Dutch photographer Raimond Wouda‘s deceptively simple monograph School was taken from a five-year long project that focussed on secondary schools in the Netherlands. He decided early not to photograph inside classrooms, and instead trained his large-format camera (propped high on a ladder) and complex flash system on spaces where students interacted between and after classes: cafeterias, auditoriums, lockers, and finally school dances. The resulting work is a more subtle and challenging book than it first appears.
School pictures are an iconic part of any culture, and Wouda’s vividly colored (not for nothing does Martin Parr contribute the introduction) teenscapes are immediately appealing. But this is not your ordinary coming of age survey. The students seldom interact with the camera, which, as Parr notes, is something of an accomplishment. At an age when self-consciousness is the rule, you expect young faces mugging for the lens – and perhaps these were edited out of the final selection. The resulting distance gives School its strange fly-on-the-wall atmosphere – as if these images were selected from saturated and highly detailed surveillance camera footage.
The work recalls Jacques Tati’s cinematic masterpiece Playtime — which announces itself as an study of leisure but turns a strangely distant eye on its subject. Tati’s alter-ego Mr. Hulot wanders through Playtime, as he does through most of the director’s works, observing life at a distance, a cog in the lives he encounters, but never close enough to truly relate. The students’ lack of interaction with the camera opens up a chilling possibility: that you are seeing their world through the eyes of someone who can never be part of their world. Is this the lot of the photographer?
Contrast this work with Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s fascinating portraits of adolescents, subjects who directly face the camera in varying levels of teenage self-consciousness and curiosity. Wouda’s subjects go on as if he’s not there. But each approach can be revealing in its own way, and Wouda’s group shots especially reward close viewing. Although I have mixed feelings about the gallery trend towards ever larger prints, these detailed images would be a revelation if printed to life scale.
The smaller format of a book makes it essential that you lean in to get closer to these images. Group shots reveal cliques and loners as you try to parse out the interactions and relationships. This can be difficult when students are too densely packed in front lockers or under strobe lights. But the final image in the book is a school dance with enough space to differentiate the cliques and individuals. That’s when you notice the chicken suit. The mass of humanity is strange and varied, and School reminds us that although we are all the same, our individuality inevitably breaks out from the pack.