When Justine Kurland first started staging photographs of girls play-acting as runaways and castoffs in the late 1990s, setting them loose in woods and beaches and highways to do what teenagers do, she had Holden and Huckleberry on the mind. She was activating an alluring yet flawed mythology of exploration and self-sufficiency, recasting it with girls as the protagonists for once. Her subjects are puckish adolescents at a precipice in their lives. They come in twos or threes or tens; they wear tank tops and baggy jeans, hair loose, sometimes shoeless, their very own band of lost girls fleeing from adulthood itself.
Welcome to Ways of Seeing, where two artists sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and fill each other in on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Justine Kurland. Originally from Warsaw, Poland, the photographer now resides in New York City. Her book Girl Pictures, which hit shelves in May, depicts young women she shot while road tripping across the North American wilderness in the Nineties and early Aughts.
Between 1997 and 2002, Justine Kurland travelled across the North American wilderness, capturing teenage girls in a series of staged images that express freedom and a new kind of utopia. She looks back on the project’s significance here
Girl Pictures (1997-2002) -- in which young women confidently occupy the forests, open highways and roadsides of America that belong, by default, to men -- recently became a book, inviting fresh appreciation for the relevance of its themes 20 years after being made. The images published in this article, much like those in Girl Pictures, and ones that can be found in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum, and International Center of Photography, New York, revel in “the double-edged nature of the American dream”, an intoxicating mix of freedom and darkness. Here, Justine talks us through a few of the pictures.
Locking eyes with a cowboy through the cinema screen is perhaps our most familiar insight into the North American frontier. Gunshots, gloomy saloons and stony-faced outlaws form the bedrock of the ‘wild west’ in our imagination, thanks to its feature as a recurring backdrop to some of Hollywood’s classics. While the cowboy quest might continue to thrive on the cinema screen, photographer Justine Kurland turns her lens to this dramatic landscape for a wholly different purpose. There are no cowboys in her work. Instead, the South Western plains become the realm of another kind of adventurer – the runaway teenage girl.
What would a photographed utopia look like? While the origins of photography coincided with the birth of various nineteenth-century utopian schemes, human society has never seemed further from realizing them, in part due to developments in technology—including the production and distribution of images—that seek to solidify social surveillance and control.
In the late 1990s, photographer Justine Kurland imagined runaway girls roaming the American landscape -- gathering in the woods, along highways and in open fields. Instead of encountering danger, these wayward spirits would form a sylvan utopia where girls could make their own rules.
Around the time she started working on a 2018 gallery show for Girl Pictures, a set of gorgeous portraits of teenage girls at play, shot between 1997 and 2002, the photographer Justine Kurland did something that proved just how much she had changed in the past 20 years. Long associated with road trips and an Edenic view of the American West, Kurland sold her van and called it quits on the quasi-nomadic life that had fueled her art for years.
Justine Kurland admits to having “terrible timing” when it comes to publishing photography books. “The first book I made with Aperture, Highway Kind, was released the day Trump was elected, and now Girl Pictures comes out in the middle of Covid-19,” she writes to AnOther over email as her latest book is published. The photographs in Girl Pictures were taken 20 years ago, and depict unruly teenagers in the equally wild landscapes of America. Kurland staged her “standing army” of teenage runaways as independent, unapologetic and fearless. “My runaways built forts in idyllic forests and lived communally in a perpetual state of youthful bliss,” the New York-based photographer writes in Girl Pictures, this new Aperture edition of which includes previously unpublished images from the series. “I wanted to make the communion between girls visible, foregrounding their experiences as primary and irrefutable.” A short story by Rebecca Bengal entitled The Jeremys is published in Girl Pictures, and encapsulates this longing for rebellion.
Justine Kurland’s monograph Highway Kind (2016) includes a short fictional piece by Lynne Tillman titled “Still Moving,” a collection of scenes that appear to be set in a single working-class town. Toward the beginning, one of Tillman’s characters finds herself struck with a moment of awe in an otherwise bleak world: “Estranged mountains bulged under the sky, the big sky, the endless sky. Anyway, no one could see an end to it, which reassured her, since so much seemed to be coming to an end. It felt that way.” This passage echoed in my head as I viewed “Airless Spaces,” an intimate presentation of Kurland’s new photographs alongside paintings by her late father, Bruce Kurland (1938–2013).
At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Kurland’s series, exhibited for the first time in its entirety, was cinematic in spirit. The sixty-nine vintage C-prints hung in a single line around the gallery. The narrative opened with a photograph taken in the postindustrial landscape of New Haven, Connecticut, and continued across multiple road trips that Kurland took over the course of five years. In these staged images, her subjects absorb themselves in activities by and for each other, from drawing on one another’s backs to killing small game. They could be plucked from sundry girl-centric films of the 1990s—think Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) or Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994). Wearing threadbare, slouchy clothes, sans makeup, and often with no men in sight, these girls “act” more often than “appear”—to reverse the terms of John Berger’s famous phrase, “Men act and women appear.”
Starting in New Haven, where she was finishing her graduate studies at Yale, Kurland drove across the country (with a stint in New Zealand) photographing adolescent girls in scenes that are part bucolic idyll, part Lord of the Flies. A gritty, outlaw narrative connects scenes often photographed with the composition and soft light of 19th-century landscape paintings. (Kurland named her son Caspar, after all, for Caspar David Friedrich.) Three of the images have “Boy Torture” in in their titles, but unless the girls are tormenting one, boys seldom feature. Sex simmers under the surface, not to mention – and more importantly – self-sufficiency. These ad hoc communities of young women are precursors to Kurland’s series a few years later, Of Woman Born, pastoral photographs of naked mothers and their small naked children who seem just as self-reliant.
