Between Girls

Karen Marshall’s new book presents a three-decade-long friendship among a group of New York City girls

Jen, Blake and Rachel (1985-1986) © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

Girlhood is a period of poignance. Bodily changes, new relationships, the quest to discover oneself; these formative years are that of definition, refinement and readying for the years to come. In Karen Marshall’s new book, Between Girls, which is now published by Kehrer Verlag, she presents the coming-of-age tale between a group of New York City teenagers. Capturing their lives, relationships and journey into womanhood, the project first kicked off in 1985 and continued for the remaining 30 years. Karen, with a 35mm black and white camera in tow, would observe the girls as they passage through the world, experiencing the good – utmost joy and playfulness – and the bad, like the death of one of their friends, Molly Brover. Here, Karen tells me more about this pivotal series, the ritual of friendships, belonging and the importance of friendship.

Jen and Leslie, September 1986 © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

Let’s begin by hearing about yourself – where you’re from, your career path to date etc.

I was born in NYC and raised in the suburbs just on the other side of the Hudson River. I have been serious about photography since I was 13 years old. I consider myself a documentary photographer and tend to work on long-term projects over many years. A couple of decades ago, I found that I loved teaching and mentoring emerging photographers. I have been on the faculty at the International Center of Photography for many years; I am chair of the one year programme in Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism at ICP where students come from all over the globe to learn visual storytelling.

When and how did you meet this group of teenagers? What were they like?

I met them in the fall of 1985 when I decided that I wanted to photograph teenage girls coming of age. A friend of mine suggested I contact Molly Brover. He knew her family and had babysat for her when she was younger. The connection I had with Molly and her friends was immediate. They were social and articulate girls with large personalities.

Jen and Molly 1985 © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

The project looks at themes of girlhood and friendship; are these topics close to your heart?

I am very interested in how people get along with one another, how we form our identity and become a community. I like to tell long-form visual stories about people, places, society; the psychological lives of my subjects within the social landscape. At the time, I also felt that there was a lack of visual stories about women coming of age.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite anecdotes from the project?

There are special things about every time I photographed them. The first day, though, is the most pivotal. I knew right away that I had found the story and the girls I was looking for, and they would allow me to be a fly on the wall and capture their girl world. I shot three rolls of film that afternoon, and I knew when I processed the film that I had a story that seemed special.

Molly, Leslie and Jen © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

You’ve spoken of the sad moment that Molly passed away during the making of the project, which sounds devastating. Did the project change or evolve in any way after this?

After Molly died, it was hard for the girls to be with each other because it was so painful. Then they graduated from high school and moved on in their lives. As they grew older, it was me that brought them together and created the dialogue between them. My role as photographer was no longer simply hanging out in their lives and photographing, but rather making those gatherings happen.

Shot over 30 years, what did you learn about your subjects over time?

When I first started photographing them, I was very much thinking about the importance of these sorts of relationships in anyones life and the notion of emblematic relationships. Following the women and growing older myself, I realised my initial premise was right. The women also understand how important this time was in their lives and the importance of these emblematic relationships.

Jen, Blake, Piper and Leslie © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

And what did you learn about Upper West Side girl world?

Growing up in 1980s New York as latchkey children only cemented a certain sort of self reliance in them. They were mature and responsible in many ways. Their strong independent mothers also provided them with the freedom to be themselves. The city was edgy in those years but affordable and creative; these girls were able to enjoy very large social circles amongst themselves and take advantage of everything the city had to offer them.

How do you hope your audience will respond to the work?

This work is a meditation on the importance of friendships made at a particular time in one’s life. My hope is that aspects of its universality will resonate with many. I hope that it encourages the viewer to savour important relationships, and also openly mourn the loss of friends and important times in one’s life.  

Blake, 1994 © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

What else are you working on?

Obviously I have worked on many other projects, both long and short over a three decade time period, so there have been many other things going on simultaneously. Over the past couple of years, I have been scanning medium format work I did in the late 70s and early 80s that are environmental portraits of America. The work seems more relevant now than it did so many years ago. I have also been photographing infrastructure in America. It is medium format colour work that is completely about people and society, and yet rarely depicts people in the frame.

Blake with her mother, Jen and friends, 1997 © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

Molly © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

Piper, Leslie, Jonah, Jen and Alex © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’

Prom pictures,1987 © Karen Marshall from ‘Between Girls’


Karen Marshall’s Between Girls is published by Kehrer Verlag

Diane Arbus: In The Beginning

Jacob Charles Wilson examines the formative first half of the photographers career, filled with strangers on the fringes of society 

Diane Arbus’ peering lens is relentless, it goes everywhere you’re not supposed to. It wants to get inside people and watch them live their lives. At the same time it asks the reverse, what of Arbus’ life, what did she see in these scenes? In the beginning at the Hayward Gallery introduces her neglected 35mm work made between 1956 and 1962, the first seven years of Arbus’ photographic life. When she stalked the streets of New York, from Time Square and Coney Island, seeking out encounters with the margins of society.

