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KARIN GEIGER
 

TRANSITIONAL GIRL WATCHING BY SARAH THORNTON

Transitional Girl Watching
by Sarah Thornton

Karin Geiger's In Between explores the tensions between public and private, childhood and adulthood, subject and artist, art and sociology. The photographs combine to create a multifaceted portrait of a social group that really only exists within the sphere of the series, but which nevertheless offers subtle insights into the lives of its adolescent subjects. In Between engages with many photographic styles and documentary genres which cumulate in a kind of spiraling exposition. The interplay of locations and details, long shots and close-ups borrows from cinematic structures but ultimately frustrates our desire for a story. Instead, the series creates meaning through proximities, discontinuities and associations.

In Between consists of a series of photographs of teenage girls from three high schools in two cities - Vancouver, Canada and Muenster, Germany. One of the schools is private, the other two are state. About half the images portray the girls themselves, usually in groups, while the other half explore their environment by depicting the empty interiors they would otherwise inhabit and in which traces of their presence can still be felt. Most of the photographs are colour, but they are punctuated by black and white shots, a combination that plays with the viewer's sense of time and underlines the composite nature of In Between's representational world.

The pictures are presented in what Walker Evans called a "documentary
style", a mode which self-consciously adopts the "objective"
aesthetic codes of documentary photography for artistic ends.(1) The
photographs privilege their subject and at first glance appear
intriguingly "unauthored". The girls neither acknowledge the camera
nor pose and there are few discernible traces of the photographer.
Even those shots which are heavily peopled reveal a certain absence.
While some photographs encourage identification, most display a
restrained empathy.

Geiger's In Between goes back to the non artistic roots of
photography addressing its specificities as a medium for conceptual
ends. These characteristics include, as Kate Bush writes, its
"descriptive precision, its serial nature, its stylistic neutrality
and authorial impersonality". Artists from the Dadaists to
contemporary photographers like Tacita Dean and Thomas Ruff,
continues Bush, have appropriated anonymous, found photography in
order to "inject" their art "with a useful shot of the real" and to
"challenge the insularity of art's discourses". (2)

In Between plays with artistic anonymity and, in so doing,
surreptitiously presents a subjective view of "the real". Geiger's
photographs bring less commonly explored social themes into the art
gallery and are not afraid to offer themselves up as documentary
evidence for social analysis. However, the images are ambivalent
documents. We can learn things about the girls and their lives
through looking at them, but we have to be careful not to treat them
as transparent windows on the world. They flirt with functionality,
but ultimately resist it through intentional inconsistency and
obfuscation.

Geiger deploys several different styles of documentary photography.
As a series, In Between refers to a sociological or anthropological
kind of academic documentation. The work could be a photo essay
about, say, class in the education system, except that the photos
refuse to line up into neat comparisons. Which girls go to which
school? Which bedrooms belong to whom? Who is German and what is
Canadian? Any expectations the viewer might have of a clear argument
are thwarted. In Between may at first appear systematic and
didactic, but it is ultimately ambiguous and idiosyncratic.

Geiger also explores a more casual style of photojournalism in the
sense that individual shots could be found in newspapers illustrating
stories about exam results or delinquency or school dinners.
However, Geiger's pictures are not subservient to a text, nor are
they explained away by any linear narrative. Moreover, they sit
alongside other photographs which subvert photojournalistic
conventions, like those that seem triumphantly to have no subject at
all, like "Students looking under desk".

In Between also features photographs taken in the mode of snapshots.
These close-ups capture individuals off guard. We see a fresh hickey
on the neck of a brown-eyed blonde, almost glimpse the knickers of a
Chinese girl in uniform and see the pimples on the face of a girl
smoking outside of school. The girls have a languid sexy feel about
them. These photos would not make it into the family album. They
are alluring but unsettling, captivating but not pretty per se.

One of the key themes of In Between, in fact one that runs through
all of Geiger's work, is the shifting boundary between public and
private. Photography, as a medium, always negotiates this line and
photojournalists are often accused of transgressing it by violating
people's privacy or fueling unhealthy prurience. Similarly, amateur
photographers encounter problems of consent, especially in domestic
settings when their subjects do not feel prepared to be photographed
- because they are not dressed, looking "terrible", "not wearing my
make up", etc.

