I have a longstanding interest in what I think of as (for lack of a better term) “girl culture,” so Caitlin Arnold‘s work is pretty much right up my alley. Not because she makes pictures of teen-aged girls per se, but because of the way she makes those pictures. Arnold’s images of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls feel unusually raw and direct without ever crossing that line into sensationalistic or creepy territory. They ask you to look, and look twice, and look again. On the surface, her images bear some of the hallmarks of so-called “amateur” snapshots and family photographs. They’re set in mundane places: bedrooms, school hallways, porches and backyards. The girls all have on casual clothing. For some reason a lot of the girls wear heavy black eyeliner. But Arnold doesn’t ask the girls to ‘smile for the camera!,’ and so most of them don’t. Smiles are a kind of armor, and Arnold is more interested in the beauty–and the strength–that’s revealed through vulnerability.
Arnold’s current show at Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes’ What It Is in Oak Park plays up the ordinary/extraordinary dynamic in her photographs in a number of compelling ways. The entire show has been installed in Tom and Holly’s enclosed front porch. The photographs have been printed small-scale, the largest around 8 x 10 inches, and have been framed in cheap plastic or wood frames – the same sort of frames we use in our own homes, unless we can afford to buy the expensive Pottery Barn kind. Some of Arnold’s pictures are grouped together within a single frame; others have been placed on a side table. Installing the photographs inside someone’s home doesn’t just shift the context from that of, say, the internet (which is where I first viewed Arnold’s images), or a proper “white cube” style art gallery, where the images would have been printed at around 30 x 40 inches; it also redraws certain boundaries around the images themselves. We have to pick them up, or stand really close to the ones hanging on the walls, in order to apprehend the entire photograph. We have to get into the faces of these girls, so to speak, in order to see them.
I asked Caitlin about this and other issues during a recent exchange over email. I’m very grateful to her for taking the time and care to answer all of my questions so thoughtfully. Caitlin’s show is up for one more week at What It Is – if you’re local, click on over to the website to make an appointment with the gallery to see the show before it comes down.
Claudine Ise: Many of your photographs fall within the category of portraiture. Can you tell me a bit about what interests you about photographing human subjects? And what is it about adolescent girls in particular that have drawn you to photograph them in your series “girls”?
Caitlin Arnold: There are so many little qualities I find in the people I photograph that I’m attracted to or interested in bringing out of them. Everyone has a “camera face” whether they know it or not, and breaking the person out of it is usually my goal.
Adolescence is weird and terrible at the same time. When I started this body of work, a lot of my cousins were entering or already in adolescence and seeing them during holidays made me realize that it was something I wanted to look back on. I found that when photographing younger people, they don’t have the “camera face” yet or they’re just starting to develop the look they want the world to know them as. There were so many things that made me want to start photographing younger girls but it wasn’t until I made the first picture that I really knew something was there.
CI: How do you find your subjects?
CA: I started the girls series when I was still attending Columbia College. I worked in the digital imaging lab and my boss at the time, Jennifer Keats, was my main source for subjects. She grew up in Evanston and a lot of friends from high school still lived there and luckily had little girls. Otherwise, I just bugged my friends and my family if they knew anyone between the ages of 7-18. I drove all around Chicago-land area and even further into farmland a couple of times. The most interesting part of finding subjects was that most of the time, I had no clue what they looked like and that was really exciting. It was almost like walking down the street and asking a random person if I could photograph them, but there was a level of trust already built in by whomever referred me.
CI: You studied with Dawoud Bey, correct? Can you tell me a bit about what you learned from working with him, particularly as it pertains to portraiture and the photographer’s relationship to the subject?
CA: I did study with Dawoud…I took his portrait class while I was attending Columbia College for my undergrad. It’s hard or funny to think about what exactly I learned from him because I feel like a lot of it was intuitive once we were in the middle of the semester. I just remember him telling me to simplify the pictures I was making and not over think the gesture. He always talked about studying people, watching them for while, observing the natural gestures that come out and then to bring it back. For example he would say something like, “Oh remember when your elbow was on the arm of the chair and you had your head in your hand, try that again, okay now tilt your head a little okay perfect.” This sort of language or direction makes it easier for the subject to fit into the placement more comfortably. I’ve learned so much from him during my time at Columbia and even afterward. He’s been a huge influence of mine and also a major support system after graduating.
CI: The body of the adolescent girl is such a heavy locus of anxiety in American culture – not just for girls themselves, but for the culture that surrounds them. Girls’ bodies are always being scrutinized and measured in one way or another, whether it’s through fashion, or even sports (i.e. gymnastics, ballet or ice skating and other types of sports where weight and cultural stereotypes of “beauty” are big issues). So girls learn how to look at their own body with a similar level of harsh scrupulousness. In your own pictures, how do you negotiate between this kind of dominating/domineering cultural gaze that is always sort of invisibly there, and the gaze of your own camera lens? What are some of the strategies you employ?
