“It was a totally selfish act on my part,” says photographer Justine Kurland, shocked that her generous gesture of lending her van to a student at Yale, where she teaches, had backfired. “I believe that everything that has happened to me is a matter of good luck, and I believed that lending the student my car would add to my karma.” It didn’t. The student ran into a deer, and the green Chevy Astro minivan in which Kurland had traveled more than 150,000 miles since 2001 was totaled. It made her nostalgic about the work she had created and the people she had met while riding across the United States in that car.
Kurland, 41, is an inveterate nomad, in no way constrained by having a young son, born in 2004. Named Casper, after the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, the boy regularly accompanies Kurland on her cross-country trips as she tracks down the subcultures and stories that lurk deep below the surface. When she’s not traveling, she lives in a modest 250-square-foot walk-up on the Lower East Side, near her son’s father, artist Corey McCorkle, with whom she shares custody. By contrast, the van was luxurious—fully outfitted with a bed, curtains her mother had made for her, and, on the dashboard, toy trains and clothes, along with dried butterflies she and Casper had caught. That van appeared for the first time in photographs at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York last October, in a show of images from Kurland’s exploration of present-day hobos and train vagabonds. The photographs, produced in editions of six or eight, range in price from $4,500 to $12,000.
“One of the things that is so interesting about Justine is that she seems like she could be a quick study, but the work is so much richer and smarter and deeper than that,” says Brian Wallis, chief curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. “Her art is a combination of her personal subjective vision and this rich understanding of history and politics that’s embedded in the work in a very subtle way,” he says. “The recent series is a kind of historical panorama, not just a road trip across the country.”
It was actually Casper who sparked Kurland’s interest in trains, tracks, rail yards, and the people who catch rides on empty boxcars. “About two years ago, my child got very obsessed with trains,” she recalls. “Once I got into it, I realized that trains are probably the most photographed American icon in the world, so I would have to try to figure out my own connection to the subject matter.” The images Kurland took of young people and of veteran vagabonds, known among themselves as “train catchers,” who were living in illegal rail-yard encampments, turned out to be arresting and disturbing, even though the subjects are often set in bucolic landscapes.
Kurland traveled to train yards throughout the western United States, studied a train catchers’ guidebook to find spots where hobos gather, and tracked down subjects over the Internet, discovering that even the most remote and rebellious vagabonds have cell phones. She was able to get an amazing array of homeless individuals to pose for her, and she secured access to sites that are generally off the radar.
In many ways, this was an ideal project for Kurland, who has been a traveler almost her whole life. Born in 1969 in Warsaw, New York, a small town near Buffalo, the artist grew up with a hippie single mom who dragged her children along as she made the rounds of Renaissance Faires, with stops all the way down to Texas.
When she turned 15, Kurland decided she wanted to attend the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School in New York, and she moved in with an aunt. For a few years after graduating from high school, she worked as a waitress while taking photography workshops at the 92nd Street Y and making rudimentary efforts at street photography. At 21, she returned to school, studying photography at the School of Visual Arts. During that time, she met Gregory Crewdson, who proved to be a major influence on her development as an artist. She earned her B.F.A. in 1998 and that same year entered the M.F.A. program in photography at Yale, where Crewdson was, by then, a full professor, inspiring students to engage with staged narratives. At the time, this was a new form of image making, whereby the photographer orchestrates every aspect of the pictures.
As a student, Kurland made pictures of teenage girls. “Yale was really hard when I was there, and I never had an easy time of it. I was the kid who ran out of crits crying,” she recalls, adding that all of her art is rooted in personal experience. “I was working through the idea of the directorial mode when one summer I was dumped by a boyfriend, and I ended up hanging out with this 15-year-old girl who was visiting her father. I had nothing to do, and she had no friends around, and that’s how the whole teenage-girl thing began.”
Right after getting her degree from Yale, Kurland moved to Massachusetts with her then boyfriend, Will Wendt; both worked as assistants to Crewdson on his “Twilight” series. But, she admits, she was a terrible assistant, constantly fighting with her boyfriend and then running away for two or three days at a time. “That’s when I really learned about the consistency between her work and who she was,” says Crewdson, who observed a parallel between Kurland’s behavior and her images of runaway teenage girls.
