BY Justine Kurland in Opinion | 20 JAN 23
Featured in
Issue 232

Justine Kurland on the Girl Picture Problem

The artist and photographer confronts the ethical considerations made when photographing teenagers, and how they turn the camera onto themselves

BY Justine Kurland in Opinion | 20 JAN 23

Collier Schorr once wrote: ‘If adolescence were show business, then young guys would be Las Vegas.’ (‘Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky’ press release, 1999) Every teenager is a teenager pretending to be a teenager. They self-consciously posture, alternating between sets of coded poses formulated through images. Photography enables them to fix themselves in advance of entering the world, the same way Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver (1976), rehearses in front of a mirror, transforming himself into a serial killer long before he ever kills anyone. Photography is a mirror and the teenager couldn’t exist without it.

Paedophiles, advertisers, recruiters, social-media influencers, fashion magazines and family albums all traffic in images of children. So do a lot of art photographers.

In the late 1990s, I staged photographs of teenage girls as surrogates for myself in a fantasy of a coming world, one where solidarity between girls offered intimacy and protection, where girls were made stronger through the presence of other girls. I focused on teenagers because of their perpetual state of becoming – a latency that resounds with the freedoms and simple joys of childhood. I wanted to foreground girls’ lives, centring them by creating an all-female society. I employed the trope of the teenage runaway as a shortcut to freeing them from the cage of their suburban bedrooms and bringing them into a world of their own making, so we could get to the more difficult work of determining how we might be together.

Justine Kurland, Shipwrecked, 2000. Courtesy: the artist

I photographed on extended road trips across the US, scouting locations and finding girls along the way. The girls would collaborate in staging the scenes. The landscape offered its own drama: the dense undergrowth in the South, the gentle roll of the Midwestern prairie, the shrill light of the Southwest and the expansive vistas of the West. We built forts, made campfires, trespassed in abandoned buildings, explored highway underpasses and found swimming holes nestled between shady trees and pillowy patches of moss. The girls performed scenes of caretaking that became actual caretaking: feeding each other, brushing each other’s hair, walking arm in arm. I intended for them to playact a state of communal bliss. As it turned out, the girls were enthralled just by being together and making pictures. They jumped and half-skipped around each other every time we descended from the car and trekked into spaces of make-believe.

I asked girls from a wide cross-section of identities to sit for these images but, unsurprisingly, with few exceptions, only white girls were willing to trust their lives and their image in my hands. When a girl agreed to collaborate, she would often bring her friends and white girls usually brought other white girls. On my road trips, I travelled through mostly white spaces in a country that is still largely segregated. It was also a time when photographers were encouraged to stay in their lane. It was the 1990s, and it was considered exploitative for a white photographer to photograph a Black subject. I look at these pictures now, more than two decades later, and see that I both shaped and captured the racialized dreams of young white girls. ‘Girl Pictures’ (1997–2002) depicts a dream landscape, and a world at large, where even imaginations of resistance are misshapen by white supremacy.

Justine Kurland, Forest Fire, 2000. Courtesy: the artist

One of the most powerful exhibitions I’ve seen lately, ‘Picturing Black Girlhood’ (2022), was hung at Express Newark last spring. Scheherazade Tillet and Zoraida Lopez-Diago co-curated the work of more than 80 artists. It sprawled across three floors, interweaving discursive and varied interpretations of Black girls’ experiences. Tillet’s Black Girls, Good Friday Morning, Westside Chicago, Illinois (2016) pictures a group of Black teenage girls, dressed in impeccable individual styles, seated on the hood of a car, their close bonds of friendship immediately palpable. In Blue Queen (2015), Nona Faustine’s daughter, Queen, poses regally in a Disney princess dress on a red velvet divan, eyes looking out as if to claim her divine future. The young girl in Doris Derby’s 1968 photograph Rural Family Girlhood, Mileston, Mississippi is probably the same age as Queen. In contrast, her thin body drapes exhausted across a bedframe railing in a stark, bare room, looking to the viewer from her downturned head. In her series ‘The Black Doll’ (2017), Qiana Mestrich channels a mother’s love, purging stereotypes and caricatures from the toys. She mediates harmful messaging by abstracting it through dynamic cubism. Golden honey drips thick and viscous down a woman’s pregnant belly and pools on the floor in a surreal photograph from Nydia Blas’s series, ‘The Girls Who Spun Gold’ (2016). Sophia Nahli Allison’s video A Love Song for Latasha (2019), laments the devasting death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl murdered in a convenience store over a bottle of orange juice in 1991. Allison’s video reveals the everyday threats of violence menacing all Black girls and prematurely stripping them of their childhoods, if not their lives.

