This Week In Photography Books – RJ Shaughnessy

by Jonathan Blaustein

Initially, I hated it. Today’s book: “Stay Cool,” by RJ Shaughnessy. I picked the thing up off my bookstack, attracted to the bright yellow color. (Mmmm, yellow.) Then, I set it down a moment later. It seemed insanely cynical, like a mashup of Larry Clark’s “Kids”, anything by Ryan McGinley, and an American Apparel ad. (No offense.)

But wait, you say. Isn’t he supposed to start off with either a self-referential or quasi-philosophical hook? He never just writes about the book. That’s for squares, man.

Well, today, we’ll (kind of) make an exception. There’s been a lot of my voice on APE this week, and I really don’t want to burn you out. I thought it more appropriate to cut to the chase. (Sort of.)

As I was saying, I didn’t care for the book. I put it back on the stack, and forgot. Today, I peeked again, because, you never know. Opinions, left alone without adult supervision, have been known to change.

Do you remember what it’s like to be a teenager? I mostly recall the endless supply of insecurity that pumped through my blood daily. Yes, I was an angst-ridden youth. Quelle surprise?

Fortunately, having taught photography to high schoolers for seven years, I learned to appreciate the combination of energy, intelligence, passion, creativity and curiosity that so many people display at that age. Fire and brimstone. Piss and Vinegar. (Insert one last random cliché here.)

This book has little text, beyond the ubiquity of “Stay Cool.” Only an intro paragraph that speaks to the desire to tell the “story of youth.” (Naive, or refreshingly earnest?) It ends with an entreaty to pirate, copy, and share these photos any way you like. How Millennial.

The photographs represent a series of very-good-looking kids, in LA, goofing off, being very-good-looking kids in LA. They kiss, climb on top of cars, slap five with the PoPos, climb on some more things. Then they kiss each other again. Release some balloons. And walk around with signs that say “Stay Cool.”

Is this an ironic review? I’m not sure. Because as silly as it sounds as I’m writing about it, (and the first time I saw it,) the book kind-of does capture the spirit. In a world where everyone can’t stop talking about the obnoxious chick from “Girls”, and 20somethings living in their parents’ basements, this captures the phase, just before, when kids do stupid shit just because it’s fun. Not because they want HBO to option their life story.

Teenagers really do the sorts of things we see here. (Though I have no doubt this was thoroughly staged.) And in LA, of all places, I’m sure they’re not shy about showing off their trendy jeans and tight posteriors. No artifice, because it’s all artifice. (Wait, are we talking about LA now, or the kids?)

Bottom line: Fun, in a vapid kind of way

To purchase “Stay Cool” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 53 Comments On This Article.

  1. 1. Create a concept

    2. Let someone show you which button to press on the camera, and which end to look through.

    3. Have sexy friends

    4. Find a clueless publisher you can wrap around your finger with your sex appeal, your personality, or your immense sociability, so he won’t look too hard at the pictures.

    5. Don’t forget: in the field of “fine art” photography anything goes. You don’t even have to be able to create a good photograph. Just have a tight concept, that makes it plausible that the artless and awful images you create are actually intended to be so. The lack of artistic quality is an artistic quality! That worked well since Warhol – even if you’re just the copycat who copied Warhol’s copycat.

    • Generally I’m all for voicing one’s opinion but still this review seems to start off a bit harsh in tone. What exactly was the reason for reviewing this particular book??

      Also I don’t understand why you beat around the bush instead of just calling this kind of work what it is. Lifestyle photography. It’s about beautiful people, being happy, having fun in good weather with lots of sun-flares in the pictures. Capturing this free spirit of youth culture is one of the cornerstones of contemporary advertising photography. Look at any ad for Converse, Urban Outfitters, Diesel, etc. etc. and you’ll see exactly this kind of work.
      Calling it lifestyle photography doesn’t necessarily discredit it. But if the role of lifestyle imagery in advertising is to create an image that people associate with a certain brand/product, then it is hard to thoroughly appreciate it in the absence of any product. You see the lifestyle imagery and there’s even the slogan ‘stay cool’ but there isn’t a product in sight. One could try to read some sort of self-awareness into it, some sort of cirtique of advertising through the genre of advertising, etc. etc. but that would just be a load of BS.
      What this is, at least it seems so to me, is simply a self-published book by the photographer to show and promote his photography. I can see nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful just because it’s got a hardcover. If it had a softcover and was labelled as a magazine nobody would think to comment on it’s vapidity.