These photographs mark a sharp contrast to the medium format style she later adopted. They’re dark, heavy, indistinct. Time is held still, somewhere around midnight. They’re illuminated only by an overcast sky, a single lightbulb in a dank apartment, or the humming glow of a television. Objects dissolve in the rough grain of the photographic print. What is present and absent merges and fantasy takes hold. Arbus’ city is unfamiliar, filled with strangers and masks, the dead and dying and those in-between – her favourite subject – the people she called ‘freaks’, people not of society: the ugly, and insane, giants and dwarves, transsexuals, sex workers, clowns, fire eaters, corpses.

Diane Arbus. Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC

This is why Arbus’ work was known and hated. Any work that tests the limits of society and  normality will stand out and be criticised. The critic Susan Sontag expressed ethical concerns about her relationship with her subjects, that she was exploiting these sensational people. Other critics suggested that Arbus was even attracted to these people she photographed. Certainly, eroticism plays a part in many of her most memorable photographs and she also talked of the licentiousness of photography. “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favourite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”

I get the sense that at the Hayward plays to this voyeuristic tendency, that in seeing the show we’re supposed to inhabit Diane Arbus. The photographs are scattered throughout the gallery, mounted at eye height on columns that divide the space into a grid like the streets of NYC. Each picture forms an imaginary peephole into her world. I found myself walking undirected about the space, moving from view to view, a constant photographic search. It’s like you’re in the city, seeking out, stalking, catching glimpses. It cultivates a sense of unnerving familiarity of her view, her eye.

This familiarity is a fantasy, there’s an essential gap between our understanding and Arbus’. We will never totally understand her motivation, each attempt becomes introspection. We project our own fears onto these photographs, these sheets of paper, and read them back so that the reactions to her work reveal more than the work itself. Perhaps the biggest fear is that we might be the stranger who causes others to stare. “You see someone on the street,” Arbus wrote, “and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”

Diane Arbus. Stripper with bare breasts sitting in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J. 1961. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC

By 1962 Arbus lessened the focus on freaks, at the same time she switched to a medium format Rolleiflex camera and influenced by the work of August Sander she adopted a calmer, clearer, more commercially viable style of photography. But with this goes all the joy and excitement of her earlier work, its nowhere nowhere near as fun, gritty, or inventive as the earlier work. Around  the same time Arbus began to photograph nudist colonies. In these pictures, normality and freakishness are reversed, with nudists trying to create a semblance of rational society amongst a world at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, facing the very real threat of total nuclear annihilation.

She later described the rules of these colonies with a palpable sense of disappointment, as if these people couldn’t live up to her transgressive dreams. At one place any kind of sexual attraction or staring was banned, “you were allowed to look at people but you weren’t allowed to somehow make a big deal of it”, while she described another as resembling “The garden of Eden after The Fall’, as if humanity had been forgiven and told, ‘Stay. Stay in the Garden. Get civilised. Procreate. Muck it up’” and paradise became nude bodies, mud, and trash.

What did Diane Arbus see? For many years this has been hard to answer, the combination of her early death, the contempt in which her work, and her daughter’s wish for privacy led to few exhibitions and few books. This show allows a new round of introspection, a new engagement with these images. It’s true that Arbus pictures the worst, the most extreme, the nightmarish, she creates a modern Gothic horror. It’s a pessimistic view of society, and why not? This is a society where people must degrade themselves to gain a semblance of respect, while others think nothing of wearing a ‘bomb Hanoi’ badge. Arbus’ vision is ruthless, in this world there’s no salvation in freakishness nor normality.

