Photographer Justine Kurland on a road trip with her son, capturing life along the rails

Justine Kurland is a rising star in the world of photo-based art, most famous for her pictures of girls and women staged out in the wild. Her latest bodies of work, however, are inspired by the interests of her 5-year-old son.
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Casper and Justine Kurland have become the closest of artistic collaborators. He comes up with the ideas and she takes the photos. Those have often included pictures of him, nude and gorgeous with his blond hair blowing in the wind. The pair are now months into their latest photographic road trip across the American West, and Casper's current concept is ambitious, if a bit vague: "Why don't we photograph everything that's interesting?"

Justine is almost willing to try it. After all, Casper's last concept took her photos in a new direction that paid off. He got her to shoot freight trains, as well as the hobos, street kids and alternative types who build their lives around them, and the pictures scored a big success last fall when they were shown in New York. Kurland's exhibition was such a hit that its catalogue will be available on in hardback in the next few days. Some of those train pictures are also due in Washington, in the Kurland show that the National Museum of Women in the Arts hopes to mount around the time of its 25th birthday, in 2012.

Justine Kurland is 40, model-thin and rawboned, with thick black hair worn tomboy straight and scruffy clothes that look like a poor girl's Comme des Garcons.

Casper Kurland still has a touch of baby fat. He favors train-themed T-shirts, bare legs and, until rather recently, disposable diapers. He is 5.

"It's getting to the point where I live on the road," says the elder Kurland, speaking from their latest stop, in Santa Cruz, Calif. (She says a friend is keeping Casper busy in a nearby restaurant; he lasts almost an hour before Mom has to end the interview. ) The pair have been on the go since late December, when they once again left behind their tiny apartment on New York's Lower East Side -- bathtub in the hot-plate kitchen; red-painted wood floors; makeshift shelves bulging with photo books and supplies -- in favor of a live-in van and open skies. "He's just psyched to be with me," says Kurland. ". . . Casper lives in the moment."

Starting from before he was 2, Casper's moments -- every waking one of them -- simply had to include trains. The van was full of boxes of toy trains; wherever the pair traveled, they had to look for the real things. "I can't even describe the intensity of his interest," Kurland says. She checked train books and Web sites that told them where to spot which kind of rolling stock.

At that time, Kurland was still working solo, you could say, making the fine-art photos that had first won her recognition. Right out of grad school at Yale in 1998, she'd become known for staged photos of women and girls, often naked, set in various versions of the American landscape. This wasn't babes-in-nature cheesecake. The pictures she showed, in a now-famous group show called "Another Girl, Another Planet," were of female toughs having adventures in exurban woods -- "reverse-gender Huckleberry Finns," as one critic put it. Later pictures presented a full-blown Arcadian fiction of an all-female society in touch with the planet. That fiction was romantic, but it was also so obviously staged that it didn't read entirely straight-faced. The photos were about trying the fiction on for size rather than fully buying into it.

Photos unstaged

Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, says Kurland was "one of the key younger artists" in a show called "Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography," staged at the museum in 2008. Sterling now keeps a Kurland poster on her office wall, and her institution took in 14 Kurland originals in its latest round of acquisitions, to add to the four it already owned. Sterling says she likes the "hopeful or winsome character" she finds in Kurland's photos. "You feel a bit of angst, but you always feel there's a bit of potential for the women in her works."

Kathryn Wat, curator of modern and contemporary art at Women in the Arts, likes the photos' emotional directness: "She's really presenting something that's dear to her heart. For me, that's very moving, and quite rare in the contemporary art world today."

The girls and women in Kurland's work may have been dropped into their natural settings by the artist, but they seem to be playing themselves rather than fictional characters. They aren't professional actors or models; they were volunteers Kurland found during the road trips she started taking before Casper was born. "I would just show up in a town and trawl for girls," she says. Her subjects' alternative lifestyles were often not that far from the roles they took on in her photos.

In one series of photographs from the early 2000s, Kurland pushed further toward the documentary. She shot her male and female subjects "straight," in the communes they were still living in as the last descendants of 1960s utopians. The twin towers had just come down, she says, "so it made sense for me to find people who were really trying to change the world."

The Gypsy thing

Kurland says she grew up in the orbit of such people. Her father was a painter but took off when she was 3. Her mother, who now lives near the commune of some friends in Roanoke, trained to be an artist but fed her three daughters by sewing period clothes for Renaissance fairs all over. The kids would be pulled from school at fair time, so Kurland feels "the Gypsy thing" comes from her mom. Kurland was raised in Upstate New York but had run away to be an artist in Manhattan by the time she was 15: "This aunt took me in like a stray."

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