In Between explores the relation between public and private in its
interplay of photos of school and home, long shots and close-ups.
Many images capture moments when the private spills out into the
public. Particularly interesting in this regard are the pictures of
girls who are distracted or daydreaming. In "Girls waiting at
computers", for example, the students' gazes criss-cross the room but
never seem to meet. The girls' faces betray nothing specific except
a tantalizing indifference to their surroundings. They appear lost
in an interior world. Similarly, in "Girl with hickey", the subject
is self-absorbed. The mark of a recent sexual encounter and the
small heart shaped pendant that hangs, significantly out of focus,
from her neck contribute to a poignant image of the confusion typical
of these transition years.

While the snap shot style portraits suggest a personal relationship
between photographer and subject as in the subjectivist tradition
associated with Nan Goldin and, to a lesser extent, Wolfgang
Tillmans, Geiger's use of the genre stops short of real involvement.
Due to the complete absence of eye contact with the viewer and
because of the contextualization of these photographs in a diverse
series, the accent in In Between is still on respectful distance
rather than emotional access, observation rather than participation,
the devised rather the authentic.

Despite its long documentary history, architectural photography (the
final genre explored by Geiger) might be considered the dominant mode
of art photography in Germany due to the widespread influence of
Bernd and Hilla Becher. Indeed Geiger studied at the Kunstakademie
Düsseldorf where Bernd Becher taught for many years. Tellingly,
Geiger was in the sculpture department rather than the photography
class, so it would seem that she kept a watchful distance. Her work
displays an acute consciousness of the tradition but never falls in
line with it. (3) When compared to Becher-inspired photographers of
architectural interiors like Candida Hofer, it is clear that Geiger's
agendas are distinctly anti-formalist.

Geiger's work investigates the way architecture and design reveal
structures of social control, influence behaviour and bear witness to
individual identities. The empty institutional spaces of In Between
are always in dialogue with the peopled shots around them and, as a
result, they have a narrative, human aspect not seen in much of the
other German work. They pose questions like "what happened in this
room?" and "who was here?" Moreover, in certain pictures like
"Locker room with hanging bags", they take on a symbolic dimension.
The pristine white lockers present a public face that contrasts
dramatically with the messy personal effects which hang from railings
and scatter the floor behind.

Geiger resists a singular signature style in her use of multiple
genres - a strategy that marks her as part of a younger generation of
artist photographers. Compared to canonical photographers who use
digital manipulation and clear signature styles (like Andreas Gursky)
or richly layered art historical references and elaborate directorial
devices (like Jeff Wall), this work is radical in its removal of the
overt hand of the artist. Interestingly, Geiger studied with Wall
while doing her Masters at University of British Columbia and spent
time in Vancouver where conceptual artists like Roy Arden and Stan Douglas were an essential part of the scene. One can see Geiger's kindred interests in experimenting with photographic traditions, exploring its history and status as a document, and using it in a socially engaged way.

Geiger makes a unique contribution as a woman photographer who has
chosen a difficult-to-access feminine subject matter. The
photographs of the girls' bedrooms are a case in point. They depict
a tangled web of consumer culture, parental authority and adolescent
self expression. Girls of fifteen and sixteen years old have few
spaces of their own. They are always in environments governed by
others, even their bedrooms are subject to the inspecting eye and
budgetary control of their parents. Sheets and curtains, whether
they feature teddy bears or polka dots, are larger purchases that
would seem to be under maternal jurisdiction. Whereas posters and
knick-knacks betray the girls' past and present tastes and
obsessions.

With the exception of one male teacher and some
boys in a classroom group shot the men in this photographic series are to be found in the commercial photography appropriated by the girls and pinned up on their walls. Kurt Cobain, the boys from Green Day and the muscular tattooed back of a Levi's model hold pride of place in the girls bedrooms, suggesting the possible contents of their daydreams and pointing to the romantic comforts of unattainable
males. Whether they attend co-ed schools or not, girls of this age
tend to congregate in same sex cliques and struggle with their
fluctuating identification with and alienation from boys. In
"Bedroom with Kurt Cobain", for example, the disheveled bed and
converging walls, the reflection of Cobain in the girl's vanity
mirror as well as his presence in the poster on the wall, the image
of Green Day in a round distorting security mirror, all combine to
capture the paradoxes of self and "other" that are part of evolving
adolescent identity.

Although the series refuses to offer definitive answers, it gives us
a wealth of visual information with which to work up our own. Other
rooms display posters of horses and menageries of stuffed animals and
other cuddly toys - sensual transitional objects that are vestiges of
childhood and suggest that the owners of these rooms are at a
different stage of psychological development. However, at times,
these toys seem curated into an ironic display, as in the photograph
where five Barbies are gathered around one Ken with handcuffs
dangling over head.

