The newest exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art takes a fresh look at youth — through impressions captured by photographers over the last century.
What gives the exhibit, “Come As You Are: American Youth,” its freshness are the eyes and minds of its curators, the three Phillips Academy seniors who put the show together.
To Kaela Aalto, Nicholas Picchione and Safi Zenger, students in the Art 400, Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection class, the theme was an obvious choice.
“After all, we are teenagers and this is a high school campus, and this is a high school course,” Zenger, of Irving, California, told the audience at the show’s Nov. 20 opening.
The dozens of framed photos in the exhibit encompass a broad range of times, places and subjects.
They include an early 20th-century shot of a lone, young girl at work among textile machines on a New England mill floor; a late 1960s recruit in uniform outside his humble Arkansas home; and a 2005 student in jeans and ball cap leaning toward the photographer’s lens, appearing both serious and casual.
The images, mostly black and white, hang in the Addison’s Museum Learning Center and will remain up through March 8
The students drew on established gallery methods of organization, guided by the Addison’s professional curators, Allison Kemmerer and Gordon Wilkins.
The curators, together with the students’ teacher, adjunct instructor Tessa Hite, culled about 140 photographs from the art gallery’s massive collection of about 15,000 photos.
The students then pored over the photos, reproduced as 3-by-5-inch printouts, grouping them according to shapes and lines, subjects, and the emotions they registered.
Early on, they arranged the photographs into categories related to youth: education, rebellion and violence; activism and premature adulthood; play; rites of passage and young love.
The exhibit’s centerpiece is a photograph of a former Phillips Academy student, “Kevin,” taken by Dawoud Bey in 2005, Picchione said.
The “Kevin” portrait, in color, figures into several exhibit themes, among them education, premature adulthood, rites of passage and identity.
The student curators relied on their eyes and inclinations to group, position and sequence the images over the walls.
The learning center’s layout — including nooks, a staircase and upstairs hall — has more in common with a house than a prototypical gallery.
The space forms a map of youth, marked by contrast and continuity. The works include some by the 20th century’s most famous photographers, such as Lewis Hines and Ansel Adams.
Aalto, from North Reading, said she and her fellow curators steered clear of overly depressing themes.
Picchione, from Greenwich, Connecticut, said they thought an upbeat approach would forge stronger connections with audiences, especially students who visit the annual show.
The Addison has hosted Art-400 shows for the last decade or so. Previous themes included “identity,” “documentary vs. storytelling photography” and “travel.”
Aya Murata, a Phillips Academy guidance counselor and parent, said her son, now a freshman art major at the Rhode Island School of Design, took Art-400 when he was a sophomore at the school. His curatorial experience, engaging with iconic art, made a deep impression on him and was pivotal in his artistic development, she said.
Murata recommends the “American Youth” show.
“It is an insight into the minds of young people,” she said.
The photos that made the strongest impression on the minds of its curators hang on the wall that focuses on violence and rebellion.
For Picchione, the most shocking photograph is of a young soldier holding a rifle. He stands in front of a tent in Vietnam; displayed on the tent’s peak is a human skull.
Aalto was struck by a pair of photographs of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, youth in bed. In one, he’s sitting cross-legged, childlike, and holds a handgun; in the other, he smokes a cigarette. A baby is stretched across his stomach and looks directly into the lens.
Safi was so interested in a photo of a 1959 Brooklyn gang member named Lefty — he’s showing off a tattoo on his right shoulder (of a character from the animated Disney film “Bambi”) — that she researched the image.
She found out Lefty died from an overdose.
Ultimately, though, the show visits the possibilities an American youth can afford, and the place youth plays in the young and in the memories of those whose youth has gone by.
“Allow this exhibition to act as a space to explore what childhood means to you and those around you,” reads the show’s promotional statement.
“Come with all your baggage, your memories, your experiences — come as you are.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Come As You Are: American Youth.”
When: Through March 8. Gallery hours Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m.; extended hours Wednesdays until 9 p.m. when school is in session.
Where: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover
How much: Free
More information: 978-749-4015 or addisongallery.org