Magazine article Artforum International

A THOUSAND WORDS: Justine Kurland

Magazine article Artforum International

A THOUSAND WORDS: Justine Kurland

Article excerpt

There's a group of girls in New York that I photograph regularly. They call me all the time and talk about their moms and share ideas for photos. I have some clothes in the back of my car and ask that they wear their scruffiest things. I want them to look a little travel-worn, but at the same time, I try to glamorize them. I want to make the most beautiful photograph of them that can. Girls have so much power at eleven, twelve years old, right before hitting that phase where they close down and begin to worry about how they look, their bodies. When we start out, I'll explain, "This is the world: You're running away, you live in trees, you eat nectar, you torture boys, and you're a little bit mean." And they get it. Girls acquire an understanding of the world before they're ready for it, and it conflicts with their uneasy feelings about themselves. I want to unravel that angst, to prop them up. I say, "If Huck Finn did it, you can too. Build the raft, go." I really do bond with them, and the photographs are ma de collaboratively, which is what was so hard about the "fly-by" photography I did on my recent road trip.

TALKS ABOUT HER RECENT PHOTOGRAPHS

I drove from New York to California by myself. The iconography of travel and escape is everywhere in my photographs, and this journey was about being a teenage runaway, a narrative that runs through my work. So actually becoming a runaway was crucial. I had this idea that I'd make my way across the frontier and find my story as it was actually happening in the landscape. But it was harder than that. really had to look for everything.

I'm always thinking about painting: nineteenth-century English picturesque landscapes and the utopian ideal, genre paintings, and also Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. I started going to museums at an early age, but my imagery is equally influenced by illustrations from the fairy tales I read as a child. During my drive, I mostly thought about landscape photography, like the expansive western-frontier images of Carleton E. Watkins and William Henry Jackson. My pictures are strongly narrative, but what I took on the road isn't elaborate. I was forced to pare it way down. I was the runaway, making do with available resources. Things became simplified because I didn't know where I was or who I was going to shoot. What happens when you drive into a town and find people who aren't familiar with the art world, who've never heard of a staged tableau before? A lot of it was just figuring out how to get them to be in the photos.

In Arizona, I had this whole plan to go into the desert and stage an idealized "pioneer life" picture. But that story just kind of emptied out. The result is somewhat surreal. There's a girl lying down and the other figures seem like part of her dream. Although I couldn't tell you exactly what the compositional origins might be, they're familiar. I'm always referencing a memory bank of poses and figural arrangements. But at the same time I'm also documenting my own fiction, the movie in my head, and the girls bring in their stories--and it's also a photograph, subject to the effects of wind and shifting natural light. If I stage things too much and nothing changes in the act of photographing, then I might as well have not taken the picture: If the whole thing already exists in my head, then I haven't learned anything. …

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