When Crewdson and gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn organized the exhibition “Another Girl, Another Planet” at Greenberg Van Doren Gallery in New York, in 1999, Kurland was the first artist they selected for the show, which featured 12 women photographers and one male. Examining female adolescence and girl culture through staged photography, the show inspired fashion spreads in magazines like W, as well as one in the Style section of the New York Times, in which the photographers were dressed in Prada—except for Kurland, who rarely dons upscale attire. In addition to Kurland’s, the exhibition launched the careers of Malerie Marder, Katy Grannan, Dana Hoey, and Jenny Gage, most of them former students of Crewdson’s at Yale.
Kurland’s images in that show, of young girls posed in nature, sometimes in school uniforms, attracted widespread attention. Crewdson says, “Justine’s pictures always were more mythological and dealt more directly with the landscape” than those of the other photographers. “They have a romantic quality, but they very much came out of a real place—her rootlessness and her restlessness.”
“The girls in the fields and the girls in uniforms is the work that took hold and made people pay attention to her,” says Sylvia Wolf, director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle and formerly the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum. Wolf links Kurland’s imagery to that of the 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin, who depicted shepherds in a pastoral setting surrounding a tomb. “Even in the glories of beautiful nature and exquisite light, there’s something lurking in her work,” Wolf says.
Once Kurland began receiving acclaim, she was ready to move on to a new project: photographing the communes that remain scattered across upstate New York, Virginia (her mother now lives in Floyd), Tennessee, and California. She undertook the project in 2001, partly as an opportunity to reflect on her upbringing. But it was also a way to explore the endurance of utopian communities, even after the trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Kurland found that the communes were surprisingly easy to locate on the Internet. “The farms that are income sharing and communal all have things to sell to support their community,” she says, noting that at certain places, like the Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, she would stay several weeks and then find the atmosphere claustrophobic rather than liberating. Her impressions come through in the resulting images, in which commune members, often nude, are posed in ways that are not at all documentary.
She worked on a variety of projects in the last decade—turning her lens on Renaissance Faire participants and schoolgirls in New Zealand—before the birth of her son inspired her to focus on mothers and children in wilderness settings. She set out for the West with Casper, still an infant, looking for young mothers who would pose nude for her pictures. She recruited subjects at health-food stores and playgrounds. The series that ensued, “Of Woman Born,” was exhibited at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 2007. Troupes of Madonnas and Eves with their children were depicted in Edenic settings, evoking Pre-Raphaelite paintings with all-female casts. As is her usual practice, she paid her models by giving them prints, which, given the way prices have risen for her work, turned out to be a generous form of compensation.
Within a year after the show, Kurland was experiencing her typical wanderlust, ready to hit the road again. By then, trains were Casper’s love. She also felt a certain kinship with the subject of hobos and saw the irony of reinvestigating one of the great subjects of photography of the Depression era.
“This was probably the first time I’ve done a project where I didn’t just become part of the subculture,” she admits. “I always remained on the outside.” Concerned for Casper’s safety, she never jumped a train herself and never stayed at the illegal campsites. Still, she did find a number of subjects who were willing to meet with her repeatedly. One man, who goes by the name Train Dog, published a Xeroxed zine called Crew Change, which detailed state by state where the trains stop, as well as the best place to jump on board, better known by the hobos as “catching out.”
But Kurland met resistance from many young people who lived in squats and punk houses; they were suspicious of her project. “I’d pay them or buy them beers,” she says. “I had a lot of discussions with them about the practice of photography and explained that if you are going to create an alternative existence, it needs to be documented so other people can recognize the work that you’ve done.” Sometimes she was able to win them over; other times she was given the cold shoulder. “There was one group that, when I first met them, were really nice to me, but as they got to know me, I became ‘the Man,'” Kurland says. “It was hard to be the enemy. I was in tears often.” Then, she says, after a year and a half of running into them, she encountered them at a tramp fest in Denver. “No one would talk to us. It was really horrible.”
An inkling of this experience is present in many of Kurland’s photographs, which convey the artist’s inability to fully mesh with her strange, somewhat illusionary subjects. The works also demonstrate how the hobos and train catchers believe they are living out the American Dream by going west in pursuit of freedom. But as Kurland makes clear, that very goal is an illusion—something she discovered for herself in her numerous road trips.
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews. Her book The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China was released in April.