Photo Books

Justine Kurland, Home, The Photographer in the Garden

BY Vince Aletti, July 7, 2018

The first time I saw work from the series Justine Kurland calls Girl Pictures was in Another Girl, Another Planet, the exhibition Gregory Crewdson and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn organized in 1999. Like Crewdson, Kurland and the 11 other women (and one man) in the show staged their pictures in a confident, cinematic style that suddenly looked like a movement. Kurland’s narratives all involved young girls, runaways it seemed, traipsing through and camping out in landscapes that, even if they were only in the shadow of a highway overpass, echoed with the call of the wild. But this ever-changing band of outsiders is exploring freedom with a sweet, easy intimacy that suggests their adventures are occasionally, experimentally, and no-big-deal erotic. That queer reading is hard to dismiss now that Kurland has published Girl Pictures (Mitchell-Innes & Nash), the catalogue to a recent show of 69 images at that gallery, nearly half of them never seen before. Made between 1997 and 2002, first on New York’s ragged edges, later on road trips all the way West, the work is not the least dated, and it’s even more compelling seen en masse. “I channeled the raw, angry energy of girl bands into my photographs of teenagers,” Kurland writes in a terrific afterword. “It was as if I took Cherie Currie – the Runaways’ lead singer – on a picnic somewhere out in the country. I would show her my favorite tree to climb, braid her hair by a gently flowing river, and read aloud to her…” With this in mind, she describes the pictures as “fantasies of attachment and belonging” that lead her to “imagine a world in which acts of solidarity between girls would engender even more girls – they would multiply through the sheer force of togetherness and lay claim to a new territory.” In a sense, Kurland has already claimed and charted that territory with this work. Even if they’re just passing through, her girls turn these woods, fields, empty lots, and swimming holes into liberated land – a place they’ll always belong.  

Mark Power, England, 2017. ©Mark Power/Magnum Photos, from Home (Magnum)

Two excellent collections delve into the satisfactions and limitations of domestic (and domesticated) space. Asked to photograph Home (Magnum), 16 photographers from that agency took it as a rare opportunity to get off the road and look around them; the results are largely autobiographical. Mark Power deals with the emotions swirling around a daughter leaving for college, Olivia Arthur with the birth of her second child and its effect on her first. Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Thomas Dworzak, and Alessandra Sanguinetti photograph the homes they grew up in and are drawn back to. Antoine d’Agata is similarly drawn, but his tortured text about rehab and relapse can’t begin to illuminate the nighttime views of houses and landscapes that appear closed to him.

The Photographer in the Garden (Aperture) is considerably sunnier. Compiled and written by Jamie M. Allen and Sarah Anne McNear, the book surveys a remarkable range of historical and contemporary work, much of it completely unexpected. It helps that the authors see garden as a flexible concept, leaving the book open to botanical images of all sorts. The section devoted to “Arranged Flowers” opens with Irving Penn and includes work by Steichen, Atget, Man Ray, Wolfgang Tillmans, Walker Evans, James Welling, and Araki. The backyard plot, the private preserve, the public park, the botanical garden – all are explored, with no sense of redundancy. The balance of well-known and little-known photographers is just right; there are discoveries from both, and the design gives them all prime space. Without being the least bit saccharine, this is a book about pleasure. We may not be able to go back to the garden, but it can’t hurt to imagine that we’ve never left it.