Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ilona Szwarc : American Girls

These "American Girls" images by Ilona Szwarc appeared in a post on the New Yorker site.   Each young model poses with an American Girl doll that she presumably designed to mimic her own appearance, or else created by an adult else as a gift.  The photographs are occasionally humorous for the juxtaposition between real and copy, also but painfully closed to meaning beyond that relationship.  The more successful images have at some hint of ambiguity, as in the shot above, that get away from the basic conceit.   In this image the open landscape (Southern California?) and pose place the girl and doll in an usual place.  The girls seems small, unprotected yet still confident in a squat seen throughout Asia.  She seems just capable enough to care for an actual child, gazing with just the right amount of self-awareness at the camera, despite being outside of a house/home context.  The least successful images are those in which the control of photograph seems to be mostly with that of the model and her family.  This happens more so with the economically advantaged models, in which a certain smugness pervades, such as the image of the girl on the horse paralleled in the foreground by her doll on a toy horse.  This looks more like commissioned work than something which originated from the photographer's concept of how to portray the girl.  While the ironies of a poor girl posing with a Barbie doll may be corrected through a DIY doll creation process like "American Girl" that can seemingly run the gamut of skin color and hairstyle, these photographs seem to reinforce the notion that young girls are still limited by typical gender and economic rolls.  Even as some of the girls assert an identity between that of the doll and the view of the photographer as in "Molleen" or "Tiffany-Amber", they are hemmed in by the photographer's insistence that the doll represent the child.  Rather than open up the notion of girl-hood and the effects of media images, these image mostly perpetuate a limited view of young women.  Regardless, Ms. Szwarc is onto something as a portraitist.  It will be interesting to see how she grows- even as lauded photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra grew beyond her "Beach Portraits" to imagery that encompassed a broader vision of youth, so may Ms. Szwarc.

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