learn that the photographer was Nina Leen. A prolific photographer who worked for LIFE magazine from the 1940s through 1972 her body of work is quite diverse: early animal portraits at the Bronx Zoo, candids of families, even movie stars such as Lauren Bacall were captured by her lens. Despite being a contract photographer for LIFE she is often remembered as one of the "first female staff photographers of LIFE magazine;" an accomplishment whether she was contract or staff anyway since in that time she shot more than 50 covers and countless photo essays. With her diverse and enormous collection of work to draw inspiration from I'm certain I'll be featuring Nina Leen again, but today my focus is on those teenage portraits starting in 1944. In many ways, "the American Teenager" (one of the biggest subjects of movies and television, and targets of advertising) emerged in the 1940s. While people always hit the teens numerically the modern notion of a teenage stage--separate from childhood and adulthood--did not emerge until after the Great Depression.
Most of these photographs come from a series by Nina Leen focusing on 12 girls in a suburb of St. Louis. It's an interesting reflection on how the idealized teen years were viewed in the mid-1940s; even the accompanying article states, "there is a time in the life of every American girl when the most important thing in the world is to be one of a crowd of other girls and to act and speak and dress exactly as they do." In some ways the need for community and common threads has not changed in the intervening years, but in more substantial ways the simple summary of life as easy and happy (not to mention upper middle class and white) is obnoxiously limited. One final note from the article states that these teenage girls will eventually become "the most attractive women in the world" and while that is frighteningly nationalistic, I'm in admiration of the distinction between these young women and actual adult women--our current trend is to push younger and younger girls onto the runway and into roles as romantic leads in movies, editorials, etc, is making me wonder if the line between teenager and adult is once more blurred beyond recognition. Aside from more serious thoughts, this series satisfies the voyeur in me and my admiration for vintage fashion...


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