CA: From the beginning it was how the girls positioned themselves in front of my lens that interested me. I found myself looking at the pictures and realizing that these young girls are so heavily influenced by pop culture. I started to poke around their houses more when I was there, to see where their body language was coming from (ie magazine, movies etc). A lot times there would be copies of Cosmo or Vogue laying around the house, and some of these girls were only 8 or 9, trying to find out who they are and how they can identify with these older women. I don’t if it’s a good or bad thing, I know that when I was at that age, I never read magazines for older women…my parents would only allow me to have teen-oriented materials, but the doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what was going on. Girls have always been over-sexualized in my opinion. If you look at Sally Mann’s book At Twelve, which was photographed in the 80s, we see young girls who are very aware of their bodies and what they’re capable of.
CI: Could you take me through one of your photo shoots? Tell me a bit about how you work with your subjects. How do you choose the “props”, the setting, the girls’ poses – does the composition come from a period of observation of that particular subject, do you discuss different possibilities with your subject, etc.?
CA: Usually the first time I’d go to someone’s home, I would get the “best” photographs because both her and I are getting comfortable with each other and I am not yet aware of all her idiosyncratic tendencies. I’d catch them doing something totally different than another girl. The lack of control within the environment is for some reason a really interesting way for me to work. I like being on my toes and having to make due with the space. But normally, I’d get there..hang out with their mom and dad and talk, show them some photographs I’d already been making. Then get a tour of the house, normally we’d start in their rooms since it’s usually the most comfortable place for them. I’d get an idea of who they are from the things in their rooms. A lot of times they’d ask if I wanted them to change clothes or if there was some specific to wear, but honestly I just wanted them to be as comfortable as possible because then they are “focused” and in a place where I could have all their attention…and they’re not thinking about how the shirt doesn’t fit right or their shoes are hurting them, things like that.
Each shoot was always a little different. Sometimes I’d be there for two hours hanging out, talking about music or sports or friends or boys, it really depended on who I was photographing. And once I got to know them, maybe on the second or third time coming back to photograph, it was just “business”. I knew the kind of photograph I wanted to make and just went for it. When I was photographing my cousin, who is the girl smoking with the peace sign tshirt on, I spent at least a day or two hanging out with her and her friends during spring break, no parents around and no one to distract us or interrupt the shoot.
CI: To what extent are your images “directed”? Certainly, the pictures all appear to be “posed” or positioned to some extent, but I’m curious about how those poses come about. Like the cheerleader, can you talk about that photograph and why you chose that context – the school hallway, and to have the girl wear her cheering uniform, etc.
CA: As much as I wanted them to look as natural as possible, there was still direction. One of the things I talked about earlier was how I had a lack of control over the environment, which was a good thing but then had to gain control over how they were positioned. The cheerleader, that’s an interesting story. A good friend of mine photographs the sports teams in his hometown, which is really small. He offered the opportunity to photograph as many junior high cheerleaders as I wanted if I helped him set up his lights for the group shots. So I did it. That hall way had the best light and was really one of the only places I could take the girls without leaving the area.
CI: Tell me about the picture of the girl in the tie-die tee shirt holding a lit cigarette in her bedroom.
CA: The girl smoking in her bedroom is my younger cousin. When I first started making this work I knew since I have a lot of younger cousins, I’d be able to meet high school girls very easily, which I did. I asked to come hang out with her and her friends during basketball games and sleepovers,etc. That photograph was made during her spring break, she had invited a friend to sleep over the night before and I got to her house around 9am. I spent the entire day with them, bought them pizza and soda. We watched movies and talked about boys and what sort of things they do. I think that spending time out there with them was more like research than actually making photographs, though I did come out with four or five solid pictures from that shoot.
CI: I love the image of the girl with the snake – there is a 9 year old girl on my block who owns a corn snake, and she walks around with it wrapped around her shoulders sometimes. I love how that kid a) isn’t afraid of snakes and b) likes how the guys in her class are afraid of her snake.
CA: The girl with the snake is Zoe…her and her sister Bailey have many many little critters in their home and they all scare me. I was never allowed to have pets, especially snakes or frogs or mice, so when I met Zoe and Bailey, and found out they were obsessed with these little critters and not afraid of them, I was really intrigued. I tried to make that photograph of Zoe holding a snake or any critter, many many many times. I probably have pictures from three to five different visits of her holding something and finally I got it right. It’s such a striking image with really intense lighting, I’m glad I finally got it to work.