A recurrent motif of the bedroom interior decor is the display of an
official school photo or snapshot of the absent girl to whom the room
might belong, as in "White bedroom with tattooed Levi's boy",
"Bedroom with girl's school portrait" and "Bedroom with Virgin Mary".
The girls' presence in photographic form has at least two effects.
Firstly, it emphasizes the status of these architectural interiors
as portraits which tell us more about the mindset of the girls than
the smiling masks of their school photo could ever do. Secondly, it
makes the viewer more self-conscious about his or her looking and, in
so doing, draws attention not only to the voyeurism entailed in
photographing these private spaces, but the benevolent voyeurism of
the series as a whole.

The four way tension between self and institution, childhood and
adulthood is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the group shots of
the girls in uniform. The uniforms repress their distinct
identities, visually institutionalizing them. They would also seem
to aim at restraining their development and preserving their
"innocence" as little girls. However, the girls have outgrown their
uniforms and the viewer's eye is drawn to their flesh, to the
delicate hands that push back unruly hair or the beckoning length of
leg between the bottom of their short skirts and the top of their
knee socks. Ironically, in stripping the girls of their
individuality, the uniforms increase their sexual objectification.

In "Girls loitering in hallway", institutional attempts at enforcing
conformity and controlling behaviour are also to be found in the
relentless rows of identical lockers and the hard hygienic surfaces
of walls and floors. The composition of the photograph mimics the
highly structured environment insofar as its strong linear
perspective initially draws the viewer's eye down the corridor. But
the girls' bodies resist the directional pull. They lounge and lean
in casual groups of two or three, sit legs outstretched or
cross-legged on the floor, so that the viewer ultimately becomes
involved in observing the play of their social interaction and
isolation.

The compositions of these group portraits are amongst the most
obviously constructed in the series and serve as a linchpin around
which the other pictures circulate. In them, one can see the legacy
of certain documentary photographers such as Robert Frank. Like
Frank's photographs, they capture a moment which reveals the beauty
of everyday life. They have a poetic timelessness about them, which
contrasts with the easily dated promotional posters on the girls'
bedroom walls and suggests a certain universality to girls'
adolescent transitions in the affluent first world.

"Girls taking exam (with girl pressing knees together)" plays with
the viewer's sense of time in several ways. It feels like it could
have been taken in any year between the late 1960s and the present
day. Due to its long exposure, it also appears that time is passing
within the frame, as if the photograph captured the very ticking of
the clock during an exam. Yet this movement contrasts with the
stasis evoked by the equilibrium of the picture's composition. Even
the V-formation of the legs of the girl in the front row is echoed in
the converging bands of light above her head. Ultimately, "Girls
taking exam" can be read as either comfortingly or disconcertingly
nostalgic. It evokes the warm glow of community and collective rites
of passage, but not without a chilly undercurrent which suggests
entrapment in some kind of scholastic purgatory.

Karin Geiger's In Between offers a welcome antidote to the asocial
individualism of traditional portraiture, not just in the way it
depicts the girls in relation to one another and their environment,
but also because it plunges into issues of identity formation by
exploring subjects who are in the midst of "finding" themselves and
waking up sexually. Geiger's girls are often depicted in states of
self-absorption, even when in groups, suggesting that the experience
of growing up is characterized by obsession and fantasy. While the
viewer can imagine how the school spaces attempt to confine and
control a new cohort of youth, the photographs of the bedrooms are
haunted by the girls who are no longer who they once were. In
choosing transition as one of its main themes, Geiger's series also
comments on the way the photographer is able to stop time, then
analyse and re-invent those depicted moments, that would otherwise be
lost in an endless "in between".


References:
(1) Walker Evans. "The Reappearance of Photography" in Alan
Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography, Leete's Island Books,
New Haven, Conn, 1980. p. 185
(2) Kate Bush. "Candid Camera." Frieze no.73, March 2003, pp.58-63.
(3) Another of Geiger's photographic series of garage sales offers a
more direct critique of the Becher School.


Dr. Sarah Thornton is a sociologist of culture and freelance writer
who lives in London. Her publications include Club Cultures
(Polity/Wesleyan) and The Subcultures Reader (Routledge) as well as
many journal and magazine articles. Thornton was born in Canada and
has lived in Glasgow, Los Angeles and Berkeley, California.