Between Girls: An Interview with Karen Marshall



14 minutes reading

The transition from girlhood to womanhood is elusive by nature, something expressed best over time. New York based photographer Karen Marshall began documenting the daily life of a group of teenage girls in 1985 after she was introduced to Molly Brover, a junior at the Bronx High School of Science.Ten months later, Molly tragically died after being hit by a car while on vacation, but Marshall continued work on the project with those girls that she had met through Molly, up until the present year. In a beautifully longitudinal study showing three decades of female growth and relationships, Marshall’s series Between Girls is now on display in multimedia format, with images, audio, video, books, ephemera and more. We spoke with Marshall in this interview about documentary photography, emblematic relationships, and the difficulties of creating and maintaining a narrative over the long-term.

You began photographing this group of 16-year-old girls in 1985, when you yourself were in your twenties. What was your original idea behind the project?

I had spent ten years photographing on the street, doing environmental street portraits with medium format 2-1/4” (6x6), and by the mid ‘80s I had this great desire to, as I like call it, ‘move inside’. I mean it figuratively, but also to literally be off the street. I wasn’t interested in the street anymore, but I also was really interested in examining something that had more of a psychological idea behind it. Also just within my own transformation as a documentary photographer, I knew that you could talk about people and society and that it didn’t have to be about conflict – in fact I was really interested in the opposite. I wanted to look at emotional bonding, or those places where we find ourselves and our identity.

In retrospect, when I was coming of age in the 1970s, this was at the height of the women’s movement, and it was at a time of women’s consciousness raising, and so everything around me was based on that, in the media and in my own life. By 1985, nobody was talking about the women’s movement anymore, but there were two things that came to me: one was the question of who were the children now that are being raised by women who were part of that movement, and two, what is this about women and identity and youth?

If I looked at pictures in the US at the time, either I saw women under the poverty line, or I saw prom queens in the Midwest. I couldn’t find anything about women coming of age. Now of course there’s tons. But I decided that I wanted to look at urban teenagers, because that’s who I saw on the street at 3:00 in the afternoon, and I also wanted to look at middle class teenagers. I wanted to take out the poverty aspect, and I wanted to take out the uber-rich aspect, and talk about that middle-ground. Basically, I wanted to look at how I grew up.

I started to realize that there was a language that women share with each other and oftentimes it’s really hard to describe

Aside from the women’s movement that was a part of the culture of your youth, what was the significance of this passage from girlhood to womanhood for you personally?

I started to think about emblematic relationships, for example friendships that you have with people from your youth, that it doesn’t matter if you hardly ever talk to them or see them, but you know you could call them on the phone and within three minutes you would be back into a certain thing. That was something I was realizing was really important. And that the other thing was that, I started to realize that there was a language that women share with each other and oftentimes it’s really hard to describe. And so I thought, well, if it’s so hard to describe, then maybe photographs will really articulate it. So that was also part of it.

I certainly always had a lot of girlfriends, but it’s not like I was super girl-oriented or something. It’s just that I really knew that there were things about my identity, and things that were sacred to share with women that were somehow different.

Tell us about these girls in particular.

Well, in a bullet-point way: most of these women were born in 1969 and grew up middle-class in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Eighty per cent had divorced parents and lived primarily with their mothers; if they had siblings, they had sisters – this was all stuff that like I had to tell them about, they didn’t realize they had this in common. The majority of their mothers worked full-time. Many attended day-care and later were latchkey kids, which made them independent and self-sufficient. The New York City they grew up in was emerging out of bankruptcy; during the 1980s there was a large crack epidemic, an AIDS crisis where thousands of gay men were dying each week, and a homeless population that would triple in size before the end of the decade. Madonna’s Like A Virgin was #2 on the Billboard charts, and the classic Brat Pack film The Breakfast Club, about teenagers in detention, was released.

Aside from Molly, who died at 17, are the rest still friends?

There are two girls who were really close all through middle school and high school, but when it came time for college, they actually both stayed in New York City and completely separated from each other. They didn’t talk for ten years. There was one time when I brought everybody together and they saw each other and one of them was crying about it, etcetera, but when one of them found out that the other was pregnant, from bumping into someone else on the subway, she realized: no, she cannot have a child without me. So they’ve been back together for the last 16-17 years.

There are certain girls who will talk about that they’re no longer friends because Molly died, because it was just too painful. So there’s that, as well, that happened. And then there’s other stuff that’s your basic organic thing, where you lose ties with people for various reasons. I think it’s pretty normal in that sense of how they see each other or don’t see each other.

It sounds like you’re talking about quite a large group of girls. How many were there that you were photographing?

Other than Molly, there were six that I followed diligently. One of them dropped out this year, so I had to pull all her pictures. And it’s just too bad because I feel like she was a specific personality that sort of helped. But, that being said, in the exhibition, there’s an archive of books that sit on a table, and in them and then randomly in a couple of the classic pictures, you’re going to find people who are ancillary people – there are people who came and went. Some of the people, on a dialogue level, I kind of knew them well, it’s just that the pictures I took of them got edited out, or I didn’t end up following them. Or they disappeared. Like there was one girl who showed up at the exhibition opening who’s in the 1990 audio, and she’s in outtakes of other pictures. I mean, it’s hard for me to really remember what happened, I actually think I would’ve followed her, but she sort of disappeared. She went off to college and then really disconnected herself for a long time from this group. I didn’t even know where she was – and remember we have social media now, and that’s how we’re reconnected – but people fall off the map. So no one knew where she was.

What was it like watching them grow up?

