Ilona Szwarc’s portraits of contemporary femininity are both razor-sharp and gorgeously sensitive. Szwarc is a New York-based photographer, born and raised in Warsaw, Poland. With the clarity granted by distance, she is able to isolate and examine distinctive cultural traditions that many Americans take for granted. In her recent American Girls and her upcoming Rodeo Girls series, both of which depict subcultures of contemporary American youth, these issues of gender, femininity and identity take the spotlight.
The first series, American Girls, was completed last year, and established her as an observer of the contemporary American female experience. The new Rodeo Girls series continues this tradition.
American Girl is a brand of very popular fine dolls and lifestyle products, created for girls from approximately 5 to 13-years-old. Many girls order customized dolls to look like a miniature version of themselves.
Kayla - February 2008. Winner of the 3rd Prize - Singles, in the World Press Photo 2013 Observed Portraits competition.
Szwarc became interested in the American Girl dolls while working as a street photographer in New York City. “These girls with their dolls kept showing up,” she said in a recent interview. “I started wondering about them, and it became a question of identity. I began to ask, ‘Did I grow up in this way?’ and the answer was, no, I didn’t ... You have to identify as American to buy this doll.”
This series sets the stage for her upcoming rodeo girls series, which showcases the young women who compete in rodeos. “This is such a different idea about growing up,” Szwarc said. “These are American girls as well, but with very different gender roles. It’s a different type of American girl.”
Szwarc began traveling to the United States regularly when she was four, and studied photography at New York’s School of the Visual Arts. During high school, she studied abroad for a year, and lived with an American family in Canadian, Texas.
“My life is so much richer because of this random place,” she said with a smile. “It feels like home. It’s ridiculously foreign but it feels like home.”
Ilona Szwarc, photographed by Matthew Leifheit.
Much of her work draws from this understanding, the rodeo girls series included. While visiting Canadian, she became aware of the junior female rodeo, and naturally began shooting.
Even the vocabulary is different. The word most often used to describe the dolls, Szwarc said, was fun. “Everything was fun for them,” she said of the girls in the American Girls series. “The rodeo girls never used the word fun. It was never about fun. They’d use words like ‘speed’ and ‘risk.’ ‘Adventure,’ always it was about adventure.”
Szwarc became interested in how these young women fit into an environment designed for and dominated by men, and how their identity maintenance compared to that of the American Girl doll tradition.
The feminine ideal of the American Girl dolls is conservative and traditional, emphasizing domesticity, whereas the feminine rodeo ideal is more about toughness and finesse. Szwarc added that she sees the American Girl doll play as more passive, “dressing them up and having tea parties,” where the rodeo is necessarily more active, as it’s a display of physical dominance.
“Many of them [the rodeo girls] would say that they didn’t feel comfortable being feminine, and this was really interesting to me,” she said. “They found themselves in a scenario that limited their ability to express their femininity, but they adapted to it.”
Practicing rodeo skills with a goat.
One of the most interesting things about the rodeo culture, Szwarc said is that the language associated with the female tradition is often applied to the horses. “These ideas of body maintenance and grooming, these were all applied to the horses,” she said. The girls braid the horses manes, brush their hair, apply lotion to the hooves, and add accessories. “The femininity is almost transposed to the animals,” she added.
“There are no female role models in the rodeo,” she said. She then told the story of one girl whose room she visiting that was decorated with a cardboard cutout of John Wayne and a John Wayne bedspread. "It’s such an odd, outdated role model. But there’s no one else to look up to. He’s the only role model there is."
Kami Tippet in Vernon, Texas, at the Junior Rodeo Cowboy Association finals.
Often, young femininity in art is the object of the “male gaze,” studied from a masculine or superior perspective. Instead, Szwarc’s portraits manage to capture something essential, individual, intimate, and vulnerable about each of these young women.
The young women are often shot from just below their eye-level in high-saturation and exposure. More often than not, these young women appear strong, almost defiant. In working with them, Szwarc is able to bring forth a sense of surety that only a respectful and conscientious observer can capture.
Americans seem to have trouble understanding her motivation to shoot these images, Szwarc added toward the end of our conversation. Americans tend to take it for granted that young women have look-alike dolls or compete in rodeos. Internationally, though, these American traditions are met with curiosity. In Europe, girls quit playing with these dolls at seven or 8-years-old, Szwarc said, and the rodeo is itself an American idiosyncrasy.
Lariat Larner at a ranch in Gruver, Texas.
Szwarc was quick to add that she is neither a journalist nor an ambassador, but an artist and an observer.
“I’m letting people know about it, but I’m expressing a little bit of my own ideas at the same time.”