Talking To Justine Kurland
Ghost Town CSX, 2007
Justine Kurland, known for her idyllic portraits of girl runaways, commune hippies, and mothers with their children, spends most of the year on the road, a traveler searching out other travelers. When her son Casper was born she started taking him along on her trips, but by the time he turned two in 2006, his boyish love of trains had redirected her focus. They began haunting rail yards, and Kurland started photographing the snaking series of engines, boxcars, gondolas, flat cars, and chemical cars, and, later, the people who ride them.The images that resulted—a selection of which were recently published by Ecstatic Peace Library as This Train Is Bound for Glory—evidence a shift in Kurland’s photography. The romantic sensibility is still there, but her subjects are mostly men, and their world is one where, as Woody Guthrie sang, “You never change your socks / And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks.”
Keddie Wye, 2007
Vice: In 2000, you said of your photographs of teenage runaways, “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.” But for this new series you didn’t ride the rails, so how did you approach the subject of trains and hobos?
Justine Kurland: It’s really retarded how I do it, because there are lots of rail fans who have these radio wave things, and you can plug in and listen to the dispatchers, and know when the trains are coming. But I never did any of that. There was something about just going and waiting. I feel like everything I do is counterintuitive, antiproductive. I don’t check the train schedules. I don’t have one of those radios. I remember this one time we were waiting, and Casper insisted that he needed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so I had to go back to the car and make it, and when I’m at the car, of course that’s when the train comes. I was really mad and I was yelling at him and I said, “You know, Jeff Wall does not have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots.”
In the book, you wondered what Brice Marden’s paintings would look like if he had painted with a child on his hip. It’s a legitimate question. Women have so many different roles to play. If you’re a mother and you’re an artist, you’re thought of as two things, and which is primary? But male artists are always artists first.
Exactly. It’s tricky because maybe you shouldn’t even say that raising children is such a female experience, but I just don’t know any men who feel it as deeply, but then why isn’t that relevant to their work? Art is supposed to be about this kind of intensified experience of life. Drug addiction puts you on the edge and propels you into this raw or more liberated state. And that is totally what raising kids does to you, too. You’re getting your heart broken every second. Everything becomes dramatic. Everything becomes heightened, and the range of experience becomes so much greater. Your heart is so much more open. All of those things that we think of when we think about what the artist’s experience is are embodied in this idea of having children, but still, it has historically been a women’s experience. I remember when I did the mama pictures [Of Woman Born], and I was like, wow, I’m really gonna get slammed, and I had this conversation with Jay Gorney, and he’s always been really supportive of my work—there’s always this money issue ‘cause I’m always, always broke—but he was like, “You know, Justine, I don’t know who’s gonna buy these pictures because women don’t like women and men don’t like women.” [laughs] He was like, “Hopefully some lesbians will come around.”
For the record, I’m not a lesbian and I love your mother photos.
In photographing other women, particularly girls, you’ve explored more fully what that period of late girlhood looks like and you’ve also reinvented what it looks like as the subject of a photograph. So what does it mean that this new body of work mainly depicts men?
Well, it’s interesting. The whole project came though Casper, because he became really obsessed with trains. Trains are really a male-dominated field: All the rail fans are men, and train riders are predominantly men. My father got diagnosed with cancer right at the time that those train pictures came out, and it had been really hard for me to find out that I was having a boy child and not a girl child, so maybe there’s something cathartic in the work. And then it was also the time that my relationship with Casper’s father had fallen apart. It was like there was a kind of weird attention on men in my life.
I have to back up a little bit. It’s not like I’m studying gender. I mean, I’m a feminist, and my work is feminist. But I think it was more about being a mom, and I’m the mom of a boy, and this is his boy world with trains that I was delving into. I feel that the nominal subject matter of this body of work is trains, landscapes, hobos, marginalized populations. The subject matter really comes back to just a very subjective moment of, like, okay, I’m bringing my kid on the road, and I have to make it fun for him, I have to incorporate who he is into it. And then I found my own way through it.
How did that happen?
When we first did it, I didn’t even think of photographing hobos. I was just thinking about trains. Casper actually doesn’t like hobos at all. He thinks the whole idea of a rider on a train is disturbing, because it ruins the perfect square after square after square after square. It’s very streamlined for him. But I remembered looking at all these James Welling pictures and thinking about how his work is so much about the self-reflexive moments of a photographer that it’s almost as if the train in his photograph disappears and it becomes a photograph of nothing in a way, because it’s impossible to make a new picture of a train. They’re just like the most banal symbol of America.
So I was interested in the idea of this clichéd American iconography of the West. I just started going around to these spots and meeting rail fans and learning more about the history of this train merging with this company, and thinking about the whole idea of how the West was won. And it was really pretty slowly that I started thinking about hobos, but it was in this way I do of everything becoming very subjective and not work. I’m not a documentarian. I’m not a hardcore landscape artist. I record something about the American landscape, but it’s subjective, and this idea was like my own kind of gypsy American nomadic thing.
Hemp Bracelet For Spanging, 2009
Some of the book’s images are idyllic—Hemp Bracelet for Spanging, for instance, where two kids are sitting on a mossy log in an old forest—but others, like Debris from Hobo Children, show the actual wreckage of this romantic sort of rustic solitude. These are lush, gorgeous photographs, but the life you’re depicting is a tough one; it can be dangerous and violent.
