Reflecting on the Significance of the American Girls Exhibition

lona Szwarc is a rising star in the art world. Meredith College was fortunate to have been the first college to hold an exhibition of her work and to host her as a visiting guest artist. Students in the Art Department were thrilled to have Szwarc come to two different classes and speak with them about her work, and then critique their work in progress. Szwarc was born and raised in Poland, but immigrated to the USA in 2008. While walking around in NYC, she was struck by the ubiquity of adolescent girls carrying dolls that looked just like them—a trend that seem to transcend socio-economic and ethnic boundaries.

Szwarc had never heard of American Girl dolls. After learning about them, she was struck by the fact that these dolls were actually called “American Girls.” She saw this as a way to help her understand American culture. Additionally, after learning about the American Girl company she was pleased to find that the company was committed to offering a wholesome alternative to the Barbie doll, but at the same time she was fascinated by the mimetic nature of these girls and their miniature twins.

The “American Girls” project began with Szwarc stopping girls on the street and asking to photograph them. After reflecting on the initial images, Szwarc clarified a goal and an outline for the project. The project’s goal would be to create a “typology” of an American girl. Much like the work of August Sander, who sought to photographically depict and catalog Germans in the 1920s, Szwarc’s work hopes to depict the American girl. In order to achieve this she decided it would be important to photograph with a large format 4” x 5” portrait camera and color film, and photograph the girls in their own environment with their input.

Szwarc put out a call for models on American Girl fan sites, and then would visit the girls in their homes. She would spend a few hours getting to know them and understanding what was important to them, and how they played with their dolls. Then, together they would choose a location in their house for the portrait. The girls chose outfits for themselves and for their dolls. In order to neutralize each image, Szwarc gave only one overarching direction to her subjects; do not try to smile. The result is a series of images of girls that stare back at us as we look at them, much like a doll might see us.

The concept of mimesis is central to the photographs. Just as the doll mirrors the child and allows her to act out her world, the photographs serve as a mirror for all of us who are American girls. They allow us to reflect on who we are and what is important to us, both consciously and unconsciously. For instance, sometimes the girl’s posture may seem inappropriately suggestive, or a gesture difficult to understand. Other times the girls and their dolls are benevolent, stoic, or innocent. Szwarc offers us an opportunity to look into the mirror, and reflect on who we are individually, who we are as a culture, and who we are becoming.

Szwarc states, “I am hoping the viewer will be provoked to think about all the different layers of meaning that can be found in that body of work—the sociological, anthropological, political, psychological, as well as about the formal qualities of photographic description.”

The American Girls exhibition is currently on view in the Rotunda in Johnson Hall through November 16, 2014.

About the Artist: Ilona Swarcz is the winner of multiple awards including the 2014 Arnold Newman Prize for Portrait Photography, and the 2013 World Press Photo award. Her work has been featured in National Geographic, TIME, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Photo District News. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Yale University’s School of Art.

Melyssa Allen

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