The Evolution of Stereotypical Color-Coded Childhoods

A five-year-old was calling the shots. And the rules were simple: Pink toys, pink clothes, and pink things only. This was nothing unusual, South Korea-based photographer JeongMee Yoon considered the colorful demands of her daughter less an expression of personality and more an example of rampant consumerism. But as a parent bearing witness to the efficacy of advertisements targeted to children, Yoon questioned the long-term effects of a color-coded childhood.

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Yoon explores the color binary in her ongoing photo series The Pink & Blue Project. Project I of the series, shot in 2005 as part of Yoon's MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, featured young girls with their pink belongings and boys with the blue. Yoon found her models on the street and subway in New York, Seoul, and New Jersey. With the parents' consent, Yoon would visit the child's home and spend between three and eight hours arranging their things. Yoon adhered to a particular crowded aesthetic: Larger objects to the back, smaller stuff in the front, and clothes flat on the wall using a hanger and Scotch tape. The effect was to create something like a museum, with categorized inventories and thoughtfully displayed collections.

Yoon was also intentional with her subjects, positioning each child in the center of a sea of monochromatic stuff like small buoys. "I ask each model to sustain a blank, neutral expression to underline an 'objectification' of each child and I request various poses to heighten the differences in gender and personal characteristics among my subjects," Yoon says. Working with young children determined her work process and, eventually, the final image. She chose a 6x6 medium format Hasselblad film camera to capture granular facial expressions and a small aperture to achieve a "hyper-realistic painterly quality." Shoots took 15 to 30 minutes on average, sometimes longer if Yoon built in breaks for her young models. Photographing fussy babies required several additional rolls of film.

Yoon followed-up with the children five years after the original portrait was taken, documenting the now-adolescents in their evolving world. Her current series, The Pink & Blue Project III, features new work created 10 years after the project's inception. Yoon says the latest installment, which features many of the original children now in their college dorms, is "the culmination of a decade-long investigation of color coding as associated with gender." As she watched her photo subjects grow-up, Yoon noticed color preferences develop too. Some remained steadfast with their preference for pink or blue objects, others deviated. But it's no longer so much about color as the study of a child, a veteran of years of targeted advertisements and early internet-era marketing. "My new work examines my subjects more deeply," Yoon explains, "after the facade of color fades away."

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