by Justine Kurland, with texts by Lynne Tillman
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
Justine Kurland’s Highway Kind is largely comprised of pictures that have been published or shown before as two self-contained projects. This Train Is Bound For Glory examines the lore of trains, hobos and campers seeking freedom in the American landscape, a landscape interpreted in part through photographs of Kurland’s young son Casper with whom she traveled for much of his early life. Sincere Auto Care is a study of auto repair garages and the men working in them, showing men as fragile as the wrecked cars, and deeply invested in the dreams that cars represent; many of the pictures show men working underneath cars in an attitude of quiet, intimate submission.
But Highway Kind is much more than a compilation of these two bodies of work. Commingled, and contrasted, each of these two projects amplifies the effect of the other, deepening the meaning of both. Kurland’s young son, Casper, who appears in both projects, now serves as the thread that ties them together. His transition through childhood, and the realization – his own and his mother’s, and by the end of the book, ours – that he will have to negotiate this world are the stakes that make Highway Kind so powerful.
Highway Kind is at once mythological in its scope, and keenly observational of the detail of the lives and surroundings of Kurland’s subjects. From a calm hobo basking in the sun to the men locked into their auto repair work, Kurland shows her subjects fully inhabiting their experiences. Her beautiful photographs are thick with feeling, whether with the serenity that characterizes the first sections of the book, or the mood of uncertainty that swells through much of the rest. The book describes an unavoidable journey, from a world of idealism and self-reliance, to a messier, clearly imperfect world where the people who occupy it are defined by roles, symbols, and work, yet where peace may still be found.
The book begins gently: the first image in the book “Waiting for Trains While Playing with Trains, 2009” shows a very young Casper, whose early childhood was spent travelling with Kurland in a van back and forth across the United States as she photographed. He sits at a folding table amongst scrub with a colorful wooden toy train set, looking over his shoulder at the brown freight cars rolling by. Long white clouds float across a blue sky, sunlight falls over sloping hills. The photograph invokes picturesque qualities that recall a Thomas Cole painting or a William Henry Jackson photograph. This small human figure, by whom we measure the landscape, is momentarily distracted from his preoccupations by the sweep of nature and industry, the difference in scale of the toys and the actual train speaking to both an imagination of a wide world, and the notion that such a world could be mastered. This photograph is followed by images of hobos and campers, at peace with nature, away from society. It’s a long, lovely sustained moment.
This Arcadian state cannot, however, last forever. The image of a snake serves as a reminder that we have to leave paradise. Kurland follows the trains that rolled idyllically through the landscape to cities that are grey, broken, patchwork. Both wilderness and city offer something larger than the individual, but where the wilderness promises wonder, the city offers loneliness, fantasy, subjection to the disciplines of time and space.
The photographs of Casper both act as a thematic framing device and possess an emotional charge that draws a similar energy out of the other pictures in the book. The move in the book from wilderness to city is underscored by the change in the ways in which Kurland photographs her son: she draws attention to Casper’s increasing self-awareness as photographs of him doing things - exploring, playing - give way to portraits that recognize his consciousness of being photographed. The photographs in both projects, read in relation to Casper’s changes, become affecting in a way that goes beyond the scope of their own themes. Many of the pictures in this book are not of Casper, but the book is ultimately about the story of growing up and growing into the world, a story that Casper illuminates. It’s about the narrowing of the world that happens when possibility solidifies into destiny.
Towards the end of the book there is a remarkable sequence: after seeing a series of men under cars, focused on their work; broken cars; broken engines; piles of tires; and a blanket with two white tigers; Kurland gives us three pictures in which the subjects are recumbent with sunlight on their faces. The first is of a shirtless man lying beneath and gripping the front fender of a car, his eyes open, nose nearly touching the metal, sunlight on his chin; the second is of a woman leaning on a column in front of a budget motel; the third is of Casper, maybe 8 years old, poolside in a towel on a lawn chair, tilting his face into the light. They could be praying. Despite the dreary surroundings, we feel some echo of the expansive light of the land and forests with which the book began.
Kurland’s work demonstrates technical prowess, art historical and allegorical invocations, and documentary curiosity, any of which would have made this book notable. But the power in her photography comes from her ability to recognize and describe how hard it can be to reconcile the world that you live in with the one that you want to live in. Whether that plays out in the way that she portrays Casper, or a girl playing an accordion on the gate of a pickup truck, or a man holding a shiny hubcap, sitting in a car, its upholstery starting to tear, or a man who suggests to her what Casper’s future could hold, Kurland’s observations recognize both the texture of a scene as it’s lived and the hopes and disappointments that give it meaning.