The one called Suicide Bed was taken in Olympia. It’s of a tunnel—the light at the end of the tunnel—and it says “hope” on the wall. But on that train track there’s a piece of paper that is the most hideous suicide letter I’ve ever read. It was like, “This world fucking sucks and I hate everyone and I want to die, and, like, fuck you all, assholes.” It was just vile anger, and there were needles and everything in that tunnel and someone was clearly sleeping in that bed, but the track was for a local train that comes once a week. So if you were on the bed when the train came, you’d get swept into the wheels. I mean, there’s no way you could survive if you were lying there. So that one is, yes, very dark, I think. Darker than any picture that I’ve ever made before.
Portrait of a Hobo, 2007
To what extent are the hobo pictures staged?
Well, the portraits are staged the way any portrait would be. Like, OK, stand over there, a little to the right, a little to the left. But I’m shooting all of this with a 4 x 5 camera, which has a big setup. You know, once you focus the camera, you can’t have anyone move out of the plane of focus. It’s a very slow process. It’s about waiting for the right moment. There is a theatrical distance from the narrative so that there’s more of a questioning, and in that way there is a play—that I think my work has always had—between reality and a kind of fantasy realm or extrapolation of a fantasy or a romantic idea of life. There’s something mystic about these kids, these train riders, something about American folklore that’s able to play out because it is not a specific narrative with my hand directing any kind of actual event.
But I think the trajectory of my work has been about my hand being pulled away from the narrative, and what defines my photographs is this portal to a certain kind of fantasy of America, of what our national identity is, a seminal identity. I spend so much time on the road now just looking for these moments–I’m almost chasing ghosts. It’s really specific who I photograph–it’s almost intuitive. Like this guy Cuervo, who’s in a bunch of the pictures. He’s the guy on the donkey, and he has this pot garden. He embodies the American West and the outlaw and Thoreau. But then he’s also been to jail and he does tweak and is gross as shit. I mean, he’s like, “Your pussy’s a waste of time. Don’t come back around here unless you plan to use it.” I think photography has an exploitative side, but at the same time there’s a way that Cuervo gets to me. He’s old-school wild West and misogynistic, but then he’s also really, really beautiful. He can survive on a bag of beans and, make himself a shelter, and take care of all these animals, and he has these amazing stories about running drugs across the Mexican border.
In his book Riding Towards Everywhere, William Vollmann acknowledges that he’s exploitative to a certain degree—not necessarily in a way that’s bad, but he needs other people, for whom being a hobo is their everyday life, just in order to experience a bit of that life and write his book.
That book was really kind of bizarre for me to read, because I had been photographing the hobos and was thinking about my inability to penetrate their culture and how I’m not photographing as a documentarian. They had become a kind of ideal for me, an abstraction. Then when I read that book, it was so weird that he was talking about train riders in the exact way that I had been thinking about them. And his whole thing about “Big Rock Candy Mountain”—the idea that it doesn’t matter where you go, it’s always gonna be better–that the idea of travel is about this kind of prayer, that really struck a chord with me.
I feel like the idea of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is in much of your work. The experience for runaways is pretty harsh, for instance, but you put them in a sort of Eden, the best place they could possibly end up.
It seemed clear to me early on that one of the things a photograph could do was make a reality, and I wanted to do that. I always think of looking inside an Easter egg and seeing a perfect world. I remember making those runaway girl pictures and then 9/11 happened, and I think everyone just had a wake-up call, and here we were as Americans living in this boom without any kind of external awareness. I had to ask myself what I was doing as an artist and as a human being, what kind of responsibility I had. And that’s when I did those portraits of communes. I was like OK, I’m gonna be more political in my work. I can’t just keep making it perfect. And I’m doing it with the work that I’m making now: We’ve been on the road now for five months, and I’m still photographing train riders, but I’m expanding it to include a larger group of American nomads and travelers. There are a lot of homeless people that I’ve been hanging around, and I have to think about how exploitative this work is and what does it mean to make pictures of someone that you then put in an art gallery as a luxury product. Ultimately I think that it’s not the artist who should be the upholder of moral responsibility, but then I think it’s a personal responsibility to be a moral person.
Casper on the Back Porch, 2008
This series has a lot to do with your son (rather than girls or mothers and their children)—his love of trains were an inspiration but also, as you point out in the book’s afterword, you’re observing him grow up through the lens of your camera.
With Casper, there’s this whole other chapter that I haven’t even talked about, what it meant to make this choice of raising him on the road. Last fall, I had a show of this work, and I was like, OK, this body of work is over. It was right at the time that Casper was supposed to go to kindergarten, and I was like, OK, I have to get off the road and let my kid have a normal childhood. He started kindergarten. He was doing fine, and, God, it was great not to have to talk about, like, combustion engines or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But I got really depressed being stuck in New York, and it seemed like a prison sentence stretching before both me and Casper: the institutionalization of his childhood through the public school system, and my enslavement of being stuck in one place. I just got really depressed and went to therapy and was like, “Fuck! What am I gonna do?” And the guy was like, “You know, if you really want to be on the road and Casper wants to be on the road, you should go.” So I did. I know he’s getting an amazing life, but I don’t know that I picked the right choice as a mother. I picked the right choice as an artist. Which hopefully turns into the right choice as a mother. I’m making everyone suffer for my art. It better be worth it, you know. Better be an enriching experience for him. There is the whole idea of parenting on the road, and about seeing everything through Casper’s eyes, and about Casper’s collaboration in whatever it is that we’re photographing.
I liked the story about one of the bulls telling you, “It’s a crying shame you don’t cut that boy’s hair.”
[Laughs] Another time, when Casper was probably three years old, we’d found a little lake beach on the road. I didn’t know anyone there, and we were playing on the beach and he started playing with a little girl, and they were making sand castles and filling up their moat with water, and eventually Casper’s pants got wet, so he just took them off, and the little girl looked over at him and said, “Ewww! Mommy! That little girl has a penis!”
All images courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash