“Boy Torture: the Two-Headed Monster” (1999) by Justine Kurland from the series Girl Pictures

When imagining girlhood in a rather vague sense, what comes to mind is plastic. Plastic dolls, plastic pink crowns and shoes and jewelry. A stiff neon interpretation colored by a very successful advertising campaign made by toy companies. But, when I think back to my own experience of girlhood, I find something very different. The things I remember most are myself and my friends, alone, unsurveilled, tromping through a campsite, playing mini golf at the abandoned course we found, or giving each other makeovers on the bathroom floor. Memories devoid of the imagery accompanying the word girl. Justine Kurland’s series of photographs titled “Girl Pictures” is a beautiful rendition of the experience of girlhood when those experiencing it are let loose on the world. 

I first stumbled upon the photo series on instagram, through a lesbian photo archive. I was immediately struck by the familiar scenes, and unique view of how girls navigate the world. The first image was in a prairie in late fall or winter, a highway in the background. Some bare tree branches lean into view, with a girl sitting in one of them. There are small patches of mostly melted snow and an abandoned tire. Front and center are two girls in jackets holding down a boy, one of them with spit hanging from her mouth. It was odd to observe a scene I felt intimately a part of. I remember wandering around the suburbs I lived in on my bike finding little places like this, always overlooked by a highway or other distant piece of city infrastructure that felt like a holdout of nature or teenage freedom. The girls in these pictures are not delicate, nor were any girls I knew growing up. They’re a little mean, they’re powerful. The photo is titled “Boy Torture: the Two-Headed Monster”. These girls inhabit the nondescript environment around them and live the dreamlike life of teenage runaways escaping the roles that have been dictated to them. 

These photos all live on this edge of civilization, where concrete, distant roads, campsite bathrooms, and broken down cars remind the viewer that this moment of unknowable teenage freedom is temporary. Images like “Curled Up” and “Bathroom” reminded me of the intimate moments of being a teenage girl and sharing secret space with other girls, especially in the context of being queer. There’s an element of intimacy that feels like home, on the edge of plausible deniability, like before there was language or community connected to attraction between girls. Like when I would run off to spend time alone with my closest friends, not sure why my heart raced or why I wished we could run off into the woods together and never come back. 

Justine Kurland took these photos while on road trips through the Western United States of girls at play in the late 90s and early 2000s but they didn’t make their way into a gallery show until 2018, where they had taken on a completely new meaning. I was lucky enough to discover them in 2022 on my own journey of discovery and found them to be a nostalgic and safe place to reconnect with girlhood outside of what it had been prescribed as.

-Nat Urban
Girl Museum Inc.

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