About the Cover

Nietzsche once famously remarked that human beings would “rather have the void as a purpose than to be void of purpose.”  He was referring to the desire of human beings to be unburdened of what he considered the essential characteristic of human life: freedom. Writing in a place and time of social constraint, Nietzsche saw the confrontation with life’s inherent lack of meaning and purpose, without the crutch of imposed religious systems, as a fundamental responsibility. Jump ahead 130 years to an America in which human relations are fluid, religion provides neither binding rituals nor widely shared narratives of social norms and sexual maturation – at least not in popular culture – and you can begin to understand the power of the Purity movement. The movement encourages young women to make a pledge of chastity until marriage, and confirms their commitment through participation in a Purity Ball with their fathers as partners. They, too, must make a vow to support their daughters’ decisions. It took an outsider, Swedish photographer David Magnusson, to recognize this phenomenon as quintessentially American and to treat it with the nuance it deserves. His series Purity is on display at Pictura Gallery in Bloomington, Indiana (February 6-March 28), and it serves as a challenge to secular values and liberal preconceptions. Magnusson collaborated with his subjects on specific locations, and the postures are theirs, but the portraits collectively strive for a Becher-like neutrality and consistent point of view. As curator Lisa Woodward points out, the detachment allows the many layers of the subjects’ motivations to reveal themselves. In Miranda Heckert, 13 years & Jody Heckert, Yuma Arizona, the relationship of daughter to her Marine-uniformed father appears to be one of command and control, with the parent providing an almost military protection and the daughter in full retreat from sexuality behind that shield – “to make sure the bad guys out there keep their distance,” as he says in his vow. But a close examination reveals a common characteristic of many of the images: the daughters appear to set the terms of the contract. “The fathers are often visually soft,” observes Woodward, “while the girls assert their autonomy.” Leaning against her father with her eyes closed and her hands across his, Miranda might be dreaming of a place in which fantasies come true, marriages never end in divorce, and purity is synonymous with permanence. Or, as Woodward points out, she might be experiencing a form of familial closeness young people today are often missing. If these photographs look and feel like wedding photographs, it is possibly less out of the perverseness of the idea of such a ball and more out of society’s lack of meaningful, trans-generational rituals for coming of age. “The exhibition has provoked strong reactions,” adds Woodward. “We preach tolerance in this country, but we often approach others with predetermined ideas. These young women are striving for something beyond them, a higher ideal they hope will transform their lives. The photographs are deeply respectful of that desire.”