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Birnbaum's pictures of girls between the ages of 8 and 13 addresses their femininity and sexuality without objectifying or sexualizing them. We see them at the intersection between childhood and maturity, dressing up to look a bit older just adopting a facial expression that looks unusually mature, or interacting with each other in ways that remind us of older people. The pictures are taken in a variety of settings: indoors, by a lake, in back yards, and in a public playground. Some don't show the girls directly, but show their rooms with clothes and other items on the floor, and there are several images of dolls. The girls are nearly always looking serious and meditative, staring into space or rather blankly at the camera. In the pictures with two or more girls, they are rarely fully interacting with each other: they will be looking in different directions, at least one of them occupied by her private thoughts. The composition is straightforward with the girls in the center of the picture, giving the feel of a snapshot rather than an attempt to create an artful portrait. The use of color is subtle and beautiful: the images are mostly bright, with coordination of blues and whites complemented by browns, or dramatic splashes of red amid milder hues. Birnbaum shows a developing self-awareness and focus on self-presentation in a variety of ways that add up to an impressive investigation. My favorite picture is "almost 13" with a girl lying on the wooden floor on a deflated blue air mattress. She is wearing a simple dark v-neck sweater, her left hand resting at the base of her throat, her right hand on her abdomen. Her hair is a little wild, splayed out around her head. She looks directly at the camera dispassionately, her eyes a little narrowed with a hint of suspicion or weariness. Her face looks a little overexposed so her image has a washed-out feel to it. It is easy to read this picture as a girl aware of how she looks, and aware of herself becoming more sexual, but neither welcoming nor celebrating this change in herself and her relation to people looking at her. She looks beautiful, a little vulnerable and pissed-off: her strong jaw-line and the look in her eyes suggest that it would be a bad idea to annoy her. The diagonal positioning of the girl on the page is enhanced by the alternating arrow lines of the parquet flooring and the parallel of her two forearms. It makes for an extremely powerful image. Not many of the other pictures in this book achieve the same intensity, but this is an interesting project that will provoke comparisons with the work of Rineke Dijkstra and Lauren Greenfield.
· Publisher webpage
· Artist webpage
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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