diane arbus: in the beginning is at the Hayward Gallery until May 6th 2019

Inside Richard Meier’s White-Walled World

The American architect – part of the New York Five and one of the city’s most iconic modernists – talks to Port about his body of work and branching out from his beloved colour white
Richard Meier by Joss McKinley
“It began quite innocently,” says Richard Meier of the events that propelled him to fame. In 1972 he was a young architect practising in New York, and teaching at Cooper Union with John Hejduk, the educator and theorist who would later become the school’s dean of architecture; Charles Gwathmey, another architect, was working in the same building. Meanwhile Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman were teaching at Princeton. All the men were near the start of their careers – they had built little, and not much building was going on in New York, which was mired in ever-deepening economic and social crisis.
“We all knew one another. We taught together; we were friends, and we decided to get together and sort of criticise one another’s work,” Meier recalls. “So we went to a neutral space, the conference room at the Museum of Modern Art, everyone bought one work that they were currently involved with and the others gave their opinion of it. We had a really good, friendly discussion. And afterwards we said, that was really good – we should make a little pamphlet to commemorate the event.”
That pamphlet became, in the hands of George Wittenborn – an art books publisher on Madison Avenue – a slim book called Five Architects, and the architects became known as the New York Five. Each architect included two of their houses in the publication, and Arthur Drexler, MoMA’s influential director of architecture, contributed a pugnacious introduction, praising the five for remaining true to the “rational poetry” of pure modernism, as opposed to the “proletarian snobbery” of brutalism and the “elegant but arbitrary” pure structure of Mies and his followers. For a such a slender volume, the effect was electric – even explosive. 
“At the time, most architectural discourse, if you can call it that, was around issues of social responsibility… and perhaps the very faint beginnings of postmodernism and reaction against modernist orthodoxy,” says Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic for Vanity Fair, formerly of the New York Times and the New Yorker. “And then, into this mixture, come these young architects who were interested in modernist form and continuing to develop and refine it, and push it forward, and did not feel it was a dead end, but felt it was very much relevant. In the context of the architectural culture of the 1970s, it felt very fresh… very much oriented around pure aesthetics and pure forms and making a shape and making a space as an end in themselves.”
Left to right: presentation model of the Ackerberg House and presentation model of the Rachofsky House in the North Gallery of the New York office.
“I was surprised how much was written about it,” Meier says. “It made people think about architecture in a different way, which was very positive.” But with modernism divided and falling from grace, this clarion call was controversial. The New York Five became known as the “whites”, and were attacked in the pages of the Architectural Review by a rival grouping of proto-postmodernists and neoclassicists, the “greys”. “People certainly read it as a manifesto of some sort, and it provoked other events,” Meier says, although he denies that the aim was polemic. For him, the value was all in those initial meetings: “It was really a wonderful coming together. We knew one another; we had dinner with one another, but this was something different. It was just sitting in a room, talking about the work – not only one’s own work, but also the work of the other four.”
Meier was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, and established his office in New York in 1963. “White” was an entirely apt label for his work. He is associated with the colour like no other architect. The Five were always divergent in style, and their architecture went in radically different trajectories: Eisenman into deconstructivism, Hejduk into sui generis idiosyncrasy, Graves into monumental postmodernism. But Meier has remained loyal to white-walled modernism. One monograph of his work opens with an essay by him in praise of the colour: “White is always present but never the same, bright and rolling in the day, silver and effervescent under the full moon of New Year’s Eve. Between the sea of consciousness and the earth’s vast materiality lies this ever-changing line of white.”
In interview, however, he’s far more restrained – at times, frustratingly taciturn. “I felt that we were part of a tradition and respected that tradition, and showed the way it could be expanded,” is pretty much all he will be drawn to say about his relationship with his modernist forebears. But his meaning is spelled out in his work. His crowning achievement is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a hilltop complex of galleries the size of a small town, developed over more than a decade at a cost of $1.3 billion. Few architects get this kind of opportunity; even fewer could make such consummate use of it. He has built other cultural landmarks in the United States as well, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and he is one of continental Europe’s favourite Americans, with major projects such as city halls for The Hague in the Netherlands and Ulm in Germany. Dazzling white is sometimes cut into by pale stone and apertures of sky; grids and purist geometry are kept from sterility with surgical curves and deviations from the orthogonal. 
Photo cards with images from the Richard Meier Archive to commemorate and celebrate Richard Meier’s 80th birthday created by the staff from his New York office.
“What he has done is distilled a kind of elegant purist essence out of modernism,” says Goldberger. “But his works are very much compositions; they’re about balance and weight and lightness and solids and voids, all very beautifully balanced together into compositional wholes that are elegant and serene. That is not what modernist orthodoxy has prioritised so much as what he has prioritised. He has been pursuing his own private version of modernism, consistently, his entire career.”
Some of Meier’s earliest projects in the late 1960s and early ’70s, were in New York. After that, for more than a quarter of a century, he was overlooked in his home city. But with the turn of the century, that changed. Between 1999 and 2006, he built a trio of short, elegant towers on Perry Street and Charles Street in Greenwich Village, a decorous little riverfront group that deftly combines variation and restraint. “To have three buildings together, three blocks on the river, is really unique. It makes me proud,” Meier says. “And they’ve really transformed an area, given it a new life.” 
They also created demand for Meier’s architecture among condominium developers. In the early years of the 21st century, with his catalogue heavily focused on houses, civic centres and galleries, Meier had more than once expressed a desire to design a skyscraper. Since then, a few Meier spires have appeared in locations around the world, and now one is under way in New York: an apartment tower at 685 First Avenue. The site is a couple of blocks south of the United Nations building on the East River, and Meier expresses his satisfaction that his own tower is much the same height and orientation. “It’s like they’re a pair of buildings,” he says. “That context gives me great pleasure.”
Senior Associate Hans Put working on the design of a new private residence in East Hampton.
However, once it’s finished the uninformed eye might not recognise 685 First Avenue as a Meier: it’s black, clad in a “very taut, very striking” curtain wall of shadowy glass. It is a remarkable rupture with the Meier trademark. What made him break the practice of a lifetime and make a black building? Typically, his reply is a little… well, a little colourless. “ came to me and said ‘I like your work; I like the buildings that you did downtown, but would you do a black building?’ So I thought about it a while, and I said sure. So that’s what we’re doing.”
To break up the mass and highlight the blackness and tautness of the curtain wall, there’s a sliver of white about two thirds up the tower: one apartment, different to the others, with clear glass to reveal its pristine interior. An interesting place to live, I say. You’ll be able to point it out from across the river.
Another first: Meier laughs, and permits himself a dry joke. “We should tell the sales people that they should charge more for it.”
This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.
Photography by Joss McKinley