Under Twelve Under Twenty, Stills Gallery Sydney 2012

Ella Dreyfus revisited her acclaimed series of portraits of young boys, Under Twelves, with another series Under Twelve Under Twenty. She followed the same group of boys, from her son's soccer team, seven years later, after they had finished high school to document their transformation into young men. This extraordinary collection of black and white double portraits affirms the dignity of male beauty, portraying and makes a unique contribution to photographic portraiture in Australia. 

The tender and beautifully realised photographs portray the passage of time by depicting male youths firstly, as they hover on the cusp of childhood and now by their transformation into adulthood. There is a traversing both of the feminine and masculine worlds at play in these portraits. Many of Dreyfus' photographs invite us to contemplate a subject matter that elicits both a sense of pleasure and discomfort and these portraits do just that. "Breaking taboos is something Dreyfus has done for years. The photos do unquestionably show the sensual beauty of the boys" wrote Catherine Keenan in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005. 

Dreyfus' exhibitions have made significant contributions to the field of Photography and she is represented in public museums and many private collections. Her work has been critiqued and cited by international art historians such as Prof. Griselda Pollock in the UK and writers Naomi Wolf and Kim Chernin in the USA. The art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, Sebastian Smee, recognised her contribution to the field saying, "one of Australia's most respected photographers, Ella Dreyfus, is known for her unflinching yet deeply sympathetic portraits of bodies that don't usually get exposed". 

This series evokes the work of photographers who also document the passage of time in their friends and families. Artist such as Sue Ford, with her Time Portraits, Nicholas Nixon and The Brown Sisters and Michael Apted's 7-Up documentary films. Ella Dreyfus' latest photographic portraits represent a powerful and evocative human narrative. She intends to continue to photograph the same group of men every seven years, with their ongoing consent. This portrait series represents a powerful and evocative human narrative. 

 Under Twelve Under Twenty was exhibited at Stills Gallery, 36 Gosbell Street, Paddington, Sydney, Australia from 29 August to 6 October, 2012. 

Under Twelve Under Twenty Essays


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my first photographic exhibition, Pregnancy Series (Stills Gallery, 1992) and I celebrate this occasion with a new exhibition, Under Twelve Under Twenty— twelve double portraits of young men under the age of twenty, in the year 2012.

Since the early 1990’s my photographic work has been framed by ideas pertaining to embodied subjectivity, gendered identity and representational strategies about the body. These images reflect upon what it means to inhabit a human body and to see subjects that are often rendered invisible, considered shameful or hidden from view. They reveal the body as a site which sometimes appears beautiful yet flawed, attractive yet forbidden, making it troubling and challenging territory. My photographs often instil a profound sense of intimacy that draws audiences towards an awareness of the complexities of people’s relationships to their bodies, as sites of privacy, taboos and affects. 

I am driven by an urge to seek out and visualise things that aren’t usually seen, propelling me to find beauty in subjects that are often marginalised or ignored.  One such group were the boys I photographed for the exhibition Under Twelves in 2005, a collection of black and white portraits of my son and his fellow football team members, which affirmed the dignity of their blossoming male beauty. The boys were at a point of transition having completed their primary school years and were getting ready for high school. At the time I wrote in the artist’s statement that they were “hovering on the cusp of childhood and adolescence, traversing both the feminine and masculine worlds”. 

As a mother I looked on with wonder as my son and his friends underwent the transformation from children to adolescents and I longed to capture their changes on film. I waited patiently for six years to invite them back to my studio for another portrait and was delighted when 12 out of the original 14 agreed to participate in the next stage of this project, which culminates in this exhibition Under Twelve Under Twenty.

I feel privileged to witness these young men at another important transitional moment in their lives; as they leave their schooldays behind and enter into a new phase of early manhood. I am inspired by certain photographers who have also portrayed the passage of time in their portraits— in particular, I admire Michael Apted’s epic 7 Up documentary films, Sue Ford’s small and powerful Time Portrait photographs and Nicholas Nixon’s incredible thirty-eight year documentation of his wife and her three sisters in The Brown Sisters.

With the ongoing consent of the participants, I intend to continue this series of portraits at regular intervals, observing the subtle and not so subtle changes in their appearance, demeanour and personalities. I hope to record the precious, unique qualities of their lives, as they mature and evolve into fully-fledged adults.

Essay by Alana Ruben Free


It is shocking to be confronted with the beauty of the male body and spirit in a way that is not sexualized, erotic, or exploited. We are bombarded in all forms of media, with images of adolescents manipulated for maximum sexual appeal, and this is why art is so important. Art emerges out of a soul determined to show us something truthful, real, meaningful, informative, and living. 

Time passes, people change, the people we love change, life passes through us. Life changes us. We do not stay the same. There is an insanity running through our culture, trying to convince us to fight the appearance of ageing and aspire to look the same as each other. Sadly, in New York City, I hear of teenagers getting Botox. In many ways, I look much better now at 43 than I ever looked in my teens or twenties. I am more embodied, empowered and healthier; the gifts of knowing myself are visible on my face and in my posture. 

As parents, we often find ourselves secretly wishing—while watching our twelve-year old dashing clumsily around a soccer field—that we could take our sons home and hold them close to us forever, so that nothing will ever change. This is why Ella’s images may make us feel uncomfortable—because she subtly reminds us that we can’t control the force of life. And, paradoxically the richest moments of parenthood happen when we experience the pain of deeply loving our children, who despite our best efforts, quickly move through our lives into their own.

Under twelve Under twenty are simply exquisite photographs; they are honest and unadorned, revealing and relevant. There's a real poignancy in these images because we can feel Ella’s deep love for her subjects. These children are not merely objects of art. Using her photographic skills she captures her son and his soccer team, not as she wishes them to be, but how they are. She does not manipulate their appearance to fit her own image or society’s contorted overtly sexualized and romanticised projection of “boyhood”, but allows them to be seen as they wish to be seen. Ella grants us the privilege to witness boys as they are, beautiful.

In all her work, Ella reminds us that the human journey is filled with transitional moments, but perhaps none are so acute and painful as the passage from childhood to young adulthood, from dependence to independence.

With a heart-felt fascination, Ella wants to know who these boys are on the inside; what they think, what they feel and how they are growing and changing. This exhibition affirms the best of motherhood and the core of humanity, our ability to be present with each other as we are, and as we are becoming. With insight, intelligence and an ‘aesthetic of intimacy’, her eloquent vision informs and affects us all. 

Alana Ruben Free, New York City, August 2012

Canadian born poet and playwright, author of The Eden Trilogy: Beginner at Life, Fear and Desire, White Fire/Black Fire, and former editor of The Mom Egg