On a Sunday afternoon in March, I received an email from Martin Ledford, a photography teacher at Santa Monica High School in California. Every fall, he explained, he has his students create a book on the theme of “portrait and identity,” and he wanted to call my attention to the work of a particularly talented 11th grader named Nico Young. He sent along Nico’s portrait book. After viewing the pictures, I agreed that they were exceptional, especially for such a young photographer. His photos were brimming with an uncommon authenticity and emotional depth.

At the end of April, we gave Nico his first magazine assignment: Show us what life is like at Santa Monica High. He documented the timeless rituals of high school — the mad dash between classes, lunchtime cliques, yearbook signings, the prom, dissections in the science lab. When the athletes and band members returned for preseason practice in August, he was there to document that too. Not surprisingly, the most interesting pictures were made outside the four walls of the classroom, where the students were free to be their most exuberant — and most vulnerable — selves, in a world of their own making.