      • Sorry, this was meant as a general comment on the review, not a reply to the above comment by “Snapsh**t”.

    • I’ve been working on step number 3 for over 35 years. It’s not as easy as you make it sound Snaps**t.

      • Right on Lloyd, darn tougher than putting these shots together;
        lets see some hands of people who actually went out and PAID for this stuff, or better still, hands for success at No.3 !

  2. scott Rex Ely

    Sorry JB I didn’t even read the rest of your article. Namely because you didn’t start off with one of your trail openers blazing a path through your wonderful mental wilderness to take me to a tangentental but lucid connection to the work presented. I simply read your descriptions and unfortunately you were spot on.

  3. Wow, I’ve been a fan of this site for quite a while and I must say I’m a bit disappointed at the amount of harsh criticism in these comments. I for one find the images exciting and in many ways indicative of a new era in photography, but that aside when did we as photogs/artists become so eager to tear down the work of others simply because it didn’t mirror our sentiments or meld completely with our tastes? This guy looks like he’s putting positive work in the world . With all the the other angst and depression we have to deal with in our day to day lives I say bravo to that!

  4. I’ve seen these photos all over my tumblr feed for the past few months. Some with like 500k notes. (why can’t I get that many notes?!?) Just checked the link to his site and he seems to be killing it wiht commercial work. Love it or hate it, he must be doing something right…

  5. Ummm… am I the only one here who isn’t like a hundred years old? Dude in one pic is dropping in off a COP CAR?? Makes me want to skate and make out and hang at the beach. All rad shit.

    Also who writes a post with no links to more work. I gotta google? What is this the 50’s?

  6. Yes- he’s obviously doing everything right. The sheer scope, imagination and artistry exhibited in this seemingly casual collection of snapshots potently displays how those who are young, white and twenty-one can fake and flaunt every positive virtue of being privileged (you can even jump on the back of a cop if you want- and not get beat down!) is nothing short of McGinleyesque in stature (with some clothes on, of course)!

    Who needs all those grumpy, dour 99% kids anyway!?!
    Keep Cool, y’all!

      • You’re right! And in all fairness, I’m going to assume that all the other photos of people of color within the book do not depict them in the act (however staged or not) of committing what would be construed as a criminal act -esp by all those happy cops interacting with the white kids.

        • elizabeth leonard

          Does the “B” in Stan B stand for “boring.”

          “People of color” Lol… what a narc.

          • Hey, Liz! I was wondering who that was hugging the cop.

            BTW- If you’re going for the insult, it’s best not to go with the number one most overused word of 1997 (it speaks more to your sorry lack of imagination than anything else).

          • Elizabeth, what would you call people of color? Oh, almost forgot, we live in post-racial America nowadays, sorry.

            Stan, thanks for a comment with a little depth. The privilege shown in this book is pretty disgusting from what I can see. Thought the same thing about bear-hugging a cop from behind. Only in LA, only if your white and only in the right part of town. This is just what we need, more shallow shit coming from Los Angeles. Thanks RJ!

  7. I’m not all that crazy about the book’s cover or the design, but I do like the photos and that’s what matters most. RJ has captured that time of youth from late teens to very early twenties quite well — what’s not to like? I have photos of myself in LA when I was 19 with long hair, and these photos and the photos on RJ’s website really brought me back to that long lost time. So while they have a snapshot feel, that’s also they’re strength, and it shouldn’t take anything away from them. Shots like these can look easier than they are. I’ve always been a fan of the quality of light in LA — it’s the pollution. In fact, old Kodak data books have filter recs to deal with the pollution color shift in LA. Rome has a similar light quality. I’m sure these photos resonate with young people, which is why advertisers have used RJ’s work (judging by his tear sheets). What I don’t quite get is why JB reviewed a book he wasn’t that hot for — or at least that’s the impression I got. Not that it matters. And I am grateful for the reduced self-reference Hunter Thompson verbiage. :) Speaking of Hunter, here’s a funny quote “I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes.”

