Justine Kurland

Eel Swamp

Eel Swamp by Justine Kurland

Artwork Detail

This photograph is one from a series of 18 images, collectively titled the New Zealand Series. Made in April 2001 it involved students from a local Auckland high school. Kurland created a tableau at a West Auckland beach for this documentary-but-make-believe scene. The neo-romantic setting cues us into classical traditions of picturesque landscape or history painting.

Kurland created a stage for the narrative to unravel, “so the pictures have only a trace of my directorial hand.” Much like a film set, the landscape becomes a prop for play, the clothes are part of a wardrobe, and the girls’ presence triggered by a casting call.

The uniforms in particular impose a sense of social organisation. They become a democratising, levelling device both within the photograph’s composition and in our imagination. In Kurland’s image however, that sense of established social custom embodied by the matching uniforms has gone to seed, and been allowed to run wild.

Eel Swamp is a rather disquieting image with a dream-like surreal edge. It depicts three girls in drenched school uniforms immersing themselves in a dark, apparently stagnant stream. The girls’ somewhat reckless play pitches them into another-world, an evanescent and perhaps fictitious girl-zone. The camera’s viewpoint notes its proximity to this unfolding drama. The gaze of the camera seems surreptitious, as if catching the girls off limits, in a personal parallel world never intended for public view. Eel swamp demonstrates the tension in Kurland’s work between a constructed scene and a documentary impulse in photography.

Eel Swamp
Justine Kurland
Production date
satin laminated C print on sintra board
762 x 1016 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 2003
Accession no
Copying restrictions apply
International Art
Display status
Not on display

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