Deanna Templeton captures the intricacies and emotional turmoil of adolescence

British Journal of Photography
Then & Now, January/February 2021

Deanna Templeton grew up in a picturesque home in the oceanside town of Huntington Beach, California, about 35 miles south of Los Angeles. “Everything about growing up felt idyllic,” she says, speaking from her home studio just four miles from where she was raised. “But when I was around 13, some switch just flipped. All these insecurities set in. I was always worried. And I can’t even tell you why.” Then came the turning point. Templeton was diagnosed with ulcers and kept in hospital for a few weeks, falling behind on her schoolwork. “I had a teacher tell me, in front of the entire classroom, that I was the worst student she ever had,” she recalls. “From there, everything started to compound.”

At that time, Templeton became increasingly fixated on music, a kind of escapism for the agonising teen. “Music started getting into my head just as I was struggling to vocalise what I was going through,” she says. “I liked whatever spoke to me or moved me.” By age 14, Templeton was using the money her parents left her for dinner on the weekends to buy tickets for concerts – largely punk – in LA, Long Beach, and beyond. “Not only did you have the music’s energy,” she remembers, “but you also had the people and the ideas. I felt like I was with my people. And like me, they didn’t look like supermodels in magazines.”

She began to keep a journal. “I must have started writing because I was feeling with such intensity and I didn’t know how to verbalise it. It was a way of venting.” When Templeton moved out of her family home at 21, she packed her diaries and mementos into boxes and envelopes. When she unearthed these relics 15 years later, she thought, “This would be good if we ever have children and they go through dark or hard times. I can show them they just have to hang on and they will get through it.” She pauses. “After rereading what I wrote, I wished I would have had something like this growing up.”

Templeton is perhaps best known for her refined approach to black-and-white street photography, from whimsical scenes of suburban life to unsettling portraits of young female bodies “autographed” by skateboarders and surfers. When walking along the Huntington Beach Pier or travelling, her Leica always hangs around her neck. After reviewing her contact sheets, she digitally categorises her favourite images. It was this process which led to a revelation that precipitated her project What She Said, soon to be published by Mack. Templeton writes, “For two decades, I shot portraits of people in the streets with no particular plan for what I would do with the images. Over the last eight years, I came to a striking realisation. Many of the women that I approached for portraits had certain qualities in common; I was drawn to these women for a reason. They were either me when I was their age, or what I wished I could have been – beautiful, strong, independent, bad-asses. Once this became apparent, my focus tightened and this project became very clear to me.”

Though Templeton has always admired projects combining text and image, she never felt her writing was strong enough to use alongside her work. But this time, “it was finally a way for me to use my voice with pictures that felt like a perfect match,” she says. “The photographs bring to life what I was saying.”

In 2016, a group exhibition at the intimate Brandstater Gallery at La Sierra University in Southern California included several works from What She Said, where the freshmen students were asked to respond to an artwork of their choosing. One young woman wrote, “The fact that Templeton put her own excerpts from her personal journal was really raw.” She continued: “There was no chance for her to hide, no colours to give it another shade, no hidden meanings, it was just there for the whole world to see now. Most of the time a girl’s secret dies with her, at least that’s my belief.” Such responses solidified Templeton’s conviction to continue working on the project. “I knew I was on the right track,” she recalls.

What She Said takes its name from The Smiths’ 1985 song and, more specifically, from the lyrics “What she said was sad/But then, all the rejection she’s had/To pretend to be happy/Could only be idiocy.” “That song,” Templeton says, “might as well have been written about me.” The book design is restrained and direct. An earlier draft felt “too chaotic”, she remembers, and like “it was taking away from some of the seriousness of what I was sharing”. There are no distractions from looking and reading closely. Through the deliberate combination of portraits, transcribed journal entries, scanned diary pages and preserved concert flyers, the book cultivates an evocative environment, transporting the viewer to the emotions and spirit of that harrowing time.

Shot from the late 1990s through to 2020, most of Templeton’s young women convey nonconformity through their choices of clothing, hairstyles, body art, piercings and jewellery. Once the project became more clearly defined, Templeton explains, “I made it a point to search out people. I asked some of the girls I had already shot if they had any friends that might be interested. When I saw a girl I thought would be perfect for the project, I also pushed myself more to get up the nerve to ask for a photo. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to be willing to be shot down.” I ask if she photographed all these women locally. “A lot of them are in California,” she starts, leaning back in her chair to consult a giant bulletin board where printouts of each spread are displayed in sequence. “But there are also quite a few from the United Kingdom and other countries like Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Russia, Australia and Japan. These young women from around the world share this common language.” Many also share a specific body language or look in their eyes that contradicts efforts to appear resolved and resolute in their identities. Perhaps it is me, projecting my own adolescence, but I recognise an awkwardness, a hesitancy. In one of the first portraits included in the monograph, Templeton frames the teen in the middle of a busy road, as two young women approach from behind. She wears dangling earrings, a skin-tight tank top, camo trousers and a studded belt, text stamped on her arms and faintly on her forehead. She dresses the part, but there is something in her face and the way she holds her body that suggests a self-consciousness – a discomfort in her own skin – despite her best efforts to conceal it. Even the young women who gaze directly and confidently into the camera’s lens exude a lingering sense that they may be trying an identity for size. Gazing at the cover photograph of an adolescent Templeton – an irrefutably gorgeous young woman, replete with hip, 1980s crimped hair – we are reminded that outward impressions of self-assurance often misalign with running inner monologues, especially when it comes to teenagers.

Text from Templeton’s diaries weaves through the photographs, her youthful, black handwriting scrawled across bright pink, college-ruled pages, which are echoed in the colour of the photobook’s cover. At the heart of her writing is a visceral identity struggle and attempt to understand her place in the world around her. More poignant excerpts focus on ruminations universal to adolescence – self-critical concerns about body image, drug use, sexuality, crushes, fraught parental relationships, arguments with friends – all of which have become more pronounced for today’s teenagers due in large part to social media’s insidious influence. At 15, Templeton goes as far as to draft an exhaustive will and suicide note, though, she remarks, “I never would have actually gone through with it”.

The placement of Templeton’s accounts and the photographs was carefully considered, to ensure no mistakes were made with regard to associating particular words with specific images. She was especially mindful of sequencing. “I didn’t want to place any entry I thought was really sensitive next to a person,” she says. “I didn’t want any misinterpretations.” By candidly revealing her intimate thoughts and reflections, Templeton de-stigmatises subjects which too often go undiscussed, demonstrating a path through even the most difficult times.

What She Said ends on Templeton’s 19th birthday with a lengthy series of entries and a snapshot of her boyfriend, Ed, with his arm around her shoulder. “I needed the journal when times were bad,” she explains. “But once the intensity lightened up, I didn’t need it anymore.” Meeting Ed Templeton, also a well-known street photographer – who became her husband two years later – “was the light at the end of the tunnel”. Her adolescent suffering culminates in a genuine love story, one that continues today, three decades later.