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A THOUSAND WORDS: Justine Kurland.

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.


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. The tension lies between the staging and the unpredictability.

I got the teen runaway idea a few years back. I knew a sheltered fifteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family, and I just had to cast her as a runaway. We went to Port Authority and other rough sections of New York to shoot, and the images came out stereotypically sexy and streetwise. I gradually lost those elements and came up with my own iconography, which has become more abstracted and diffuse. Now it's about being a pretty girl, traveling through the forest, making a fire, becoming a fire chaser.

The device that reads "paradise" might be a nineteenth-century convention, but my photos won't be archaic. I make this emphatic by putting the fantasy moments in modern or urban settings, by letting the mood be both. The girls are near a river (the romantic means of transportation) in the mist, among purple flowers; one wears some in her hair. It's the perfect girl world. The other part is a New Jersey highway bypass, and the haze is from smoke bombs, which are for bad kids, usually boys. In being rebellious tomboys, they create a beautiful but polluted fog. What I want is to find this picture in real life.

I've always had strong women around me. I'm lucky that way. We were really poor when I was growing up; my parents, both artists, were bohemians. Life was a desperate struggle, but in service of a high ideal, which is exactly what my photographs are about. The grimness of the journey is the flip side of something else; the girls eventually make it to the most beautiful, perfect place. You have to ask what it means that all these women are photographing women now, reinventing stereotypes, looking at that moment of late girlhood. Why is that so powerful, so interesting? If I knew, I wouldn't be making these pictures. D

History Painting 101--revised. Moments serene enough to be from a Claude Lorrain, staged beneath a freeway overpass or on the banks of a toxic swamp. Pastoral bathers wear concert-tour T-shirts; highway angels with dirty fingernails shoplift Oreos; Pre-Raphaelite nymphs capture hapless boys who've happened on the wrong glade. Each of Justine Kurland's photographs is a vignette from an ongoing narrative. Inspired by autobiography no less than by fairy tales, movies, Afterschool Specials, even painting in the Grand Manner, Justine's World is an idyll where fact melts into fiction, where every girl is beautiful and your friends always look out for you. Kurland never expected the attention that's come her way since "Another Girl, Another Planet," last year's much ballyhooed group photography exhibition co-organized by artist Gregory Crewdson and gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. Although Kurland admits that the show "totally rocked my world," the ensuing hype doesn't seem to have diminished her sincerity. We ta lked in her Lower East Side apartment at the end of a January day so cold it humbled the sputtering radiators. Reinforced by a Pendleton wool shirt borrowed from the Kurland preteen-hitchhiker wardrobe department, I asked her about the girls she photographs and listened as she recounted her recent road trip across America to uncover its secret girl world.
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Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Next Article:ROBERT BRESSON: 1901-1999.

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