Performing identities: the uncertain transition from adolescence to womanhood in one small American college town

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Recalling her own disturbing adolescent experiences, Eva O’Leary turned her lens on the female students in her college hometown, allowing them to challenge the social expectations

Almost three and a half hours from the nearest major city, the town of State College, Pennsylvania – known locally as Happy Valley – is home to Penn State University, which has an undergraduate enrolment of around 80,000 students. It boasts the fourth-largest sports stadium in the world and the median age of its inhabitants is 22. “Everything revolves around students and the image of what Penn State is,” explains Eva O’Leary, who was raised in the college town. The popularised image is “a major football school in white picket fence America where everyone parties.” She pauses. “In reality, it’s more like Girls Gone Wild,” referencing the videotape and DVD franchise started in the late-1990s where young women – almost always intoxicated – were encouraged to expose their breasts or make out with one another on camera in exchange for free branded swag. “Growing up,” O’Leary recounts, “examples of femininity were really rigid and particular, and there was a lot of pressure to conform.”

When she returned to State College in her midteens after her parents’ year-and-a-half-long sabbatical in rural Ireland – just as she was entering her freshman year of high school – she was consumed by the cultural whiplash. “My friends were already going to college parties,” she remembers. “They insisted on giving me a makeover – dressing me in a push-up bra and borrowed Abercrombie clothes – with the goal of passing me off as a college student. I’d never really had alcohol before then.”

With tremendous vulnerability, O’Leary recollects being shown pictures taken on New Year’s Eve at a Penn State party with a disposable camera; a male collegian kisses her as she lays unconscious. “One of the memories that sticks out is feeling horrified and embarrassed by how bad I thought I looked in the photos,” she tells me. My heart sinks. “There weren’t a lot of adults looking out for us. And the town definitely wasn’t looking out for us either.”

© Eva O'Leary.
© Eva O'Leary.
© Eva O'Leary.

Camera and collaborator

After completing her graduate degree at Yale University in 2016, O’Leary found herself thinking about those pictures again, “about the impact a photograph can have and the idea of the camera being weaponised”. She was drawn back to State College, where she planned to make portraits of women returning home at night from parties. One evening, she set up on campus with the help of several students and “as I was describing the kind of women I was looking for, I realised I sounded like a predator,” she admits. She was unnerved and immediately stopped taking pictures for a time. “This was just one of the ethical crises in portraiture that ultimately led to [my series] Spitting Image, this sense that the power dynamic was really off and I needed to figure it out.” A folder of selfies she had made as a young teenager in Ireland, emailed to O’Leary by her father around this same time, also informed the project. “I saw how I was using photography to imagine how other people saw me, and then constructing my identity – or who I wanted to be – through the pictures. That was when I started thinking about how teenagers use cameras as mirrors.” With Spitting Image, she explains, “I wanted to see the town’s impact on that young adolescent group, to know if it was something I could see. But it was also an opportunity to figure out how to make a portrait where the person photographed had more control over the final image.” After presenting her work and conceptual interests to the art classes at her former high school, O’Leary invited young women students, with parental permission, to have their portraits made. She was taken aback by how many accepted.

In the barn behind her parents’ home, O’Leary built a giant, light-tight tent for her 8X10 camera. Clamped at the far end to a two-way mirror, the lens could see the sitter, but the sitter could only see their reflection. The large format camera enabled her to capture the subtleties of each girl’s face. “I set up an extension for the camera to photograph really close up. The shallow depth-of-field enabled me to focus on expression and render an extreme amount of detail.” She continues, “I also think there’s an intimacy to that perspective, the kind of intimacy you have when looking at yourself in the mirror.” O’Leary articulates the project’s goal succinctly: “When a girl sat down and looked at the mirror, I wanted her to decide how she wanted to look.”

By neither guiding nor dictating when the exposure would be made, O’Leary empowered each subject to control their representation. “Their sign to me that they were ready was to stop moving. Only then would I focus the camera, put the film in, and make the picture.” Presented from the shoulders up, the resulting portraits are arresting. The subjects evoke unease, curiosity, self-assuredness, and everything in between through the quality of their gazes, the posturing of their heads, and the expressions on their faces. Clothing, accessories, hair and makeup vary dramatically, but what connects them all is the shared self-consciousness as they confront their reflections and struggle with how they should present themselves. Enveloped in her blonde, wavy mane, one pale-faced girl – her forehead, cheeks and chin rosed by adolescent blemishes – stares straight into the camera. Her shimmering blue eyes are magnetising. Though she focuses on the lens, her expression conveys a distance, a looking-through rather than a looking-at. Asked why the backgrounds are blue, O’Leary replies: “I was obsessed with lapis lazuli and how it was originally a signifier of value in paintings because the pigment was so expensive. I was thinking specifically about the power and importance placed on images of women.” Ultimately, O’Leary photographed over 100 female adolescents between the ages of 11 and 14: “It was a vulnerable thing for each girl to do and I felt grateful that I was allowed to witness it.”