CI: You’ve made a photograph of a little, i.e. pre-adolescent girl that just kills me every time I look at it. She’s tipped her head back to the sky and her neck is exposed. I have a young daughter and this image makes me feel many of the same things I feel when I look at my daughter’s body. Something about her skin and its softness and vulnerability is so moving to me.
CA: I go back and forth with that photograph. A lot of times when I’m out photographing, I’m just spending time with the girls, playing with them in their yards or games in their room. This was one of those moments that almost passed me by. We were looking up at the sky and I saw her do that – squint her eyes because the sun was so bright. I asked her to keep doing that and took a few shots. The most amazing thing about photographing young people is that they are totally unaware of what they’re doing most of the time. They don’t really know how to look at a camera or aren’t sure what their bodies are going to look like in the end. So even the simplest gesture like that comes across as so much more.
CI: The little girl on roller skates with the pool cues – that image in particular stands out for me because in many ways it’s the least subtle of all of the works in this series – the one that to me feels like, if you enlarged and sold it, it would sell really well. Whereas the rest of your images of girls feel defiantly non-commercial in a way that Helen Van Meene‘s images certainly do not (despite their own particular weirdness), or Rineke Dijkstra’s images do not. I wonder if that’s also part of the reason why you photograph girls you haven’t met or even seen before – to ensure you don’t fall into a trap of subconsciously preferring (and I’ll just come out and say it here) certain body types over others? Because let’s face it: Van Meene’s subjects tend to be thin, Dijkstra’s subjects are thin…despite the various idiosyncracies of the subjects they choose to photograph, each of these photographers is still replicating and reinforcing many of those unspoken codes about what constitutes the type of (specifically female) body the cultural “We” wants to look at. What I love about your photographs is their refusal to do that. One girl even has (what I think are) warts on her fingers and visible dirt under her toenails. Amazing.
CA: No one has ever said that about the girls I’ve photographed. It’s really interesting when you think about the certain type of person photographers normally photograph like Van Meene and Dijkstra and even Lauren Greenfield is photographing stereotypical beautiful girls. I like not knowing what I’m going to get, it’s very much like editorial photography, you’re thrown into this situation where you have no control and a time constraint and you have to make the best of it. But sometimes there’s a little bit of digging around… I went to my old high school to make a couple photographs and when I was there, I scouted.
The girl with the pool cue was the photograph I took that led me to this project. I was hanging out with a friends family at a roller rink and photographing. When I saw this image, I lost it; it was perfect and made me realize what I needed to start working on.
CI: I saw your images online before I saw the photographs at What It Is, so the way that you had chosen to install and frame the works there had a pretty big impact on me. For me, this particular installation brought up questions as to the difference between your images and those of the so-called “average” family snapshot or other types of casual portraiture we would usually see in frames like these, and in a domestic context like this one. And I kept coming back to this really quite subtle difference: that the girls in your images are just not ‘giving it up,’ as it were, in the same way that they would be if these were family snapshots or even pictures taken by their own friends. They seem not to be fronting. Not that they’re necessarily more vulnerable or anything – they’re just not putting up a facade, or at least the facade we’ve come to expect from this type of picture-making. For the most part, the girls are not smiling – and if they are, it isn’t that kind of huge fake grin i.e. “We’re having SUCH a good time! Everything is okay here!” that is typical of snapshots. In your pictures there’s an ever-so-slight whiff of, “everything may *not* be okay here, but the rest is not your business.” All of this is really just a lengthy way of asking: how do you know when you’ve made a good photograph, or a photographic image that you are satisfied with?
CA: I think a lot of times I make my mind up about an image when I’m taking it. I play the “this is it” game in my mind even before the film has been processed and it’s a 50/50 chance that I’m right. I’m not quite sure what specific qualities within the photograph make me decide that’s the right one, it usually just feels right. And of course there are the five or so people I always show my work to and opinions I trust.
The thing I love and depend on when making portraits is that the subject is going to give something up but just enough to make people want to stop and look and figure out what they’re hiding or trying to “say.” And that’s the difference between printing small; normally I make my portraits around 30″x40″ because you can really get in there. At that point, you and the photograph are about the same size and that’s extremely challenging for the viewer, in my opinion. When they’re small, the girls aren’t letting you in as much…you have to really look to see the subtleties and nuances.
It’s also really funny you say they’re not “giving it up” because in the language I use when talking about my work, I feel like they’re giving me everything. But that could be just what I think because I’ve been living with these images for much longer than your average patron who looks at them for a couple minutes. When someone is stripped of their signature smile and preferred angle to be photographed, all they have left is what’s true about them; the mole they try and hide or the way their ears stick out from their head. It’s those details that really make a picture sometimes and that’s what I want to show – “flaws” are extremely beautiful.