When I first met Eileen Lewis at the beginning of the 1980s, she was still learning to take herself seriously as an artist. She had studied various media in school before becoming a wife and mother, then a thirty-something, divorcee looking after two children. She had left a comfortable, predictable life because of an emotionally unavailable husband whom she still loved but couldn’t live with. Now she faced a shaky financial existence as well as questions about her status in the world. Her props were gone.
In the 1970s Aspen, Colorado, was an inspiring place to move to, not only because it was full of like-minded people who, if not lost were unsure of their footing committed artists who nonetheless wondered if their work would hold up critically and aesthetically beyond the enchanted valley. Similarly, when Lewis’ work was published in the respected European photography magazine, Camera, I think she considered it a weird stroke of luck that she didn’t quite deserve. She couldn’t believe that she was depicting something new and raw and important, even though this was quickly apparent to others.
From the start, her images of young people – mostly her own kids and their friends – suggested the individuals’ most honest and idiosyncratic selves. She presents them without comment, the settings rarely contributing much to the images’ potential narrative. The information that arrests the viewer comes from a look in the eyes, the angle of a head, postures and poses, costumes, the proximity of another person. We are confronted with human beings often in the tumultuous process of growing up, alone no matter how many others are around.
There are complicity and sympathy in the relationship between Lewis and her subjects, rare in the work of photographers whose work documents the foibles of human identity. One can’t help but think of Diane Arbus’ insistent invasiveness when examining Lewis’ photographs but, instead of concentrating on difference and oddity, the latter captures her subjects’ vulnerability.
Lewis is keenly aware of how American popular culture shapes kids’ perceptions and affects their behaviour. But Lewis shows us that these kids aren’t who they pretend to be in front of the camera. Whether in costume or simply dolled-up, whether they adopt a sexy or tough aspect we, as viewers, are encouraged to see through their exterior guises and to witness interior struggles.
Lewis’ photographic portraits penetrate the superficiality of sexual affectation. Yes, kids are sexualised but more importantly they are full of feelings, including sadness. Lewis has since wondered if the sadness she locates in her subjects’ eyes was something she wanted to see because of her fears and grief at the twists and turns in her own life. If so, Lewis has revealed something universal in the process: growing up is challenging business. Confusion, depression, questions, and anxieties are as common as confidence and pleasure.