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Artist Charlie White’s Study Of Teenage Girls

Charlie White's

Above: Charlie White's "Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #1,: 2008 Chromogenic Print, 67,3 x 91, 5 cm


Artist Charlie White's multi-year project "The Girl Studies" explores teenage girl culture in the most unexpected ways. We'll talk with the photographer and filmmaker who's work is currently on view a the San Diego State University Art Gallery.

The exhibit "She: In Her Teens and Twenties" runs through December 4th at the University Art Gallery on the campus of San Diego State. Charlie White will present an illustrated public lecture tonight at 7:00 p.m. in Room 412 of the School of Art, Design and Art History.

Artist Charlie White's multi-year project "The Girl Studies" explores teenage girl culture in the most unexpected ways. We'll talk with the photographer and filmmaker who's work is currently on view a the San Diego State University Art Gallery.

You can see the "Mall" portion of "OMG BFF LOL" on our KPBS arts blog, Culture Lust.


Charlie White is a visual artist who's work is currently on view at the University Art Gallery at San Diego State. He's the director of the MFA program at USC's Roski School of Fine Arts.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to these on KPBS. Two teenage girls at the mall gushing over shoes and clothes shopping until they drop of it's a familiar image that's easy to laugh at and dismiss. But photographer Charley white would like us all to take a closer look at girl culture in America. His studies on middle class American girls show the teenagers in a new light, one that's more complex and slightly darker than the usual images would suggest. Charley whites a visual artist whose work is currently on view at the university art gallery at San Diego state. These the director of the MFA program at the Roski school of fine arts, Charley welcome to to These Days.

CHARLIE WHITE: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now the project that you've been working on since the early two thousands is called the girl studies and it encompasses film and photography and animation.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why explore the culture of teenage girls.

CHARLIE WHITE: Well, you know, I ultimately began looking at certain representations of adlesepts and then that evolved within my photography to looking at a specific single portrait of a girl, and that actually went from a single goal of making a portrait of one single adolescent girl to a study. Which was substantial because it was born out of meeting a young woman to take her portrait. In fact the portrait didn't work out. But in meeting her, she returned to my producer, who helps me organize the shoots and said oh, that was really fun. And we had met the parents, and the parents had seen my studio. And it kind of opened a door in which I invited her to be part of a much larger project. And from that in 2004 was born the Cyrilla Strothers project, which was a two-year study -- how to photograph her, and they photographed her every day from the age of 16, first day of 11th grade to her senior prom.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are like a thousand photographs.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Whoa, whoa. What did you begin to learn about girl culture in America?

CHARLIE WHITE: Well, one thing was, keep in mind that it was a highly subjectified process. I wasn't the one photographing. So it was gonna be limited to ultimately what Cyrilla would allow, ultimately in terms of time, what she would allow to have happen to her or her brothers or her mother, and what they would want to look at, so there is it a kind of lens that I was looking through, that was of the family and the friends and what it came out to be was pattern. I saw pattern. That's what I first realize is that from the human pattern in terms of her mother who was actually photographing her sleeping to her kind of malaise, an adolescent malaise, and an adolescent melancholy. School fell out really early. It became a place where she wasn't photographed a lot. And I got a lot of free time which was shopping in the mall and eating and a lot of house time, which was being in her bedroom, and eating.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you've begun to think that teenage girls play a pivotal role in our larger culture in America. Tell us a little bit about that.

CHARLIE WHITE: Well, what Cyrilla seemed to be an example of was a kind of period of extreme agency that a young woman can have. Of the and that agency afforded her a certain power, but that power was found in kind of her adolescent consumer identity. And her adult qualities, keeping in mind there's a begin defense as we know between a 15 and 16-year-old girl, and a 15 and 16-year-old boy. And they -- what seemed to come to the surface was how the teen girl is a symbol. It's a symbol of something in America that both speaks directly to consumerism and capitalism and to kind of power and beauty. Or is used as a example of power and beauty. So you're dealing with a iconic image, and then I wanted to play upon that iconic image. In fact, I wanted to be narrow. I wanted it to focus on the white blonde ideal and look at that. And that's complicated. Today, that's really complicated to do. But if one can do it in a manner that's very transparent, I think that it exposes what's problematic about it as much as what's desirable about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, so often in American culture it is the young boy, and his potential, that's seen as the ideal and the box of so much that we think of as American. And yet at the same time you find this very specific type of American teenaged girl as being a microcosm of so much that's actually going on in our culture.

