Inside The Uneasy World Of Privileged Adolescence

Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
Female adolescence seems to remain a particular kind of enigma to the world; how to portray it, even more so. In classical literature it barely exists, as if we are children, girlish and naïve, until one day we become women, with no in-between. In film, it’s often portrayed as feverish or horror-filled in nightmarish coming-of-age narratives that play on the tumultuous nature of that time (think The Virgin Suicides). But there’s a tenderness, an awkward beauty and a quiet anxiousness at the heart of it too, which often goes unnoticed in favour of more dramatic depictions. There’s a slow unfurling of unease in that period between girlhood and womanhood, and it’s this that Isabel Magowan distils so well in her photographs.
Advertisement
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
The artist’s latest personal project, Cygnets, introduces us to a collection of photographs of young people – mostly girls – from highly privileged backgrounds and on the cusp of adolescence. Taken in domestic spaces including gardens, kitchens and bedrooms, the images are like film stills; staged and steeped in rich, cinematic light. All the clichés of upper-crust life are present and correct: verdant lawns, white picket fences and grand rooms with high ceilings. But in among these all-too-perfect societal stages, we see girls cautiously performing versions of themselves for Magowan’s camera. These images possess, as Magowan puts it, "a deceptive superficial beauty undercut by a subtle anxiety". In this world, being a child means adhering to the pressures of obligation and expectation placed upon you by your elders, while trying to retain some of that dwindling childhood fantasy and innocence. There is plenty of space to dream, Magowan says, so long as those dreams conform. As if restrained imagination were the ideal. The images in Cygnets are harbingers of the self-conscious women these young people are being moulded into. They are told they should be pretty and successful, strong and poised, and we can already see them performing rituals of beauty like placing cucumber slices on their eyes and preening themselves in the mirror. Magowan has entered the lives of these girls at a particular stage, for a particular reason: she was raised in the same world. Through these girls, she is making sense of her own teen experiences.
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
Magowan grew up in New York in what she calls "the fancy part of town where people care about 'the best' of things". And by 'the best' she means "whatever this educated and particular group identified as symbolically representing privilege and prestige". These signs of status that determined one's 'worth' were absurd props to her, and from a young age she felt conflicted about the world she had been born into. "It felt contradictory that those who had so much would choose a life that seemed so insular, so curated, and what felt, to me, so limited and claustrophobic."
Advertisement
Diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder and battling an eating disorder too, Magowan felt different from her family and peers, and judged as a result. But she also resented herself for judging her environment in return, worrying that it would be construed as her not understanding how lucky she was. "I absolutely understood, but I also found it hard to legitimate the personal pain of the people around me (which was rarely outwardly expressed) when they lived the lives they did. If I couldn't take these sorts of people seriously, I thought, then I’d imagine the rest of society couldn't either, which by implication suggested me and my family too."
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
Magowan was a child performer. Taking part in pageants and dancing, she performed The Nutcracker every season for six years, which amounted to over 120 shows in total. Dancing offered a release for her as a child, the rigorous discipline of ballet soothing her anxieties and disorders. "I developed this belief that because I had more than other children, that it was only fair – given the probability of chance and tragedy – that something terrible was bound to happen. But on the stage I had to concentrate on steps, keep in time to the music and smile. I loved the costumes, the props and the sense of being part of something. I loved the attention. And I loved the degree to which imagination and fantasy was indulged there." Away from the stage, she says, everything else felt like acting too.
Advertisement
After two foot surgeries and a hip operation by the time she was 15, Magowan was unable to continue with her dance career. "Without the magic of the stage, without its validation, and with a body proving its humanness in its limitation, I understood I couldn't be a dancer anymore. Labels, material things, appearances – those are the things I had been taught were important. When they crumbled away I found only a fractured, flawed human." Elements of that growing uncertainty, the insecurities and the sense of being part of a world she hadn’t chosen and might have never left can all be found in Cygnets. "The project is informed by innocence – the capacity to hope, to imagine, to play and to indulge in fantasy – as much as it is by the inconsistencies of a culture that promised me I could be anything when I grew up, only to show that that isn’t always how life goes," she explains.
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
When she began Cygnets, Magowan didn’t have a plan in mind, she just wanted to take pictures of people and understand more about herself through a creative process. Some of the girls Magowan photographed in the beginning were extended relatives she hadn’t met before; others she found through casting beyond her network. She encouraged them to bring their own clothing, and brought along things she had found on eBay and her own childhood dresses too. Her only prerequisite was that the subjects should already have an existing relationship, so there would be an element of truth and connection in front of the lens. For instance, sisters already have a way of being together that will be obvious no matter how much an image is staged. Everything else could be make-believe. "I didn’t know what I wanted from my subjects at the beginning, but I began setting up scenes for a sort of performance, evoking a mood of innocence and loneliness, and allowing for a level of improvisation – I wanted them to play around, be children and work with me through spontaneity and chance as collaborators to tell their stories."
Advertisement
Photographed by Isabel Magowan.
There’s an enchantment in the life depicted in these photographs – especially for those of us who didn’t grow up in this kind of world. But the pictures carry a suffocating weight too; a tingling sadness that allows us to see with clarity what it’s like to grow up with so much responsibility on your shoulders. "This is just one set of experiences, but many aspects of growing up are similar, no matter where you’re from. Regardless of socioeconomic background or identity, children are vulnerable to internalising messages and that feeds back into their own ideas of self-worth and self-image," Magowan says. "At that age belief systems are being challenged, the sense of self is forming and morphing, the brute force of making family proud reigns true, and feelings of isolation are potent. Yes, my images have a certain narrative but they are also open in the hope that anyone could develop an empathy for what a particular child might be experiencing in a particular room, regardless of all those fancy things. I hope that people are able to recognise parts of themselves in the pictures too – the parts they haven’t yet figured out how to express."

More from Entertainment

Watch

R29 Original Series

Watch Now
Documentary
Extraordinary, one-of-a-kind individuals
Watch Now
Fashion
A look at the subcultures around the world that colour what we wear — and why.
Watch Now
Beauty
The craziest trends, most unique treatments, and strangest subcultures in the beauty world.
Watch Now
Travel
Explore the world's most vibrant cultural and culinary centres—in 60 seconds, of course.