We meet Austin on page 77 of "Class Pictures," a new book of large-scale color portraits by Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey, culled from 15 years that Bey spent visiting high schools across the country. Austin has a blond buzz cut, beefy arms and a flat, tight-lipped expression as he leans forward on his desk. "What up?" Austin writes in his accompanying essay. "My favorite class in school is Science. I like to go out Friday nights and chill." On the next page we meet Carolyn, who rests her head on one hand, letting her dark hair drape onto her desk. Like Austin, she accepts the camera's gaze head on, but there is a wistful look in her eyes. Her father died of Lou Gehrig's disease during her sophomore year, Carolyn explains in her essay. "Your memories are engulfed with all that sadness," she writes. "And you try to get beyond that, but it's so hard."
Chilling out on a Friday night, dealing with a parent's death: looking at Bey's photographs reminded me of the vast spectrum of experiences in a typical high-school class. What secrets, I wondered, had my former classmates harbored? Maybe, without knowing it, I spent my junior year next to a Kevin (page 108) whose father had been in jail, or a Julia (69) who hid her sister's eating disorder from her family. There are many Austins in the book, too—kids who seem as yet untouched by adult concerns. The inequity of sadness among Bey's subjects is stark, but his tender portraits afford them all the same dignity. It's striking to see teens portrayed with so little sensation: there isn't a Gossip Girl in the bunch.