In a photo on the blog Acrylic Nails, a teenage girl is crammed inside a drier, like a doll. Elsewhere on the Web site, that same girl, eighth-grader Syd Lynch, sits on a bare mattress. She wears a black wig, black stockings and a melancholy expression. Classmate Walker Bunting, who created the blog, took the pictures, a series enigmatically titled, “The Two Merry Murderesses of the Cook County Jail.”
“It was an obscure thought,” says 14-year-old Syd of the drier picture, shrugging.
Acrylic Nails, created by Walker, is produced entirely by youngsters 13 and 14 years old, precocious children in a city of precocious children. The site is one of many posted by young fashion bloggers these days.
On a recent Saturday, Walker and his friends were at his parents’ Beachwood Canyon house getting dressed for a shoot. Joining Walker in the enterprise are models Nora Mathison, Zara Ferro and Syd, who also does makeup. Jack Karaszewski maintains the Web site. Walker is the stylist and photographer.
They started documenting their fashion choices way back in fifth grade. “Our aesthetics have changed since then,” Walker notes. “There’s lots of black. We do the juxtaposition of dirty backgrounds and glamorous women. Before it was more of whatever’s in our mom’s closet.”
The blog is a walk through an edgy teenage fantasy, operating on the internal logic of dreams. A girl in a frilly party dress is stuffed into a plastic garment bag like a murder victim. She is a glamorous cautionary tale. One arm pokes out of the bag at an absurd angle. Another girl is shown ostensibly passed out in the middle of a deserted country road. Her feet are bare and dirty, her skin milky smooth against rough asphalt. Cows look on from a nearby field. “The thought of a permanent fiancé didn’t really settle the pain,” reads the accompanying inscrutable caption.
In person, the kids have a comfortable, easy way together that defies the darkness of the photographs. They have commandeered the bathroom on this Saturday, where Syd daubs glitter onto Zara’s eyelids. It is a big space, but they’ve all squeezed in awkwardly beside the toilet. Syd is tiny and blond, with a doll-like face, braces and sleepy eyes — Betty to Zara’s Veronica. She teases Zara’s hair into a big, frothy puffball and swirls it into a side bun. “That looks really terrible. It looks like you have a sausage stuck in your head,” Syd says, laughing.
They have been friends since before they could speak.
The blog is less about clothes, per se, than about the artistic gestalt. Walker certainly loves style — the walls of his room are a collage of images clipped from high-fashion magazines, with the entire area above his bed devoted to pictures of shoes. Occasionally the kids chip in from their allowances to buy items from Goodwill, but mainly they raid their parents’ closets. For this shoot, Walker is borrowing his mom’s pants. “She doesn’t love me using them, but she understands,” he says.
“I don’t think we’re up for spending a lot of money on clothes,” Zara says.
“To do that, we’d have to start making money,” Walker says.
Not everyone understands the blog. Some classmates think it’s weird. It is, in a way. Other kids spend their free time at parties and the mall or on video games. Walker and company orchestrate daylong art-directed photo shoots.
In the few months the site has been up, its popularity has grown as “sort of a mouth-to-mouth thing,” Syd says. Compelled by the photos, girls at school approach them and ask if they can be models. Walker turns the girls into black widows and modern-day flappers, bohemian Gypsies and knife-wielding psycho killers, ingenues in white dresses lost in the mountains, and guitar-playing Lolitas, sly and foxy. His compositions tend toward the surreal: rub-a-dub-dub, three girls in an old claw-foot tub — black dresses, faces white as mimes. Syd in a pink tutu holds her hands aloft like a ballerina in Walker’s parents’ basement. Why the sad eyes? Is she trapped? Kidnapped?
“As parents, we had some initial concerns that they are young, yet they’re very mature,” says Walker’s mom, Lynne Pateman. “They’re not doing cutesy stuff. They’re doing stylized images. There’s a parental concern that it wouldn’t be too risqué, or too adult. But we try to keep that in check. I encourage him to edit.”
Pateman works as a video producer. On the whole she is pleased and encouraged with the blog. One of the things she tries to teach Walker is that you can spend an entire day taking hundreds of photos and only come up with one single, perfect shot.
Of course she worries about who might be looking at the blog, she says. “They are worldly kids, exposed to a lot in this society, and it’s how we walk them through it. You can’t avoid. All you can do is discuss,” she says. “I asked Walker, ‘Where do you want to go with this? What do you want to do with it? Is this work in progress? Do you have a game plan?’ They’re not ready for that. They’re just having fun.”
Favored locations for photo shoots are “any place we shouldn’t be,” says Jack. These include: construction sites, an abandoned house, the canyons late at night, up a rickety ladder in stilettos onto a neighbor’s roof, and cemeteries (they were kicked out of Hollywood Forever and forced by management to delete that session’s photos).
Having recognized his son’s talent — or perhaps having taken pity — Walker’s dad is now their chauffeur. On this day, they alight from his Prius at the home of a family acquaintance with a backyard pool. The girls strike standard-issue supermodel poses, cribbed straight from the pages of Vogue: elbows out, back hunched, neck thrust forward like a swan, and pout.
In between shots, they chatter in that hyperanimated, exclusive way teenagers have with one another. Back and forth it goes, a silly, schizophrenic afternoon. Laugh. Pout. Laugh. Pout.
“Go like this,” Walker instructs new friend Naomi Larbi, putting his hand to his forehead as if he were going to faint. He and Naomi met on Facebook after she fell in love with his photographs. She is 14, leggy enough to pass for 18. Naomi has a contract with Ford Models, but she likes the blog so much, she offered to model for Acrylic Nails for free.
“Like this?” she asks.
“Yes. Got it.” Walker clicks away.
The photos are so sophisticated that it’s easy to forget the creators are kids. But they still have sleepovers, and Walker still asks for his mother’s permission before giving interviews.
As with all fantasies, reality inevitably intrudes. “At school we have to wear uniforms,” Syd laments.
“We can’t wear eyeliner,” offered Zara, whose eyes were raccooned with it.
“Nothing too eccentric,” says Nora, whose blue lipstick made her look ethereal, chic and mildly hypothermic. “We tone it down. This is too avant-garde.”