  8. My ability to take your review seriously disappeared when said you picked the book up because it was yellow and then used Homer Simpson voice.

  9. Donnor Party

    Pretty pictures in the book, but man, the kids are NOT alright. I sit in focus groups with kids just like these, asking what they think about products I’m going to sell them. They aren’t stupid at all, in fact they are very sophisticated in how they view themselves and media. What they are is narcicistic, image conscious, conscious of their youth in a way I never was. They are also romaticly in love with romanticism, yet they know its false, a real cognitive dissonance. they are materialistic while they scorn materialism. They are fatalistic but they know (or believe) that their parents will take care of them. They say they don’t care about money yet they all want be slurping down Moet by the pool.

    McGinley’s early stuff had an authenticity that was palpable, and I think these kids are acting the part. The book looks like a promo piece for lifestyle work. I give it a thumbs down, but hey, I’m jaded.

    • Your first paragraph is gold — love it! Should get a Best Reply Award.

      I think it should be the cover quote (I made a few minor changes):

      “The kids aren’t stupid at all, in fact they’re very sophisticated in how they view themselves and the media. What they are is narcicistic, image conscious, conscious of their youth in a way we never were. They’re also romantically in love with romanticism, yet they know it’s false, a real cognitive dissonance. They’re materialistic while they scorn materialism. They’re fatalistic but they know their parents will take care of them. They say they don’t care about money, yet they all want to drink Moet by the pool.”

      I think the fact that the photos inspired such a reply is a compliment to the photos.

  10. JB, judging by the comments seems you’ve hit a nerve with this review. No more pictures of kids having fun? How is anybody going to buy or sell anything in the future? I personally enjoy being a (working) commercial photog and seeing work like this out there. And call me crazy but I don’t see comparisons to Clark, McGinley or Am Ap ads as a negative. I give it a thumbs up, but hey, I’m not jaded.

    @squeeker the whole book is up for free on his site . Consider yourself googled.

    • “No more pictures of kids having fun? How is anybody going to buy or sell anything in the future?”

      Sorry- I’m a bit confused, or maybe a lot. Is this a supposed art photo monograph, or a hardcover brochure selling Stay Cool Jeans?

      • I was being tongue-in-cheek Stan. But in all seriousness I think it’s probably closer to the latter, only I don’t guess it’s selling Stay Cool Jeans, I guess it’s selling the photographer’s ability to shoot the kind of material commercial photographers usually shoot.

        I’m not a big fine art person myself so I’m always impressed when photographers are able to put out commercial work on a broad scale. That’s what I try to do when I work with clients, and looking through the stay cool website I think that’s whats happening there as well. I don’t think that makes it any less valuable than fine art.

        • Donnor Party

          Its a promo piece in book form. Its self published, I bet it cost something like $25k – $35k to print and layout, not including production costs.

          What it isn’t is art. I’m not against a well produced and expensive promo piece, but why does Photo Eye sell it and why did JB review it? Not a knock on either PE or JB, its just the monograph has no broader cultural/artistic message. The message is rather personal and is aimed at a small group of art buyers and CDs/ADs, and that message is “RJ Shaughnessy is an accomplished commercial shooter who is available to shoot an above the line stills campaign for W+K, BBDO, Martin Agency, Grays, etc.” Again, nothing wrong with that, but why the review?

          • “Its a promo piece in book form.”


            And in five years, this style of work will have died (I hope) and be nothing more than a quaint memory.

  11. It’s interesting to see how negative a lot of commenters can be about something that is meant to portray pure, innocent positive reinforcement. Maybe this is indicative about how our aggressive our society has become and how we can’t appreciate the simple things.

    • Johnson- I think what a lot of people are reacting to (although, honestly, I can only speak for myself) is how completely superficial and commercial this “attempt” at portraying teenage “innocence” comes off- two thirds jeans ad, one third teenage models. We just went through one very long campaign where one guy attempted to make you believe beyond a doubt that he sincerely supported what just months prior he condemned. And the other guy was a… politician.

      I think it would be damn nice to see an honest portrayal of teenagers today. I know that Dawoud Bey put out a great book of high school portraits, and just a couple of years ago, a female photographer (can’t remember name) did a phenomenal essay of high school portraits as well. It would be nice to see an essay of real teenagers interacting in real life- not carrying a Stay Cool sign that screams Insert Your Brand Name Here!