© Eva O'Leary.

Girls just wanna have fun

After Spitting Image, O’Leary felt she still had not directly addressed the town’s culture. She revisited her teenage journals, “trying to remember what that time was like. At a certain point, I knew the university and its party culture were central.” This time, when she returned to the subject of her hometown and Penn State, she adopted a different approach. “Instead of just doing a shoot because I had a specific idea, I now knew it was far more important to have conversations and form relationships with the people I was working with.” One morning, as she was driving with a high-school friend, she serendipitously encountered three young women – in crop tops with vape pens in hand – trying to hitchhike. “Both of us immediately thought, ‘That’s what we looked like back then.’ We asked if they needed a lift. They were freshmen who had just arrived on campus and were heading to the fraternities. I explained I was a photographer working on a project about being a young woman navigating this town and its culture. I told them to reach out if they were interested in being photographed.” To her surprise once again, they did. For their first shoot, O’Leary went to the students’ dorms to photograph as they were getting ready to go out at night. “I went with no real plan,” she recalls. “Afterwards, I remember getting the film back and seeing so many pictures I was excited about. I realised that I needed to go into the next shoot with this kind of open mind, of not trying to control the situation, but being open to the ideas they had.” In one triptych, the three women stand individually in their hallway, dressed in tight-fitting clothes that flatter their youthful physiques. Unlike the closely cropped busts of Spitting Image, these photographs communicate through both their subjects’ faces and their body language. I am reminded of Judith Joy Ross’ trio of swimsuit-clad prepubescents, faintly smiling, tentatively postured.

In arranging the next shoot, the young women eagerly cajoled, “You’re going to be so excited!” When O’Leary arrived, two of them proudly proclaimed, “We turned 18 and got tattoos!” One revealed the word ‘Happy’ on the inside of her lower lip, the other ‘Valley’. In an image cropped tightly around their heads, they firmly grip their bottom lips to reveal the words in childlike all caps [opposite]. Their brown and green eyes shine like glassy jewels. The scene is unsettling. Literally bearing marks from the town, they celebrate their branding.

After determining she needed to live in State College full-time to make the project, O’Leary rented a home on fraternity row. While she continued to work with the same three women throughout their four years in college – “in a lot of ways they were my collaborators,” she remarks – she also met and photographed other students. “I interviewed them, asking what experiences they thought were important to document, and worked with them multiple times.” Her portraits are wide-ranging, from intimate views captured at close range in domestic spaces to throngs of women – dressed in Penn State apparel, White Claw cans in hand – as if staged for an advertisement [below]. They also include disconcerting black-and-white images, evocative of surveillance footage. One photograph shows a group of women walking down the street from an elevated vantage point. “I installed a motion-activated hunting camera in a tree in my front yard,” she explains; a predatory undercurrent appropriately reverberates through the resulting pictures. The culture’s deeply rooted history is emphasised through the inclusion of decades-old vernacular material, magazine clippings and snapshots that position women at the mercy of their male counterparts.

© Eva O'Leary.

Over the years, O’Leary became close with one of her subjects. One day, as they perused pictures of her and her friends, the woman lingered over an image. “Looking back at that photograph of herself just a few years later, she felt like she was seeing a totally different person,” O’Leary recalls. “She could see how hard she was trying and what she was dealing with in that photograph. And she said she was happy to have it.” Though these portraits may not always conjure the ‘time of your life’ attitude promised of the college experience, they are honest, tender testimony to that stage in life when you perform so many potential versions of yourself. They transcend the specificity of their environment, speaking to the universal challenge of growing into womanhood, of mimicking what you see worn, done and said around you to fit in, to belong.

Much of this work is stowed in O’Leary’s cupboard in Hanover, New Hampshire, as she continues to think about the project’s final form. The photographer eventually left Pennsylvania to teach at Dartmouth College. “It was something I had to make, but it was so emotionally taxing to work on,” she confesses. “I don’t think I realised that when I was doing it because I was so fully immersed in that place.” She clearly continues to grapple with her adolescent experience, the ethics of representation, the power dynamic intrinsic to portraiture, and the form this work will ultimately take. “It’s hard to fully communicate my experience as a young woman and the intensity of that culture. In many ways, I feel like language is never enough. I hope that these pictures can start to communicate some of that heavy feeling, of the air being thick.” Sighing, she suggests, “It might all end up in my closet for another 10 years before I figure out what it’s supposed to be.”

Allie Haeusslein

Allie Haeusslein is the Associate Director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco. She is involved in all facets of the museum’s operations including curating exhibitions and conceiving publications.