Astride Mama Burro, from the series This Train is Bound for Glory (c) Justine Kurland
In the 10 years since New York based photographer Justine Kurland came to prominence with her twist on neo-Romanticism, she’s become associated with images of women and adolescent girls. But for her current project she’s centred on another strand that’s ever-present in her work – alternative lifestyles among America’s Great Outdoors. She’s been shooting trainhoppers, old and young, drawing on a tradition that began during the Civil War, entering US folklore at the time of the Great Depression, and which remains popular today with “young punk kids looking for kicks”.
“I’m interested in alternative lifestyles and how they relate to an American identity or mythology,” she says. “Freedom is supposedly one of our inalienable rights, and that can mean a lot of things, but on its most basic level it can mean the freedom to travel at will. For people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, trains have always been a way to do that.”
Kurland has her own strongly defined sense of freedom too. She, her sister and her mother followed the Renaissance Faires around the US when she was young and, recalls Gregory Crewdson, whom she assisted early on, she always liked to take off every few weeks or so. She’s shot all of her photographic projects on the road, and these days takes her young son, Casper, along for the ride too.
“I spent the first six months as a new mother in New York and was miserable, until I finally figured out I could throw the kid in the car and go.”
Her projects map her life. Starting out shooting young female runaways, she later photographed utopian communities and then focused on motherhood when she became a mum herself. And she decided to focus on freighthopping when Casper got interested in
trains. “It only seemed fair that if I was going to schlep him all over the country I should photograph what he loved to do,” she says. “And trains fit in as they shaped the country, both literally and figuratively.”
The result, This Train Is Bound for Glory, includes portraits of the travellers and their hobo camps, who Kurland got in touch with through friends who ride trains. But it also includes more wide-sweeping shots that recall the early days of American progress, and she considers it a landscape project as much as any of her other series.
“All the different bodies of photographs I have shown are firmly grounded in an American tradition of landscape photography,” she says. “Specifically the 19th century, where photographers followed expeditions exploring the American West and projected
onto the land an ideal of promise.”
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