The Mark of Abel
Photographs of Lydia Panas
A troupe of teenagers stands in the woods, pale arms and shoulders against a verdant background. None of them are smiling, though there is nothing in view to explain their weariness. They know each other—some are siblings, some are cousins, others just friends—but their pose suggests alienation, from each other and from their surroundings. This is the world of Lydia Panas, somber and mournful, offering a glimpse into the complicated interior of the adolescents in her life.
Since 2006, Panas has stationed her camera in the backyard of her home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and concentrated her view on the teenagers around her. Her three children—Lukas, now 21 years old, Ana, 20, and her youngest, Liam, 13 years old, and their friends form the bulk of her subject matter. But as opposed to another artist, Sally Mann, to whom she may be compared, Panas maintains a naturalistic stance, never manipulating her models into hypersexual poses or provocative positions. Instead, she lets their faces—often stern, as if interrogating the camera—speak for themselves. No longer children, these young people clearly have ideas and psychological states of their own.
Inspired by a quote from Diane Arbus, Panas has titled this series, The Mark of Abel, an inverted reference to the mark of Cain mentioned in the book of Genesis. In the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel, the first instance of sibling rivalry, when Abel receives the Lord’s blessing and he does not. As a punishment, God orders him to wander the earth, bearing a sign on his face warning others not to seek vengeance for his transgression. Arbus turns the story around to speak of freaks of nature, natural-born winners. As she says in her journal entry:
To put it gloomily, winning could be called the mark of Abel. It would be beautiful to photograph winners of everything from the Nobel to booby prize, clutching trophy or money or certificate, solemn or smiling or tear-stained or bloody, on the precarious pinnacle of the human landscape.
Panas’s teenagers are neither winners or losers, neither Cains nor Abels, but are marked by the rivalries that naturally occur in any family. In her groupings, there are noticeable shifts of authority as some stand closer to the camera, dominating the view and others fall back, reticent to perform. These arrangements do suggest stories, especially the kind one tells to a therapist. They are primal and Freudian, and never simple or straightforward.
In the picture, Tatiana, four children reveal themselves, including Ana and Liam, standing in the background with confrontational faces. The title character, a young girl with short hair wearing a black bra and exercise jeans, faces left and stares sullenly at the frame. Is she the pack leader or the outside agitator? She certainly looks more aggressive than the others, unafraid to be seen in her almost naked attire. In Portrait of A Young Man, four guys pose—from left to right, a youngster in a plaid jacket with hood, a teenager with arms crossed and a cocked baseball cap, a twenty something hero in a black jacket, hands in his pockets, and a middle-aged man with graying hair and glasses. It is an evolution of masculinity, from youth to maturity, none looking too happy about their futures. These are photographs of adolescence far different than those perpetrated by the media, without a trace of Hannah Montana or Twilight vampires, just ordinary young people familiar to us from our everyday lives.
The truly extraordinary thing about Lydia Panas’s photographs is the way she establishes intimacy with all her subjects, whether they are relatives or strangers. Panas prefers to know the people she photographs well, often revisiting their faces over and over again. She waits before taking the picture, waiting until something is revealed, something secretive and hidden and meditative, before asking her models to stop what they are doing and pose for the camera. On the Path features a young woman student, grimacing with her hands in her pocket, standing a foot in front of her handsome boyfriend, who self-consciously arranges his hands by his sides. Invincible shows three girls following the lead of the most audacious, who meets the camera with a look of joyless confidence. These are special moments, charged with emotional states that usually take people a long time, even years, to reveal to a close acquaintance. But these figures unveil themselves for Panas’s camera, avoiding the temptation to smile for the picture or say “cheese.”
There is a sad beauty in this body of work. It would not be surprising to find out that the subjects are dying from a fatal illness or survivors of a catastrophic disaster. But they are just teenagers, suffering at most the travails of life in rural Pennsylvania. Panas turns them into more universal subjects: by asking them to wear somber dark clothes without a shred of a logo or pop star they become every Youth, posing against the naturalistic setting of her trees and lawn. The pictures evoke the realization that youth is a passing phase, soon to devolve into adulthood, which these faces richly anticipate. Panas’s photographs are memento mori, encapsulating the passage of time that is about to happen. Her subjects, though young for the moment, cannot stop the rush to the next phase of their lives, already seen in their stern gazes.
These pictures are a remarkable accomplishment, especially for a parent. After all, every parent is an archivist, holding up a camera to try to capture an event in their children’s lives, anxiously coaxing a smile for posterity. In contrast, Panas lets her children reveal themselves gradually for her photographs and in so doing, reveals that the camera cannot stop the clock and hold back time. Her children, standing on her lawn for the minute, will soon leave the nest and enter a more sophisticated, more urban world. Or at least that’s what it feels like from these pictures. But the world of their futures will not be more complex or more troublesome. They have already experienced the full range of human challenges—the challenge of getting along with siblings and the challenge of bonding with their peers—sometimes failing at these basic primal experiences. All of this can be seen in these photographs, so different and so much more poignant than your average family photo album.