CHARLIE WHITE: That's right. That's right. Also, let's just think in terms of popular imagery, he's actually a product to sell to girls. So the girl is ultimately again in the center as the cult of youth grows, the power of the young woman grows. So when you have -- especially keep in mind, this is 04 to 06, so we're in an extremely rich period of economic strength and growth in America. So a compendium to studying Cyrilla, I actually collected every teen and glamour magazine with blonde business on the cover for the exact same period of time for two years so I have an archive of this, and what's interesting when you flip through that is, Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton, the kind of role of the princess American girl was highly elevated in this period. And this is something that's Cyrilla played off of. This was the zeitgeist.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now a few of your pieces from the girl studies are on view as I say at -- let's talk about OMG BFF LOL. Would you describe this series for our listeners.

CHARLIE WHITE: Sure. It's a fake, for all intents and purposes, series from scenes from a nonexistent cartoon. It is one part of what was born out of the research imagery from Cyrilla. There was a film called American minor, there was a toon called OMG, BFF, LOL. And there were a series of paragraphs, all of which came out of looking at and understanding adolescent girl culture through Cyrilla. And OMG BFF LOL is kind of the ugliest most popular form of representation. So one of the things I'm looking at is a kind of Mary Kate and Ashley type, but I'm also looking at a kind of flat, and I mean this figuratively, not literally, but very two-dimensional representation of the young girl to be sold back to the young girl as a form of identification. So I took that as a pretense and then used it as a vessel to carry slightly complex information. So inside of these three scenes, which are very small, a three-minute a two-minute and a one minute issue I wouldn't call them hidden messages I would just say that they operate like a codex to other information.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now I want to let everyone know that bodies seeing these pieces at SDSU's gallery, you can see it at our culturus blog. Of and you advise people to see the mall animation first.

CHARLIE WHITE: Yes, absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that as you describe it is very much like a Saturday morning cartoon at least in a superficial level.

CHARLIE WHITE: That's right.


CHARLIE WHITE: It's funny. However, and this is where you kind of get caught up in the process of looking at something and accepting it for what you see instead of what you hear what you're made to think about. They're actually carrying in their dialogue a kind of a complex Marxist track. I mean, they're talking about consumer fetish and materialism in a complex way. So their jokey banter of is it better to want than to have, I love to have but, you know, I also like to want, and wanting is kind of hell, and having is heaven. These things are ultimately become far more complicated as you give them a little bit of time and allow them to sink in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the two other parts of OMG BFF LOL have the girls separate.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One in the bedroom and one in the bathroom, and those are not necessarily very fun snow not at all. No. They are a cartoon version of that melancholy. So you have what I think everyone understands about adolescents, which is isolation and boredom. And then the other is the kind of abstract emotional out first. So in the case of terra in her bedroom for two minutes she's doing nothing as hours go by. And that's very unlike a cartoon. There's no script. And then when Blaky is alone in the bathroom, she's simply crying for one minute. And it's a way of kind of following, if you will, this character that's very flat or has been flattened into something that's very two-dimensional and walking away from the center into the margins and seeing what they're like. So I think that at first glance come is exactly how it's supposed to operate. This is a dismissible flat meaningless thing. And if one looks at it once again and gives it a little bit of time, they realize it's carrying a complicated or it's more than expected critique inside of its contents.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with visual artist Charley white whose work is currently on view in the exhibit She and her teens and twenties. Of it's on view at the university art gallery at San Diego state. We've just been talking about his animated series, series of three animated shorts, OMG BFF LOL. I'm wondering, Charley, what do you think that you've learned about the marketing machine that is directed towards teenaged girls and their acceptance of it?

