It was in 1985 when Live Aid wowed the world, Nintendo launched NES in the States, Back to the Future became the highest-grossing film, and Michael Jordan was named as the NBA's 'Rookie of the Year'. It was also when Karen Marshall began photographing a group of teenagers in New York City. It was a project that would last three decades, exploring the girls' passage into womanhood.
A decade older than the girls, Karen was to look at the emotional bonding that happens between girls at age 16 and document the emblematic relationships that often develop at this time in their lives. It was only supposed to be a short-term 35mm black and white documentary photography project. But it expanded into a thirty-year meditation on friendship, later including audio, video, and ephemera.
Now she is bringing together their visual story in a new photobook titled Between Girls, published by Kehrer Verlag. It marks the final closing chapter of this epic journey and allows us, the readers, the chance to experience Karen's photographs along with other media elements accessible via QR codes.
On how the project began, Karen says it was in the autumn of 1985 when she met Molly Brover, a bright, exuberant 16-year-old high school junior, and asked if she could photograph her and her friends. "Enthusiastic to show me her Upper West Side girl world, Molly agreed, and I was soon privy to her ever-rotating group of girlfriends, spending time with the teenagers on a regular basis and documenting the everyday rituals of their friendship," Karen explains.
"Molly was a vibrant and impulsive girl. She had a larger-than-life personality with wisdom beyond her years. Behind the façade of social advisor and fun-loving friend was a deeply sensitive thinker who had yet to find her grounding in the world. Her dark theatrical style along with her poetic and scattered energy drew my lens easily to her. She was a natural and compelling cinematic teenager, and the circle of girls I met through her equally captivated me."
In an unexpected cruel twist, we learn that Molly was hit by a car and killed while on holiday in Cape Cod. "I was devastated. But I resolved to keep the project going," says Karen. "I knew that Molly would remain 17, while the rest of them would become women, and that break in continuity among the girls inspired me to continue to document them in various ways over the years to come."
Karen followed the group all over New York. On subway trains, on the city streets, in Central Park, and at various parties over the years. It was clear that the death of Molly had brought the girls closer together. Karen believes their story is something unique yet one we can all relate to: "Understanding the rituals of friendship and the emotional connection we establish in our lives is the foundation that supports our sense of identity and the meanings found in belonging to one another that reaches beyond gender, class, and culture. At a time of forced isolation because of a global pandemic, a documentary about the importance of our connections to one another could not be more paramount."