Coming of age in the 1970s, American photographer Karen Marshall credits the Women’s Liberation Movement for helping to shape her identity at a pivotal time in her development. As an undergraduate student, Marshall took a class with Abigail Heyman, author of seminal 1974 book, Growing up Female: A Personal Photojournal, which applied the feminist creed “the personal is political” to visual storytelling to create an intimate diary of female adolescence in a manner never before seen, between reportage and personal expression.
In Heyman’s work, Marshall recognized the ways in which photography could be used to explore issues around gender, identity, culture and society. Marshall, who got her start making environmental portraiture on the street with a 1950s Rolleiflex, realized, “I didn’t want to be on the street. I had a desire to move inside, literally and emotionally. I wanted to use documentary photography in a way that would be psychological, which wasn’t being done in those days.”
By 1985, Marshall was in her 20s, living in Manhattan, and wanted to explore how the next generation of girls would navigate the world. Se would often see teens on the trains after school let out, absolutely free and living in the moment. Intrigued, Marshall says, “I was curious to know — who are teenage girls today? Their mothers were probably influenced by things going on in the ‘70s but who are they, do they even think about it? What is womanhood to them?”
After asking friends if they knew any teen girls, Marshall was introduced to Molly Brover, a 16-year-old high school junior living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “That first day, I photographed Molly and her friend Jen,” Marshall says. “We went out to Riverside Park. They were totally into it. They understood what I was after, but they also ignored me and did their thing. I was like, oh wow — I knew.”
But what Marshall could never have known was everything to come: a 30-year photographic odyssey that would follow the girls from ages 16 to 46, collected in the forthcoming book Between Girls (Kehrer Verlag) now on Kickstarter. Compiled from photographs, films, and audio recordings made over three decades, Marshall weaves together an intimate tapestry of female friendship and self-discovery.
“I wanted to talk about how we get along,” Marshall says. “I set out to photograph teenage girls and what those friendships mean. There were moments where some were friends; there were other moments where some weren’t talking to each other at all, which is part of the normal cycle. I have a daughter who is 28, who graduated high school in 2010, and I see a lot of the same things repeating themselves.”
Mollie, who Marshall describes as “bright, exuberant, vibrant, and impulse” was a larger-than-life personality who possessed a theatrical style and a poetic sensitivity. Her magnetic warmth and wisdom drew a coterie of girls into her orbit, creating the perfect milieu for Marshall to explore the ways in which Generation X related to one another.
Nearly all the girls were born in 1969 to parents who had divorced, and were being raised by their mothers, who worked full time. Their parents, who came of age in the 1960s, were political and social activists, artists, or white-collar professionals who could afford to live in Manhattan before it was gentrified. “I wasn’t interested in finding girls under the poverty line or uber-rich; that wasn’t who I was,” says Marshall.
As “latch key kids,” the girls were independent, self-sufficient, and responsible — they could be left alone for the weekend without having a raging party and trashing the house. The girls were enrolled at either LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts or Bronx High School of Science, highly competitive public schools. “They had eclectic histories by the time I met them,” Marshall says.
Don’t You (Forget About Me)
Ten months after Marshall began the project, Molly was struck by a car and killed while vacationing in Cape Cod, MA. Devastated but determined, Marshall continued forth with the understanding that the girls would grow up to become women while Molly remained forever young.
Of the five that remained in the project over the years, two have gone on to have big careers while the other three chose motherhood and self-help professions. “In the interviews I did with them at 39, one says [of her choice to be a stay-at-home mother], ‘Did the clocks turn back? Perhaps.’” Marshall wonders if the fact that they came of age as children of divorce, whose mothers were rarely around, may have lead them to take a different route in their lives.
“One of the girls said that while she was a student at LaGuardia, her friends wanted to be dancers and artists but, she said, ‘I always knew I wanted to be a mom, and that’s what I did. I feel good about it,” Marshall says. “One of the other women who had a strong career, felt confident about reinventing themselves after having children.”
Wherever their choices lead them, they were able to maintain connections to the foundational friendships of their youth. “There are those people in your life you can not see for five or ten years and then you talk to them for five minutes and it’s like no time goes by,” Marshall says. “There’s a universality in their friendships that extends past the specificity of them being urban teenagers. Over the years, I’ve gotten notes from young women in different corners of the globe relating to it, and saying I see myself in those pictures.”
Karen Marshall, who first began working on this series as a book project in 1986, realizes that though she could have never predicted it, the COVID-19 pandemic makes this the perfect time to share the work. “We’ve been kept away from each other so we appreciate relationships,” she says. “It’s the right time to meditate on the importance of those connections, and the rituals of it. Maybe it took over 30 years but it all makes sense now.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
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To be published by Kehrer Verlag in June (Europe) and October (USA) 2021.