CHARLIE WHITE: Well, one thing that's true, I think in our culture and our culture I would define as primarily puritanical culture is that if you were to compare 16 across both genders the 16-year-old boy is given a body that can be active as an idea. So they are either mental active in the sense of video games and war games and bicycles and skate boards, but they're not looked at as an object. And the female is looked at asson object both for female consumption and for male consumption. And that complex relationship creates a very specific tension. So if you were to look at, let's say J 14 magazine which is a kind of popular, it's today's teen beat for all intents ands were approximates of what's very complicated is both the images of the women for girls for girls to consume, and the images for the boys for the images to consume, if you were to take a page out of that, take it out of context, put it in an adult environment, it would be, well, odd. I'm just gonna stay with Zach Efron 'cause he's easy to point out, but you have a topless Zach Efron leaning against a break wall for girls. So in all of that complexity, I think there is a larger model of what capitalism does or can do in a market. It can sell it itself, it can sell to the other. It can sell the thing that it is selling to. So as it's simultaneously trying to tell women go to forever 21, it's also trying to attract all onlookers to the imagery for forever 21. If that makes sense.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it does. And I'm wondering what kind of reaction have you gotten from teenaged girls to your work?

CHARLIE WHITE: You know, it's interesting. A young woman, a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old lookingad OMG BFF LOL, they're only going to see it for what they want to see it for. They're not really gonna see the other layers at first. That's not to say that it's impossible for them to detect what's unusual about the cartoon of it's just to say that what we're discussing is actually adult. We're discussing something thattab adult that was an adolescent, was a teenager, got past that part of their life, and understands what they're looking at. A teenager looking at a teenager is not the same thing. And we know that by how we operate in society. There is no such thing as a girl who is young to a boy who is young. They are peers. So I'm looking at an idea of representation that is pretty much broad cast to all people, to adults and to young people. And looking at how those representations operate. And the complexity of those representations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Speaking about complexity of representations, another -- also on view at the gallery at SDSU, a couple of the photographs from your teen and transgender comparative study. Explain what you did in those paragraphs to our listeners.

CHARLIE WHITE: Starting with the origin, I had mentioned that I was trying to take a single portrait of an adolescent girl, and I was also trying to take a single portrait of a transgendered adult. And they weren't working and I don't make a large number of photographs as an artist. And I was simply looking to make a single portrait of a young woman and a single portrait of a transgender amongst another larger body of portraits, and what I found three years later in 27, was that the adolescent girl, roughly around the age of 13, 14, and the transgender, and they were very specifically very passable transgenders, these were, M to F, which is male to female transgenders which had had surgery, and had been on hormones, so they were very passable, are which is a term from the transgender community that they could pass as women in society. There was a similarity, a kind of chem, surgery puberty on the transgender side, and a kind of biological puberty on the teenage girl side. And pairing them next to each other, these things came to the surface very quickly. Although I was originally looking at two separate portraits by the time they came together, the center point in the dual portrait is the trajectory of both being the girl.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did you pair these two separate photographs into the photographs that are on exhibit? Did there have to be a physical similarity?

CHARLIE WHITE: Yes. Well, it was a very specific process and it was very slow. The images are very honest, that is, they're very unaffected. There's no digital alteration to either. But that's, you know, that's not to say that you could grab an adolescent off the street and grab a transgender and put them together and you're gonna have this. It was a very slow process to first start with an adult transgender who I would build a relationship with, and build a relationship of trust, and they as an adult would know what I was doing, then actually I cast a young woman, an adolescent girl, based on what the transgender's features looked like. So I actually used a process which was kind of a mother to daughter search process in casting it in which you look for similar facial qualities and I followed kind of that routine and I think in all I brought in 12 pairs over the course of a year and five worked out really well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because the images are really very very interesting. And thought provoking. And I'm wondering though, do you get any criticism as -- because your focus is so on this particular type of woman and young woman, and that is the fair skinned, blonde haired? What kind of reaction do you get from the focus on that type?