The runaways of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, 1997–2002—feral teens living in moody, thrill-seeking packs at the gorgeous outskirts of civilization—bear a more than passing resemblance to the Runaways. It’s as though the members of the legendary seventies girl band wandered away from their tour bus at a highway rest stop and just kept going. What would their raw rebellion and sexual self-possession look like offstage, without an audience, in the wild? Kurland answers with sixty-nine transfixing photographs.
“I staged the girls as a standing army of teenaged runaways in resistance to patriarchal ideals,” she says. “The girls in these photographs have gathered together in solidarity, claiming territory outside the margins of family and institutions.” Kurland would scout evocative locations, often with links to the 19th-century Western frontier, and recruit her youthful subjects from local towns and schools. “I never knew where I would end up or whom I would find,” she says, “so it was impossible to predetermine the outcome. I allowed my narratives to unravel as I constructed them. I wanted the pictures to contain both my projection and the actuality of the situation.”
The girls were rebelling. The girls were acting out. The girls had run away from home, that much was clear. They were trying on a version of themselves that the world had thus far shown them was boy. FLoating a raft downt he Mississippi. Tucking smokes into the sleve of a T-shirt. Having a rumble. Living off the land. Cowboys, sailors, pirates, hitchhikers, hobos, train hoppers, explorers, catchers in the rye, lords of the flies – you name it, all the dominion of boys. If you wanted a place in the narrative, you had to imagine yourself inside of it.
In Highway Kind, we see Justine Kurland's on-the-road photographs as if through a film of fantasy - a very masculine, very American fantasy, about freedom and self-reliance and the big wide open.
After years traversing the U.S. in a van, the photographer and her son sit down for a candid interview.
The new body of work is (partly) about America’s so-called “love affair” with the car, which in Kurland’s hands becomes as complex a relationship as any real couple could have: There’s real affection, but also MADness (as in, Mutually Assured Destruction). In this photo, the couple have got to the point where they’re dressing the same, but the man’s embrace is also a taking apart. (Turn the picture sideways and they start slow dancing.) Kurland’s subjects have often been sentimental: Her love affair with her little tyke, for instance, and their Rootabaga Story adventures among the trains that made the West. But what’s crucial is that she treats her motifs without sentiment. (Courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY)
Titled “Sincere Auto Care” with demotic aplomb (the new series of work is named after an actual auto body shop in Nebraska), Kurland’s exhibition functions, according to the gallery press release, as an exploration of American car culture and the enduring fantasy of the open road. But, in our time, the once robust cruiser-ideal of Ford and GM has given way to massive layoffs and killer ignition switches, while the epic adventure of Easy Rider has downshifted to survival of the fittest in The Rover. In theaters and on the street, Manifest Destiny has shed its rosy-cheeked utopianism for a grizzled dystopian pallor. No wonder its exhausted face shows up repeatedly in Kurland’s photos looking feral, meth-addicted, and unemployed.
A photographer who started out as a fantasist—staging scenes of young girls escaping together into idyllic landscapes—has turned into one of our most talented realists. Kurland remains a storyteller, and her new work combines engaged photojournalism with a sure feel for its narrative possibilities. Her latest pictures, of wrecked cars, auto-repair shops, and mechanics, reflect her recent years on the American road, usually in the company of her son, who shows up here as the youngest member in a cast of rough-and-ready guys. Kurland’s take on masculinity is an ideal balance of appreciation and critique. With no women in sight, the automobile becomes the focus of all erotic attention. Through Oct. 11.
In her new series, “Sincere Auto Care,” on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Kurland again offers observations from her travels; this time documenting—with a nod to Walker Evans—cars, mechanics, and the freedom of life on the open road. Photographed across the U.S. over the course of the last three years, some 35 photographs find beauty in the characteristically bleak: a gritty hand or dangling roadkill; a shaggy-haired “junkie” in Tacoma; a tattooed mechanic, tucked under the body of a Mercedes 280 Coup; a driver holding a gleaming Cadillac wheel with wire spokes. All that, as she says, exist in a place “where beauty is found not because the world is beautiful but because it is beautifully described.”
John Yau and Justine Kurland discuss Kurland's most recent body of work, Sincere Auto Care, and the relationship between photography, poetry and narrative.
Ashton Cooper from Blouin Artinfo asks Justine Kurland about her two current exhibitions at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, her practice and her inspiration.
For more than a decade, Justine Kurland has taken photographs during annual cross-country journeys from New York to the Pacific Northwest that reveal the double-edged nature of the American dream. A lifelong nomad (she grew up traveling to Renaissance festivals, where her mother sold hand-sewn clothes), her tools are her 4×5 camera and her van, which allow her to dwell, briefly, in the worlds of the marginal figures she photographs. First, there were the girls she cast as runaways, forging into forests and swimming holes. Later came images of commune members in wilderness idylls and panoramas of westbound freighters and the hobos who ride them.
The celebration of motherhood hasn't been a favored subject for artists since Impressionism and the early-twentieth century movements on which its influence is immediately discernable.
In her show "Songs of Experience," Justine Kurland offered a world of enchantment--outside the bounds of time and convention. The setting was a forest, pictured in dramatic large-scale Cibachrome prints, her first landscapes without people.