Nydia Blas, Honey Belly, 2016, from the series 'The Girls Who Spun Gold', archival inkjet print. Courtesy: the artist

In this light, Seneca Steplight-Tillet’s video self-portrait, Make Up Time (2020), becomes deadly serious. Seneca is curator Scheherazade Tillet’s niece and was 8 years old when she filmed herself, making her the youngest artist in the show. Perhaps more than anyone else, she captures the kaleidoscopic performance of self, at once private and public, as she rocks the camera from herself to her image reflected in the mirror of a plastic makeup box as she applies lipstick and purses her lips, mocking faces of feminine sexuality.

The last page in my book Girl Pictures (2018) shows a solitary Black girl running through a forest fire, ambiguously staged to suggest that she had either set the fire or was fleeing from it. It’s one of the more dystopic images I’ve made, and I sequenced it at the end of the book to signal the ongoing struggle. I would like to imagine her in the context of the Express Newark show, if I had the right to do so, encouraged and upheld by other Black girls. In the catalogue for US photographer Sally Mann’s exhibition ‘A Thousand Crossings’ (2018), Hilton Als writes: ‘I think that the artists who “get to” speak are those who do justice to the country’s complexity, in work that is as dense, strange and incomprehensible as the country that made them – and made Emmet Till and, before him, Nat Turner. […] In her work, Mann doesn’t assume that she is speaking about the Black experience but about a Black experience.’

Nona Faustine, Blue Queen, 2016, digital c-print. Courtesy: the artist 

I once photographed Mann’s daughter, Jessie, for Girl Pictures. She was 17 and loved being photographed. The pictures weren’t good, so I never showed them. But I’ll always remember meeting Jessie. She told me that her mother had to choose between being a mother or being an artist and that she had chosen to be an artist. It seemed an impossible and blatantly misogynistic binary to project onto Mann, but Jessie had clearly paid the psychic price for appearing in her mother’s photographs. Although it probably wasn’t the photographing that caused the damage so much as the public scandal and harassment that followed. In her memoir, Hold Still (2015), Mann writes about her children’s consent to be photographed: ‘Children cannot be forced to make pictures like these. Mine gave them to me.’ The line, for me, is very clear between photographs that constitute abuse and those that are collaborative: the photographs that wound and the photographs that affirm. Mann – yes, great! Jock Sturges – horrible. If a photographer is worth anything, they ought to be capable of detecting those differences in frequency.

My son, Casper, is now the age of the girls I photographed. He accompanied me on my road trips from six months to six years, and again each summer until he turned 11. The work I made during that period was published in Highway Kind in 2016. The book weaves trains and Western landscapes, cars and mechanics, train riders and fellow travellers together with photographs of Casper’s childhood on the road. He didn’t like to stand still for the large format camera, so I would often beg and bribe him to be in the pictures. Consent, after some negotiation, came grudgingly. Depictions of Casper exist in just 15 of the 84 plates in the book, but his presence permeates every picture. He hasn’t posed for me since he was 11 and he hasn’t spoken to me since he moved in with his father aged 15. One of his friends’ mothers sent me an iPhone picture from her son’s phone recently. It’s a night-time shot, blurred and pixelated. I pick Casper out of a group of boys posing for the camera. He’s the tallest and skeleton thin, swimming in his oversized clothing. Long hair frames his delicate face, half hidden in the shadow of a baseball hat. I don’t think I’d recognize him if I saw him on the street.

This article appeared in frieze issue 232 with the headline ‘The Girl Picture Problem’.

Main image: Justine Kurland, Golden Field, 1998. Courtesy: the artist

Justine Kurland is an artist. Her book SCUMB Manifesto was published by Mack in 2022.