PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTINE KURLAND
WORDS BY IMA TRAUM
Justine Kurland is known for her staged utopian photographs, with real and fictional elements of American wilderness and rural communes. Her early work was inspired by her cross-country journeys that focused on the double-edged nature of the American dream. Born in 1969 in New York, the American contemporary photographer had just been listed as a M.F.A candidate at Yale, as she sat behind the wheel of her caravan, while still a novice driver, at the age of 27. A series of 69 photographs shot between 1997 and 2002, Kurland’s Girl Pictures points the camera to the women she stumbled upon on the road. Restaging the desires, dreams and daily rituals of rebellious teenagers, these images will feel familiar, not only to Western societies, but to many of us who have caught a glimpse of the American dream. Quoting Kurland, ‘My road trips underscored the pictures I staged — the adventure of driving west is a performance in itself.’
Decimating the roles attributed to women in the modern world, Kurland employs a contemporary narrative, as she reconsiders the strong, fearless and feminine myths rooted in matriarchal societies. Inspiration for Kurland’s re-imagined utopia of femininity lies in idyllic landscape paintings and the work of acclaimed 19th century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Her surreal photographs, reminiscent of paintings, might first create a desire to escape – but, actually, they tell the tales of women who were born and raised surrounded by nature and who roam freely, without having to answer to anyone but themselves.
The essence of being a young woman is infinite freedom, not fear. This is what Kurland highlights in Girl Pictures. At first glance, we see the tale of women and girls who have lost their way in the wild, only to find themselves, but there is a subtext: the intrepid freedom of women who defy modern realities. Kurland’s ‘runaway’ women do not shy away from frolicking nude, in the wild in – they have renounced such fears. By venturing into the ‘forest’ – a concept associated with going against the norm, since Shakespeare – these women also remind us of the limits of freedom in the modern world, the roadsides that serve as migration corridors, the changing face of our forests, and the women who keep up their struggle.
Kurland describes her photography as navigating ‘the spectrum between the perfect and the real.’ Her work appears in several reputable collections, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Girl Pictures was published as a book in 2020, after the full series was exhibited for the first time, at Mitchell-Ines & Nash, in 2018. The first edition of the book quickly sold out and reprints followed. Kurland sold the caravan she drove while shooting Girl Pictures, as things changed around her — she identifies the election of Donald Trump as a moment where the meaning of her work shifted a bit — she stopped wanting to perform in the same way. She has since started new work, which she describes as ‘all about looking inward and thinking about what I was running from.’