Reflecting on the complexities of a father-daughter relationship

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In her latest publication, Justine Kurland’s intimate black-and-white photographs sit alongside her late father’s still life paintings. A meditation on “psychic power dynamics,” as she describes it

Life is messy. The problematic coexists with the visionary. The violent with the loving. The trauma with the liberation. The complexities of living and finding meaning amidst rupture are at the core of Justine Kurland’s latest project, The Stick. The publication situates her intimate images alongside her late father Bruce Kurland’s (1938–2013) still life paintings. It reveals connective threads that unite their artistic sensibilities while grappling with the fraught psychological landscape between father and daughter.

“Our father’s love was coupled with cruelty,” Kurland writes in her short essay published in the book. “He was a ghost father. Our relationship was almost nonexistent. Because he was absent, he had more influence over me than my mother, who was always around.” In many ways, The Stick presents this absence while resisting sentimentality. Kurland employs the conversation between her and her father’s work as an act of self-representation and empowerment. She includes images of her lover and mother alongside personal still lifes and haunting landscapes in what one could describe as a fragmented self-portrait. Together with Bruce’s surreal paintings — flowers draped with raw bacon, a tortured crab shell, birds shrouded in smoke — the book animates an emotional back and forth and addresses themes of patriarchy, gender, trauma and liberation.

© Justine Kurland / TIS books.

The project’s title, The Stick, takes its name from the last drawing Bruce made while dying in hospital. “The loose sketch is of himself,” Kurland explains. “He has an IV behind him and a nurse straddling him. It looks like she is giving him head.” The illustration is unsettling and provocative. It reflects Kurland embracing the complexities of her father and their relationship with transformative effect.

“After my father died, I walked through his house and photographed his things with my iPhone,” Kurland recounts in an essay titled F-Hole. “I felt creepy doing it — not that he would have minded, but sometimes what a photograph shows isn’t nice. He lived in deprivation and poverty. An angry stoicism marked his house, from his duct-taped orthopedic shoes to the DO NOT RESUSCITATE order taped over my son’s drawing of a train on his refrigerator, aged by speckles of food […] I never used the photographs for anything or even showed them to my sisters. But I think taking them changed how I photograph.”          

© Justine Kurland / TIS books.
© Justine Kurland / TIS books.

In The Stick, Kurland’s shift in approach is palpable. The publication is her first since selling her beloved van four years ago, renouncing the road trips synonymous with her work. For 10 years, she lived and travelled the United States, continuing for another six after her son was born. Those photographs encapsulate a longing for rebellion while tackling the much-mythologised construct of the road trip. In contrast, Kurland’s recent work reflects on the internal landscape of self and the notion of home. From her apartment in New York City, her hometown of Fulton, NY, and her mother’s home in rural Virginia, Kurland navigates mental terrain, granting us access to her internal ruminations on sexuality, family and vulnerability.

The photographer describes The Stick as a “meditation on psychic power dynamics”. In many ways, it’s the space between her photographs and her father’s paintings that reveal more than the work itself. The project acknowledges multiple truths and realities by leaning into the full complexity of ambivalence, creating a new kind of family album. As Kurland describes, “I wanted to imagine how a photograph creates affective connections, ritualises togetherness, and preserves a record of belonging.”

© Justine Kurland / TIS books.

The Stick is published by TIS books.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.