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Branded Youth and Other Stories

, 1997

Bulfinch Press

"A lot of people think having a big fantasy life is dangerous. Maybe that's why someone's always trying to take it away from you. I think that's why people become painters, musicians and even photographers." –Bruce Weber "Branded Youth And Other Stories" was published in conjunction with Bruce's exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1997. The title refers to a story of some wild-child teenagers he met in Montana, who in an act of teenage bonding had branded each other on the shoulder with the heated blade of an army bayonet. The reckless romance of this band-of-brothers fable sets the tone for the photographs of this volume–images that evoke youth, freedom, adventure…and the ties that bind. This book opens with a portfolio of Hollywood's brightest lights, actors of todays' A-list like Leonardo diCaprio, Christina Ricci, Natalie Portman and Mark Wahlberg, all caught at the moment just before their biggest breaks. There's a fearlessness in these images, an uninhibited spirit, a glimpse from the brink of fame. Their innocence stands in stark contrast to the "Court TV" chapter that follows, Polaroid stills from the time when when cable crime reportage became a national fixation, the lurid underbelly of fame represented by the Menendez brothers, Amy Fisher, and Lorena Bobbitt. "Branded Youth" is very much concerned with a search for lost innocence, that "big fantasy life" only dangerous because of its elusiveness. The book traces Bruce's travels and adventures over the course of several years, from Vietnam to South Africa, Mississippi to Montana. Everywhere he witnesses and documents families celebrating together, children, elderly folks, life-long friends, enchanted landscapes. The prevailing feeling is of possibility and love and faith, the desire people share to build communities and live in harmony with one another, regardless of the injustice or violence of the past. In these photographs, Bruce captures an openness to life as it presents itself to his lens–the pictures resonate, above all, with hope. The book ends as it began, with a study in contrasts. Youthful friendship and loyalty are celebrated in photographs of athletes (at Dan Gable's Wrestling Camp in Iowa), schoolchildren (at the Green Chimneys School in New York) and Boy Scouts (specifically, Troop 1426 of Virginia). Adolescence and sexuality get their due in a series of figure studies which end the book. But even with its prevailing exuberance, Bruce Weber closes "Branded Youth" with a thoughtful essay expressing the ephemeral nature of such joy. He writes of the Stonewall and the loss of many friends to AIDS, the passing of a long-time editor Kezia Keeble and the actress Thelma Ritter. The poignancy of this book lies in these juxtapositions, which point to the richness of life and while acknowledging its brevity. "Branded Youth and Other Stories" was designed by Dimitri Levas. It features lyrics by Sammy Cahn, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and Patti Smith; poems by Charles Bukowski, A. E. Houseman and Allen Ginsberg; and essays by Ingrid Sischy, Martin Harrison, and Charles Saumarez Smith. "It was if their youth were branded, like a nose broken in a fight, a tooth chipped on hard candy, or a face scarred by acne. The legend would remain with them, never to be lost."