        • Yes, quite good- also: Michelle Sank, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Lauren Greenfield, Mary Ellen Mark and the one photographer I want to mention the most… still can’t remember her name. “Funny,” how most of these photographers are female…

  12. Sorry Jonathan but you might need to get your dictionary out. Unless you really feel the word VAPID is the best way you can describe imagery of teenagers goofing off and have fun??

  13. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting RJ Shaughnessy but I’d like to take the time to apologize for him for his book Stay Cool. I’m sorry that there’s no one in the book that looks like they’re coming off heroin and are chain smoking. I’m sorry no one is naked (to all those McGinley fans out there) I’m sorry there are no “compelling” portraits of some derelict homeless person sitting somewhere ironic like in front of a Beverly Hills mansion or a bank. And lastly I’m sorry for trying to convey a positive message about youth and for trying not to make you forget about the harsh reality of being a teenager but trying to make you remember fondly what life was like when you had all the time in the world and when the idea of consequences didn’t exist.

    • Donnor Party

      The book is too self aware to ring true, too well shot, too polished. Plenty of people have treated the subject and not come off as a really good promo. Which it is.

  14. Made me miss high school–it was a lot more fun than the real world at times, and this book (or what we see of it here), seems to capture that. Can’t think of any other contemporary photographs doing that in quit awhile. So I like it.

  15. “Stay Stupid” is more like it. If these are the shots that made the cut imagine the thousands that didn’t. My guess is that RJ is trying desperately to shoot an ad campaign for any number of “youth brands” out there the problem is that he’s completely unoriginal. There’s already thousands of skate rat shooters taking the exact photos, vying for the same 5 campaigns. Go back home and write your own songs instead of playing some other band’s cover tunes.

    • “Stay Stupid” is more like it!?! Not trying to be rude but this makes you sound like a middle school bully… in a bad movie… cast by the same people who perpetuate stereotypes about youth culture.

      So I think the bigger questions are why do they still make those movies? Why do they still make those ad campaigns? Why do bands often sound the same? The answer- because there’s a market for it. Consumers, by and large, like them. They support those brands, films, and bands.

      Just because the songs sound familiar doesn’t mean they are “stupid.”

  16. I want to have fun and I want HBO to option my life story. Maybe that’s why I like these pictures?

    • Donnor Party

      They are nice pictures, but its not art photography. I forwarded the link to my CD. I might even get the book and have a focus group look at the pics., use it as an example in the next “Selling to Millinials” stupid adworld conference.

  17. An apology- for asserting any kind of racist connotation to RJ Shaunessy’s work: I clearly should have taken the time to give a more thorough study of his site, and overall work. I had a rather visceral reaction to the imagery at hand which very much reminded me of McGinley’s – which was very much a paean to white youth. Yes, that is a poor excuse- and again my apology to RJ.

    As much as I can’t say that I come anywhere near liking this current essay, I should also note that RJ’s Your Golden Opportunity is well, well worth a look…

  18. scott rex Ely

    Obviously this person’s work isn’t for everyone.
    I will acknowledge as well that Starbucks sells millions of desserts in a cup under the guise of coffee.

  19. This reminds me of the Jack Ass movies without the stupid stunts. The movies were mildly entertaining because of the stupid stunts; the book is far away from entertaining. If they were images snapped by my kids [a blended family with five of them] while they were hanging out someplace I would have found a desire to thumb through a few times. There isn’t a physical or emotional connection other than the yellow which is repulsive for a cover color. I have to say this is so far the only choice for a review where I wish you would have left it on the table. Nothing against you JB. You certainly can make a silk purse out of a …….

  20. @Donnar Party I doubt you’ll have a spare minute to make a book of anything because apparently all you do is hang out commenting on this website all day.

    WTF is a monograph?

    • Donnor Party

      Hey Erin! Not all day at all! During downtime, like waiting for a plane or after a long meeting.

      Seriously? A monograph is a non-serial book on a single subject, usually by a single author. Hence “mono” meaning single or one, and “graph”, meaning written, but generally accepted for images as well.