Text: Jillian Billard
All Images Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Between 1997 and 2002, photographer Justine Kurland, then an M.F.A. candidate at Yale, shot her now-iconic series of photographs titled “Girl Pictures.” The project began in New Haven, where Kurland staged fictional scenes of adolescent girls as runaways. Clad in baggy jeans and dirtied ribbed tank tops, the girls were imaged traversing swampy bridge underpasses, lighting bonfires, and living in tents on the outskirts of society.
A year after beginning her project, Kurland decided to take the project on the road––adopting the spirit of the teenage runaway. Fascinated by the way that the American dream is at once a utopia and a dystopia, Kurland has dedicated much of her life to the open road. In 1998 she embarked on a cross-country journey, shooting scenes of adolescent girls making their way through the fringes of the American landscape––washing their clothes in the sinks of public restrooms; having sex in the back of an old rusted car frame; swimming in lakes; and dancing along an open dirt road.
The photographs, though staged, possess an unparalleled raw authenticity. Kurland––most known for her alluring, almost mystical photographs of fringe communal living, motherhood, and the American landscape––possesses a keen eye when it comes to balancing the uncanny and the real, an effect she attributes to allowing a natural unraveling of a constructed scene.
The subjects of Kurland’s “Girl Pictures” are imaged traversing the fine line between adolescence and adulthood; at times committing acts of maturity like hunting and roasting an entire pig over an open fire or exploring their sexuality; and yet there is also a gleeful innocence to them; as the girls are seen blowing bubble gum, playing games, spitting on boys, and putting leeches all over each other. Each scene is like a snapshot from a film; as Kurland expertly captures the idiosyncrasies of each of her subjects. We witness them teetering on the precipice of adulthood––growing into themselves with unabashed authenticity beyond the bounds of traditional society––nourished by each other’s company.
Now, for the first time ever, all 69 of the original prints from the “Girl Pictures” series are exhibited together at Chelsea Gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, on view through June 29th. In its entirety, the series of vignettes documents an ethereal poetic narrative that offers an intimate look into American youth culture that is not to be missed.
Mitchell Innes & Nash is located at 534 West 26th St. in Chelsea, New York.