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Adrienne Salinger Talks Teen Spirit

Adrienne Salinger Talks Teen Spirit

Photographer and UNM professor Adrienne Salinger spoke by phone with ABQ Free Press about “In My Room,” how different generations see each other, the mixed bag of revived interest and why “90210” sucked as much in the ’90s as it does now.


“Go to your room!” How many times did you hear that as a teenager? Why?

Were you mouthy? Mocking? Defiant? Being all of the above — sometimes simultaneously — I heard that phrase a lot, but I honestly didn’t mind. My room was where I kept, and made, all my adolescent magic.

With shelves overstuffed with books, walls plastered with posters, bottles of perfume on the dresser and diaries hidden beneath my pillow, my room was my safe haven, just as it was for so many other ’90s teens. It was where we could escape family woes while daydreaming about who, and how, we might be as grown-ups.

How did the rest of the world see us? Thanks to TV shows such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Saved by the Bell,” teenagers were often dismissed as vapid cartoons interested only in pizza, dating and cool hairstyles. Who we were marketed as versus who we really were often felt frustrating.

For her 1995 book, “In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms,” photographer Adrienne Salinger was granted access to the bedrooms of 43 teenagers. Over the course of two years, Salinger shot photos and conducted interviews with real kids about their real, often tumultuous lives.

A hit upon its initial release, a resurgence of interest in “In My Room” came on the heels of its 20th anniversary, thanks to coverage by Vice, The UK Independent, Bust, Flavorwire and Paper, to name just a few.

Salinger has exhibited internationally in venues such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Barcelona’s Fundación, and her work is represented in permanent institutional collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In addition to “In My Room,” Salinger released “Living Solo” (1998) and “Middle Aged Men” (2007).

Dawn M., “In My Room” / Photo credit: Adrienne Salinger

Dawn M., “In My Room” / Photo credit: Adrienne Salinger

Today, Salinger is the Regents Professor of Art & Art History at UNM. She is one of four faculty members in the photography program at UNM’s Department of Art and the College of Fine Arts. Salinger spoke by phone with ABQ Free Press about “In My Room,” how different generations see each other, the mixed bag of revived interest and why “90210” sucked as much in the ’90s as it does now.

ABQ Free Press: How did you come to work at UNM?
Adrienne Salinger: I taught for nine years at Syracuse University. I helped start their graduate program in photography [and] was there for a long time as a tenured professor. I built the Syracuse program quite a bit, everything was running really well, but it wasn’t much of a challenge at that point. I wanted to start over and see if I could do something in another part of the country.

I came to New Mexico because I wanted to try something new. I was offered a job at UNM, which has a very famous graduate program. I wanted to build, change and evolve the program here, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Of public universities, our graduate program is currently ranked as number one. Plus, according to U.S. News and World Report, when you include private universities, our program is ranked number five.

Tell us more about “In My Room.” Why was this project so important to you?
The book had two editions. It sold something like 26,000 copies. There was a huge amount of publicity when it came out. The New York Times did a story on it.

At the time, I was pissed off about the way teenagers were depicted in the media. This was when that stupid show “Beverly Hills, 90210” was on. It irritated me because it was so fraudulent. I was interested in what teenagers’ lives were really like.

I’m always interested in people who are on the edge of change, which is why I love teaching and working with students. Teenagers are on that edge.

Their rooms contain everything they own. When you’re a teenager, you change often because you’re trying to work out your identity.

The past and the present is colliding. All of that is evident in the interviews — which are a very important part of the book, not just the pictures. Each one had a two-hour interview. Teenagers have strong opinions, but people don’t usually ask them.

I wanted the book to cost no more than a CD. I don’t believe in photographing people of every socioeconomic range, then having a $100 book that [those] people couldn’t afford. That seems like a way to exploit, and I didn’t want to do that.

These days, “In My Room” is being used as a guidebook for film and TV set design.
That’s so weird! Do you wanna know how I found that out? I made the pictures in opposition to media representation of teenagers. After I moved here, I started seeing things on TV and in movies that looked like my photographs.

A few years ago, … I had breakfast with a director who was directing an episode of “Breaking Bad.” He was the one who told me that “In My Room” is like the Bible for Hollywood set designers. They’d been using it for 15 years by that point. In a way, I was appalled that the book had this second life that’s so counter to what I wanted.

Donna D., “In My Room” / Photo credit: Adrienne Salinger

Donna D., “In My Room” / Photo credit: Adrienne Salinger

What do you think about the recent revival of interest in the book? Do you think it’s just a nostalgia trip?
I can’t know that. I’m often interviewed by people who were ’90s teenagers. What’s so amazing to me is that some of them truly don’t get it at all. This one interviewer interpreted the work as if I’d found these images at just the right time and that they don’t exist anymore.

That was interesting to me and telling about people as they get older. They get locked in, and they don’t see enough to see each other or to pay close attention to people at all. And that’s exactly why I did the work, because teenagers were stereotyped so much that there was no [authentic] voice. There were so many ways that they were represented — but usually to be marketed to.

Explore Salinger’s portfolio at adriennesalinger.com

Featured photo: Donna D., “In My Room” / Photo credit: Adrienne Salinger

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