CHARLIE WHITE: Well, I think in terms of the teen and transgender comparative study, the transgender community is extremely active, and they're extremely verbal. And there was a lot of discussion that occurred on line about the photographs. And I think there was a fair all of criticism. If I had the right to do this, if it was okay for an adult white male to look in this direction. I think that there's initial questions of intentionality, and I think there's general questions of exploitation. All of these things are true. They're all the discussions that have to take place. But if we look at history and we understand that two years ago, Annie Leibovitz was criticized for how she photographed Miley Cyrus, and we're at a point where because the public knows that Annie Leibovitz is a lesbian, they actually came down harder on her in terms of how she looked, and because there is a part of society that wants Miley Cyrus to retain a certain kind of puritanical image because of the role that she plays for other young girls, these are layers, I don't think it's limited to me, I don't think it's limited to the fact that I am an adult white male. I think it's about the representation itself. They're complicated images, they provoke complicated discussions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you actually play around with the idea of exploitation in a project that you did up at LAX, and that is the casting calls. Tell us about that.

CHARLIE WHITE: On September 11th, which I have to say it was circumstanceal, it was not specifically planned to be on the date of September 11th, for scheduling reasons, on September 11th this fall, we divided LAX art into two zones which is a public art space in Los Angeles, and between a glass wall, the art audience was able to witness a casting call for over 100 girls that were cast as the ideal California girl. So the criteria was 13 to 16, blonde, white girl. And they had to watch this process or I shouldn't say they had to. They wanted to watch this process that took place in which a hundred and 6 girls throughout the day from nine AM to 5:00 PM, came in and were photographed by me and a crew as a means of making one decision for one girl to be the billboard for LAX, which is now actually up as of, I think a few days ago. So one girl was chosen, and the billboard is now on la sienega in Los Angeles.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which is so layered with complexity. Because teenaged girls are so often judged and feel themselves being judged.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And here they were actually being judged, and one of them was actually going to win of even though part of the process was to observe this whole criteria that we set up for teenaged girls.

CHARLIE WHITE: It was really different on both sides. And I think there was a lot of generosity /AO our part, the people that I worked with, to make sure that it was a really positive experience for the girls. Everything from them getting free T-shirts to getting a free print of the portrait that we took of them, to understanding what was going on. It was a two way glass. Everybody could see everybody of so they themselves were watching themselves being watched and the viewers who were coming in, were watching themselves watch. So they looked through the glass to see the moms and the daughters looking right back at them. And it was not always clear who was on view.


CHARLIE WHITE: And I think what came of the project from what I understand, being in the -- very much in the process and speaking to people after the process is that the initial position of individuals specifically from the art world who came in, thought they would see one thing. Of when they sat down, I think they really had a very different understanding of what was going on, the degree of professionalism, the degree of commitment on the part of the mothers and the daughters or the families and the daughters who came. The mechanism of getting through a hundred girls in one day, the machinery of photographing them, all of these things were important for people to see because it exposed in a very transparent way what the process of casting or desiring to be cast is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did they think that it was more dismissible than they thought that it was? Did they think it was gonna be easier to dismiss as sort of light weight?

CHARLIE WHITE: I think they thought they were going to go to something that was kind of a parody of a casting.


CHARLIE WHITE: And what they were actually going to witness through a glass that was the same aspect ratio of the cinema screen purposefully was a very scheduled, mechanical, difficult, rapid process of bringing in these teenaged girls, setting them up, taking the photograph of them, and printing it all at the same time, in a very mechanical manner for everyone to view, including their girls, their parents and the onlookers, another little point that's really important, both of the legal documents, the model release and the casting one sheet, both of those documents that are part of the culture of casting were on view and accessible by the audience of so the audience member could read the actual model release that the parent and child had to sign.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm gonna ask you, if you could, this is rather unfair of me, but I do want to get the third work on view at SDSU, a little description of it at least, it's a short film called American minor, and it has no dialogue. Of what do people see in the film.

CHARLIE WHITE: The film was originally an institutional film. It premiered at the hammer museum, then it went on to sun dance, and it went on to can. And in those different contexts, it had a very different life but ultimately they're looking at a relatively silent study of the malaise and melancholy of the adolescent. And that really is another part of what came out of studying Cyrilla.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much. You've told us so much about your work and I'm sure you made a lot of people anxious to see it. Let me say, 50 of all, thank you so much Charley for being here.

CHARLIE WHITE: Thank you, it was nice to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: On the university art gallery on the campus of San Diego state university, and Charley white will present an illustrated public lecture tonight at seven in room 412 in the school of art design and art history. And is that here on campus.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay it's at SDSU. If you will like to comment, you can go on lineup, slash These Days.


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