In More Than Violet, Swedish photographer Julia Peirone (b. 1973) photographed teenage girls in unguarded moments. Inspired by 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Peirone looked for the 'failed' picture. She waited for the moments in which the sitter wasn't composing herself. The subjects in her photos are caught in a moment that they roll their eyes in reaction to a remark, or when they look pensive, closing their eyes and communicating nothing intentionally towards the viewer. Some of the girls look silly, others just plain weird. Together they even look a bit scary.
Peirone has been photographing children and teenage girls for a while, taking the approach of twisting the innocence that youths are often associated with. While she often portrays young people in dreamy places and moods, there's also something unexpected to the photos. The kids seem to have a wicked plan which clashes with people's tendency to find them cute.
The way Peirone portrayed her subjects in More Than Violet is especially interesting as a contrast to the way young girls are often sexualised, displayed in fashion shows, commercials, and high art, just as they start to fit contemporary culture’s standards of female beauty. The typical approach allows the girls to still be perceived as innocent while putting them on display for others to have less innocent thoughts about them. Peirone takes another approach entirely – she doesn’t portray the teenage girls in More Than Violet as looking conventionally good.
Yet, just when you may start to think that Peirone has made a politically correct project, finding an alternative to the traditional portraiture of vulnerable girls, the book continues into two more series of photographs and a text from Peirone, and you’re left feeling disturbed once again.
In the first series after the portraits, we see abstract paintings of two colours. It turns out to be the girls' eye shadow spread out on paper, forming two big surfaces of both the darker and lighter colours of the girls' eye shadow, resembling a horizon. The last series shows the girls’ hair bands with some hairs still sticking to it.
Why gather traces of the girls? If Peirone wasn't a woman, or an artist, she would be called a pervert. In her accompanying text, Peirone admits that she works like a 'hunter', saying: “Click click, I am the hunter...” If the photos hadn't made you feel uneasy already, then the text surely will. Though Peirone doesn't say it in so many words, her sentences echo sex and even exploitation. Peirone writes that the girl she was photographing seemed to say “take me!” with her half-open mouth, and that the artist herself “trembled” and that her body “cramped” while taking the photographs.
Of course, Peirone was only speaking about her creative process -- her body is trembling because she is nervous about “taking” the right photo of the girl. But the interesting mechanism of the book is that it confuses and ultimately makes you reflect on your own ways of looking. The book draws attention to the tendency to look at young girls in an objectifying and exploitative way. And while leafing through the book, it’s not only men that will be confronted by this cultural reflection.
Peirone's 'failed' moments also create a failure in our desire to see the girls as non-threatening pretty objects. The way they’ve been captured, looking uncomposed and peculiar makes them less accessible. They're mysterious, but not in a penetrable way.
One rule of thumb for evaluating if a photograph or video clip of women is sexist goes like this: if the women are all dressed similarly, if they are made to look like they are replaceable, it's a sexist representation. The females become harmless and meaningless, because they are interchangeable. The teenage girls in More than Violet clearly are not replaceable with each other. Aside from the fact that they're all white, teenage females and that they all have long hair, each of them has very distinct facial features and physical gestures. One waves her hand in a strange dismissive way like no one else could, another shows the whites of her eyes in a ghostly way. When seen together, these girls don't only look weird, they even look threatening. At least, that is, if you expected them to be accessible.
More Than Violet is available for sale from Art and Theory Publishing.
Reviewed by Nora Uitterlinden
More Than Violet was featured in the portfolio section of GUP #35, Celebration.