As someone who has seldom faced a room full of students, I was seduced and a little startled by the (nearly) undivided attention Julian Germain elicited from pupils the world over in his series Classroom Portraits. This tenor of concentration seems to reflect his role not as stand-in for an absent instructor, but as stranger and interrupter of the norm. Their looks convey a tolerance and perhaps wary expectation, born not of hostility, but rather the students' collective ownership of these rooms and their protected reality within. All that these photographs echo of those standardized school portraits, full of orderly rows of classmates smiling on cue, is their deference to a collective rather than individual portrayal. Germain's images offer an intense survey of a shared experience, tapping into surprisingly universal elements of the classroom setting as well as inevitable idiosyncrasies of culture and locale.
The series foregrounds dress as a significant aspect of the classroom portrait, traversing a continuum from uniformity to a persistent self-expression. When clothing signals a change in activity, such as from studies to sport, it is also a telling measure of confidence and ease, or awkwardness and trepidation. Both broad commonalities and more subtle shared elements made some of my own sartorial preconceptions pop. The khaki and drab green uniforms of Yemeni boys conjured up a man's role as soldier, rather than a young scholar. Affixed to the t-shirts of eighth graders in St. Louis rather than politicians' lapels, small red AIDS ribbons seemed newly relevant and sincere. How clothing both obscures and amplifies personality and highlights the parameters of the portrait is seen with both a young Nigerian woman whose face is almost wholly obscured by her niqab and a Dutch girl, whose hands-on-hips, precocious self-awareness manifests in head to toe yellow.
While the reproductions contained in Classroom Portraits are richly wrought and enticing in their depth, the trade-off for including so many large, information-packed images is that the book sometimes feels a bit heavy and cumbersome to handle. A dense section of survey-derived statistics, collected in an attempt to synthesize the interests and aspirations of the students portrayed also follows the photographs. Comprised of a breath of information, both weighty and light, this section was somewhat opaque for me, never yielding the level of insight of the photographs that speak well for themselves. For many viewers whose education is far behind them, the classroom is symbolic of political negotiation, a fear of violence, or foreign aid to reinvigorated nations. Yet in so many ways, Germain's photographs speak to the simple power of being in the room, joining in with others, and the indelible expectations and experiences of those who do.
Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.