I felt really connected to all of them. Initially I felt like a big sister, and maybe I still feel like a big sister, though I have to say that I’ve always been a decade ahead of them in different ways. This summer though, I went and photographed them, and I realized that they’re all middle-aged! The older we get, the more we’re kind of the same age, which is what happens I guess when you become middle-aged. Those differences become irrelevant.

Because I brought them together, I have to say I interrupted the situation

Given the big sister role, and that you spent so much time together, it’s easy to imagine that you might struggle to stay objective. Were there times you found yourself as an outsider disagreeing with their approach to each other or their own growth?

Yes, that could be. I might have an opinion or something, but especially when they were younger, I would not give my opinion, I would just watch it happen.

But I think you have relationships with certain people in general that you might not do that with. You might have a colleague that you know really, really well, and you share a lot of things, but you’re not going to cross a certain line that you might cross with a really close friend.

It’s a little different now, but one thing that’s important to say is that I brought them together several times, for example to videotape them. Because I brought them together, I have to say I interrupted the situation. And I changed the situation. Plus, because I was even in touch with each of them, I also interrupted that because they were able to say to me: “Oh, what’s Blake doing?” And I could inform them. I could be an updater, just like if you would bump into somebody. I interrupted that. Even by arranging the opening of the exhibition this past weekend, I’m interrupting it, I’m bringing them all together, I’m creating the reunion. So, those are things I note.

Three decades is an exceptionally long time to work on a project. Were there problems with the longevity? How did you keep it going?

It’s been an up and down thing. At one point, I thought I was making a film, and I started to write proposals for a film. And then I was talking with a filmmaker one day, and all of a sudden I realized: I don’t want to make a film, this is about photography! And so it took me a really long time to decide what this was, because I was working on all this different media.

And that was another subset of everything: Even in video, it was Hi8, then it was betacam… everything kept changing! The first audio I did was in a radio station on a reel-to-reel tape, that later I had to go make into a DAT tape, because a friend of mine was about to get rid of his reel-to-reel, so he transferred it for me, and then later I had to go have it changed to mp3! Most of my photographs are silver gelatin prints that have been flatbed scanned. So, there are so many iterations of bringing it into the modern world and its next place.

I’ve gone through so much, and in a way, it wasn’t until 2007 that I decided that I was going to merge the media, and that I really wanted this to be an exploration as a curatorial piece, so now I’ve spent 8 years to make that come to life, which is crazy! It’s so many years. In a way, the last decade has been resolving how it’s going to be shown more than actually photographing that much.

Beyond the technical challenges, how do you even maintain cohesiveness of a project over such a long period of time?

What’s interesting is if you look at the 1985-6 photographs, they are really strong 1980s reportage photography. Which in itself is a period piece. So, for a while, there were people who looked at it and said, “Well you’re clearly a good photographer, but these are not ‘in’.” Then, for a long time, there were people who were like, “Colour photography is in, forget about black and white.” So, if anybody was going to do something with these, they had to have already done it then, because now they’re ‘old school’ and who cares.

Now people are actually more interested in black and white, now that we’re so far gone from film, there’s a nostalgia behind it… but hey, it is ‘memory’, and it’s 1985, so that in a way, it has a new life.

But as far as staying cohesive, as I said, I became really interested in how you could use the documentary inquiry in different ways, and how, as technology started to develop, it helped expand my own interest in the visual narrative and how we tell stories. I realized that it didn’t just have to be a film, you could have still images and moving sound, as I like to call it, but it didn’t have to just be a film.

And as I started to curate the work in 2007-8, I started to think about the archive, and how the archive becomes the place of intersection between the archive of memory and the archive of the work. That is actually a kind of a conceptual view, but I still think it’s part of a documentary process, and in fact, because I have so many different media, that became part of the weaving. My last pictures that I shot, I wanted to do something different, so I also shot Instagrams. In the end, the pictures that I show from this summer are all post-produced in my iPhone, whether they were originally negatives or iPhone pictures. Some of that, I wasn’t sure how I was doing it, but once I did it, that was my ‘Aha!’ moment. Because I Instagram, I shoot probably more on my iPhone than I do on anything else these days for myself, because that’s the way the world is.

How do you think you as a photographer changed over these last three decades?

It’s a hard one. Well, I’m still looking at all the same things that I was looking at then, and even all the other projects I took on, there’s a consistency that goes with all of them. So, in some regards, I haven’t changed at all. But as a person in the photography world, I think all of my teaching turned into me having a much deeper understanding of personal process. By helping others through their personal process and their intentions creatively, and then over time how I started to understand the visual narrative and put that together both for my mentees as well as in curating a few projects from other artists, and my interest in curating and then my interest in the archive and how you can tell different narratives among the same thing – this is really what informs this work. So it’s basically all about who I am, and it’s all of my expertise coming together, including my genuine interest in identity, relationships and conversation.

What my hope is, with this work, is that this work is about creating a conversation. That people look at this work in its entirety and that it brings up their own stories, and then they’re much more willing and able to discuss, relate, connect to their feelings of friendship, loss, identity, growing up, and how that narrative plays out continually in their own life, and also in those emblematic relationships they have, that keep them grounded over time.

So, I think that it’s a full circle: there’s many different elements that come into this, but in the end, I am hard core still totally interested in the documentary inquiry and also owning that a documentary inquiry can be about relationships, and can be about the things that bring us all together, no matter what your class, race, country of origin, cultural orientation is. That we all share that as human beings on this planet, and that it starts that conversation. And that documentary inquiry does not just have to be conflict and tragedy and trauma and exotic… and ‘other’. It doesn’t have to be other!

Karen Marshall’s Between Girls: A Passage to Womanhood 1985–2015 is on exhibit from October 23 – Noveber 17, 2015 in the Harold F. Johnson Library art gallery at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.