Justine Kurland: This Train, 2005-2011 @Higher Pictures Generation

JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 color photographs, displayed in doubled-sided silver frames, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are pigment prints printed in 2023, of images originally made between 2005 and 2011. Each double-sided work features one full frame print and one smaller print, mounted back to back on aluminum. Frame sizes range from roughly 7×9 to 17×21 inches, and the framed double works come in editions of 6. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work is forthcoming from MACK Books (here). Leporello bound hardcover, embossed with 2 flaps and tipped-in image to front cover, 25.3 x 18.3 cm, 102 pages. Includes a handmade print by the artist. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When we look at a finished body of photographic work, all packaged up as a tidy single project and gracefully displayed on gallery walls, we hardly ever get the chance to think about the painstaking editing process that led to that end result. Of course, along the way, the photographer made explicit decisions about which images to leave in and take out, and those choices shaped the way we as viewers experience everything from the overall mood and atmosphere to the possibilities of narrative. With a rich and varied body of work, one edit took the project in the direction we have been shown, while another may have gone somewhere else entirely different. But we hardly ever get to see those alternate edits, or to wrestle with how the work might change in our minds when presented in different combinations or sequences.

I was powerfully reminded of this “phantom edits” issue when walking through Justine Kurland’s recent show. The exhibit features images Kurland made on the road with her young son, largely in the summers of his years as a toddler and small child. Like many kids that age, the boy had a fascination for trains, and so Kurland used that interest as a framework for their van-based travels across America. Chasing specific trains and vantage points like seasoned trainspotters, they traversed the country, and Kurland made images along the way of not only the trains and the surrounding landscapes, but of the people they met, their encampments, and many quieter moments with her growing son.

Over the course of half a dozen years, all of these ideas coalesced into a fuller body of work, and Kurland first showed images from the project in New York in 2009. As luck would have it, I actually reviewed that show (here). And what’s fascinating about that original review, which hasn’t aged all that gracefully I must admit (and the installation shots are atrocious), is that Kurland’s edit of the pictures at that time felt very much rooted in the economic crisis of the previous few years, and of a weary America struggling to get by. There were of course plenty of majestic photographs of trains and a few intimate ones of her son, but these were liberally intermingled with portraits of scraggly old men and makeshift shelters, pushing my reaction to the pictures much further toward connections back to the Great Depression and other economic hard times, with a few hints of self-reliant bohemianism. In a sense, the broader context of that particular moment in time was important, in that it provided the frame within which the pictures seemed to function.

Now some fifteen years later, Kurland has returned to these photographs, re-editing and re-presenting them, creating an altogether distinct and separate artistic statement from the one she made previously. Gone are the scruffy men, the hobo wanderers, the tent encampments, and the simmering mood of economic malaise. In their place, Kurland has expanded the number of train pictures and images featuring her and her son, transforming them into much more robust paired themes.

Once those themes were formed, the next set of artistic decisions likely centered on how to present the two groups of pictures. Most obviously, they might have been shown entirely separately; or mixed together in clusters, bunches, or alternating sequences; or perhaps hung together as diptychs, with one image from each theme. But in both gallery show and photobook forms, Kurland actually opted for something more unusual. On the walls, she created paired works (one from each theme) that were framed back-to-back, thereby displaying only one side for viewing at any given moment, with the show offering a constantly changing set of flipping possibilities (enabled by an ingenious slotted frame and cleat system). In book form, she chose a clever double sided leporello, with trains on one side and people on the other, essentially creating two separate but lyrically integrated flows.

One logic we might guess to be at work in the back-to-back pairings is a combining of what the family was doing with what they were looking at (the trains and landscapes), but there is no geographic or chronological synchronicity at work in Kurland’s pairings, leaving the narrative far more open-ended. Seeing a deeper sample of Kurland’s train compositions from her trips with her son does deliver one clear conclusion – she is an unmistakably talented photographer of trains, which on the whole aren’t as easy to photograph with elegance and drama as we might assume. Not only has she selected vantage points of different scales, that highlight bridges, gaps, oxbow switchbacks, curving lines of boxcars, runs across desert expanses or near rivers, approaching angles, tunnels through mountainsides, and curious boy’s eye views upward at engines, she’s done it with a kind of precision that must have required exacting knowledge of timetables, destinations, and geographic perspectives. The more of these train views we see, the more impressive Kurland’s aggregate craft becomes; she was clearly pre-visualizing these setups, and composing them with meticulous deliberateness and care.

A few of Kurland’s images of mother and son on the road seem appropriately impromptu, like proto-selfies of Kurland carrying the boy, or views of the boy on his own, playing with his toy trains, hanging out in tents or at campsites, or simply watching the engines go by. But when Kurland herself enters the frame, my antennae went up – how could she be in the pictures if she was behind the camera? Of course, a shutter release or a timer was likely the answer, but when we look again at these family scenes, the wonder of Kurland’s pre-visualization comes through again and again. How else can we explain an image of the two far out in a field of flowers, another walking back toward the camera near a tunnel entrance, or a third walking away through some long grass with tracks in the distance? The only answer is that Kurland planned these scenes out and then arranged the exposures to happen when she and the boy were in place. The same can be said for images of the two playing on boulders, washing in a river, tending a campfire, lounging in the van, and hanging out at campsites – they look like typical family memories, but they were undeniably staged to look that way, which makes them a different kind of “document” than we might have expected. Of course, this was an approach Kurland had used before, most notably in her “Girl Pictures” (from a few years earlier), but in this case, the artist becomes a player/model in the setups, not just an observer/arranger.

Seen together, with more than a decade now passed, the two groups of re-edited pictures simmer in a little more nostalgia than they used to. Of course, the boy has grown up, and so these images made when he was a toddler are deeply entwined with the artist’s memories of those months and years on the road, and even though they aren’t are own memories, it’s not hard to imagine the weight of that intimate familial time gone by. It’s also possible to see Kurland’s images with her son through the lens of queer motherhood, which wasn’t as overt when the pictures were first exhibited.

The train images have a similar kind of implied romance, harkening back to a period in America when trains were more admired and revered as emblems of technology and modernity than perhaps they are today. But the trains also carry with them other histories, including questions surrounding land use, environmental degradation, and migrant labor, that are becoming more visible, so these photographs are now resonating with more complexity too.

Which brings me full circle back to the idea of Kurland re-seeing this body of work, and subsequently re-imagining its artistic pressure points. That active revisionism feels like something worth thinking about more, with its nuances of passing time, changing technology, evolving personality, altered contemporary context, and even the righting of past wrongs or mistakes. Even more than the well-made photographs themselves, I enjoyed being forced to reconsider what these pictures were actually showing me, having interpreted them in two meaningfully different ways over time.

Collector’s POV: The double-sided works in this show are priced between $1800 and $3500, based on size. Kurland’s work has slowly begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $6000.

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