Polaroid Adolescence

The Packington Girls series was created in 2004 by London-based photographer Becky Hill. Debunking George Bernard Shaw’s theory that “youth is wasted on the young”, she put her 10×8 camera into the back of a Hackney cab and captured these magnificent images of youth group members ranging from ages 12-16.

Photography BECKY HILL

Our teens are characterised by an all-consuming, crippling sensation of appearance anxiety. Kids don’t start worrying about the way they look until the age of 12 (apparently), but if the contorted selfie smiles of my 6year old nephew are anything to go by, the race for likes starts much earlier than researchers had previously imagined.

Awkward teenage photos of myself in the 1980s are a real testament to the fine art of ‘looking natural’– fringe splayed in two directions thanks to untamed calf licks, a fine mist of dark upper lip hair and teeth like a drystone wall. I didn’t have a ‘selfie face’, or a preloaded repertoire of poses I could deploy to guarantee I’d look half decent, because back then, having your photograph taken wasn’t something you’d rehearse. Candid pics were taken to mark occasions – blowing out the candles on your birthday cake, showcasing your brand-new uniform on the first day of term, or sitting on the living room floor in your dressing gown with a pile of new toys and screwed-up wrapping paper on Christmas Day.

There were no second chances to capture ‘the moment’ because life was lived in exposures of 24 or 36, and after waiting a week or so to collect your snaps from the local chemist, it was always infuriating to see your eyes were either half-closed, or your head was chopped off in almost every shot. Once you’d sifted out (and binned) the worst ones, the rest usually ended up on the fridge door or stuck in a family album. We had nobody to impress other than our immediate social circle – we weren’t growing up under the scrutiny of an ever-increasing online audience and the only troll I’d heard of at 13 was the one loitering under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff.

"When my choice of weekly magazine went from Twinkle to Just Seventeen, it signified a shift towards self-consciousness; I stopped buying pencil cases with my pocket money and started buying shampoo and matching conditioner instead."

When my choice of weekly magazine went from Twinkle to Just Seventeen, it signified a shift towards self-consciousness; I stopped buying pencil cases with my pocket money and started buying shampoo and matching conditioner instead. It wasn’t long before trips to town on a Saturday were finally permitted (sans parents) and included a pilgrimage to the Boots 17 make-up counter to nick a bit of Twilight Teaser lipstick and ended in Hull’s bus station getting stupid passport photos taken with your mates, squealing and laughing hysterically.

The stereotypical aural assault element still seems like common practice for teenage girls in public places these days (judging by the din they make in shopping centres up and down the country) but grumbling aside, amongst the massive sanitary towels and contraband tubes of Immac, the journey to womanhood isn’t an easy ride. If you’re not covering your spots, you’re covering your tracks, concocting tall stories to try and fox your folks into thinking you’re doing homework at Lindsey’s when actually, you’re outside the chippy covered in lip-gloss, trying to attract the attention of some rollerblading stud from the rival comprehensive. Growing up. It’s a minefield.

Capturing the underlying beauty of these clumsy, analogue years is something British photographer Becky Hill does so well. Originally from Middlesbrough, she studied Fine Art at Hull in the early 1990s but preferred to spend her evenings in the university darkroom instead of sketching in the life drawing studio. After moving to London, she connected with make-up artists and stylists to generate her own uniquely candid fashion imagery, a style she’d honed after years of researching traditional portraiture and blending it with modern-day grunge and unexpected street casting. During this period of film-only photography and no social media, it was the years of self-directed studio shooting that ended up getting Hill’s work noticed by acclaimed fashion editors and published internationally.

In an industry that was quickly warming to the notion of digital, Hill was happiest using large or medium format film cameras – a method which required an entirely focussed atmosphere on set, and little room for error. For her 2004 Packington Girls series, she’d been reflecting back on her love of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges and wanted to generate a collection of black & white images that would encapsulate the character of ordinary teenagers growing up in London. A youth group leader from the Packington Estate in Islington responded to Hill’s capital-wide request with the news that a small group of girls from the age of 12-16 would be happy to take part in the project.

Hill gave each of the girls a Polaroid of their portrait as a thank you and remembers how ecstatic they were with this one precious, tangible image of themselves. For me it’s the simplicity of this transaction between photographer and subject that makes these pictures so perfect. Looking at these images today, you can’t help but register the innocence of young faces that weren’t seeking immediate validation. There’s no beauty code being followed, no strict superstar make-up routine to adhere to, no expectation (or aspiration) that these shots will ever be ‘shared’ – they’re all just playing dress-up and enjoying their one-day-only ‘modelling’ experience. They are innocent, genuine, authentic documents of an era when teenage girls didn’t have the capacity (or the inclination) to compare themselves to anyone other than their classmates. They weren’t scrolling in the search for connectivity or adoration, they were finding it outside on the streets of N1. I guess for all of us, it was a simpler time.

Photography Becky Hill
Beauty Mel Arter
Hair Sophie Chevalier
Styling Lotta Aspenberg