Review: Elizabeth Renstrom’s ‘Yummy’ Is A.I.’s Take On Old-School Teen Tabloids

The NYC-based photographer and photo editor opens up about her recently opened solo exhibition, the female gaze and what it’s like to work with artificial intelligence.

Girls sit reading magazines and painting their nails on a bright pink shag carpet
‘Yummy’, Elizabeth Renstrom, Yummy (Teen Edition), 2023 Inkjet Pigment Print, 36” W x 24” H. Kaz SENJU

When it comes to exploring the female gaze in photography, so many talented photographers have emerged in the past decade, proving that now truly is the time for women behind the lens. One of these is photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom (formerly of the New Yorker and Vice), who is creative, versatile and no stranger to the Barbiecore palette—at least in her latest exhibition, “Yummy,” on view at the artist-run exhibition space Baxter St at Camera Club of New York through February 3.

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SEE ALSO: Mood Is Her Medium

For the exhibition, Renstrom, who published her first book Carnal Knowledge in 2020, tapped into nostalgia, girlhood and media for “Yummy,” which is built around a fictional magazine, Yummy (Teen Edition), she co-created with designer Elena Foraker and writer Coralie Kraft using artificial intelligence. The resultant one-off publication calls to mind classic teen tabloids like Tiger Beat—or more recently, CosmoGirl—with fashion spreads, beauty ads, advice columns and heartthrobs and serves as the grounding core of the show.

Renstrom then created a photo series around Yummy set in an anonymous teen girl’s bright pink bedroom. Picture 1990s-style clothes, cluttered inspo pin boards, posters on the walls and, of course, issues of the magazine. It makes sense that a magazine is at the core of “Yummy.”. Renstrom has spent over a decade working in media, since her first internship at Time in 2012, so knows these well-trod pages well. It wasn’t until recently that she started focusing exclusively on her own photography, which is insightful, with female narratives and a subtle storytelling style.

We caught up with Renstrom to talk about her latest exhibition, the cyclical nature of magazines and what she’s looking at on TikTok.

You created the magazine at the heart of this photo series and it reminds me of Tiger Beat. Was that intentional?

Tiger Beat was one of the many inspirations for this series. It’s a kind of lost bible somewhere in my mind. I do feel like now is the time to bring back Tiger Beat. We are in the grips of nostalgia, and I could see it happening. I would vote for it. It always had pull-out posters and some kind of interactive element. I think it would be very powerful.

What makes Yummy different?

I knew I wanted to make a long-term project about teen magazines and how they talked to us growing up as teenagers. It taps into the greater celebrity culture. I wanted to use actual clippings from the magazines from the late 1990s, but in terms of licensing and legality, it became clear to me that it would be easier to create my own magazine where I’d produce all the imagery myself.

A few years ago, when artificial intelligence started to bubble up, I asked myself if I could use A.I. to replicate these images in a convincing way to create a fake teen magazine. Something that would look like a spread from CosmoGirl or Elle Girl, and that’s where the project started. We produced it this summer—we created the fake cover, commissioned fake stories and created fake magazine sections. It reminded me how long it takes to produce and edit an actual magazine. It’s big.

What are your thoughts on magazines right now? Some people say they’re dead, others say magazines will never die.

I don’t know if they’re ever going to die. I heard someone say the other day that they subscribe to so many amazing writers on Substack and wish they could all be available in one place—I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a magazine.’ It’s interesting to still have that format. I don’t think they’re going to die, but teen magazines were the first casualty because young people seek out advice in different ways. In terms of magazines in general, they’re still iconic.

Two bright pink photographs hang framed on a white wall next to a three wall-mounted racks of magazines
An installation view of Elizabeth Renstrom’s “Yummy”. Thomas Brown

How did you use A.I. to steer the direction of Yummy magazine?

The magazine was entirely created by A.I., specifically ChatGPT. All of the text and headlines, teen heartthrob names and corresponding imagery were brought ll together in A.I. Whether it’s the dining section (“What to eat on a date”) or something else, you might think it’s a real magazine, but all the images are fake. The photos I took are real, but the magazine is featured prominently in the photo series.

Is the female gaze at the core of this series?

I wanted the final images to be about how we see ourselves in these stages, and how these images are guided both during the time of these magazines, like the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now. I’m optimistic. A lot of progress has been made, but there has been a wave of nostalgia for this time. I thought now would be a good time to do this because we are reflecting, looking back, and can now dig a little deeper into the culture of the time, where Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith were talked about in the same way we talked about teenage girls. My photo series acts as a reminder that all of this is cyclical.

Why did you keep the real models’ faces out of this photo shoot?

I wanted to keep the models anonymous because I didn’t want their real faces to stand out among all the fakeness around them. It captures heartthrob culture because there are classic magazines, showing how you form desire, whether it’s early desire shown through posters, with beauty, skincare and makeup, to actual dating. All of the images are born out of these topics.

What’s so exciting about TikTok right now when it comes to photography?

They feel like mini editorials that have happened both in the past and present. I’ve seen videos on TikTok focusing on 1990s runway shows by Thierry mugler—it feels so way back. There’s so much of that energy on TikTok. It’s an endless source of inspiration for imagery.

A girl wearing a flower printed top and with green hair stands facing away from a bathroom mirror
‘Eye Magic’, 2023, Inkjet Pigment Print, 30” W x 40” H. Kaz SENJU

Review: Elizabeth Renstrom’s ‘Yummy’ Is A.I.’s Take On Old-School Teen Tabloids