Karen Marshall photographed a group of friends for 30 years

In the mid-80s, Karen aimed to capture the pivotal bonds formed between teen girls. A tragic death 10 months in took the story in a new direction.

by Zoe Whitfield
13 October 2021, 7:00am

As a high schooler in the 1970s, Karen Marshall came of age at the height of the women's consciousness-raising movement in the US. "All the women around me were thinking about what it meant to be a woman," the photographer tells me today. "In 1985, no one was talking about it anymore." Disappointed, Karen's response was to initiate Between Girls, an idea that would develop into a 30-year project examining the emotional bond developed in friendships amongst teen girls. Over the years, the project has comprised photographs, audio recordings, videos and installations, culminating this month in a book of the same name, published by Kehrer Verlag.

Previously focusing on environmental street portraits that asked "what was America and who were the characters", by the mid-80s, Karen identified a desire to be inside, shooting away from public spaces. "I also wanted to use this notion of documentary to look at something that was more concerned with psychology or sociology," she says. So she switched from a 50s Rolleiflex to a lightweight 35 mm camera, and soon met 16-year-old Molly Brover in New York, who later introduced her to her girlfriends. Karen, aged 25 at the time, spent the next three decades photographing these girls.

a young woman in a tank top leans against another woman sat on a chair
Jen and Leslie, September 1986 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'

"From the first day I started hanging out with them, one of the things that was amazing was that I was like a fly on the wall, they didn't pay attention to me — even though in reality we were talking back and forth all the time — they didn't care that I was part of it," she says. This natural affinity and mutual trust meant Karen was able to capture beautifully spontaneous, everyday moments between the group: applying mascara in the bathroom, hanging out on the swings, riding the subway. "After high school, when I invited them to be videotaped for the project, it was no longer about me going to their world — I brought them together — which made for a different conversation with my camera."

One of the most poignant aspects of Between Girls is the unseen impact of grief on its subjects. 10 months into the project, Molly, was hit by a car and died while on summer vacation, aged just 17. The pain of her death had a devastating impact on the group, straining the relationships of the remaining members. "They couldn't be the same friends because it was too difficult," Karen says. Described as a vibrant and impulsive girl, Molly's presence is discernible throughout the project, from the stories shared to the pictures in which she features; on the book's cover, her portrait glows in red. "It's very hard; I don't know what would have happened if Molly had lived," says Karen. "Would I have finished it? It would have been an essay shown in a few magazines; I would have moved on. But because of what it became, it was also like a healing process; it became cathartic. It had more demarcations and became much more powerful for all of us." 

a young woman and man pose for a picture in formal prom clothing
Prom pictures, 1987 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'

She continued photographing the girls on special occasions in their final year. The sessions, which had been informal weekly hangs, now monthly visits. As they entered their 20s, she invited them back for interviews and continued shooting over the next two decades: from parties to partners and pregnancies. Back then, there was a distinct lack of stories about women, Karen tells me. "A lot of the stories that you would see were women under the poverty line or girls who were über rich; it was more about class structures. I wanted to talk about something that I still believe, that even if women are from different cultures, there's this weird ritual we all end up doing one way or another."

Ruminating on the bonds formed at that pivotal age — and ultimately how, despite traumatic experiences and lengthy separation, they're able to remain intact — Karen has reflected on her own friendships whilst revisiting the project to work on the book. "I started calling them emblematic relationships," she says. "have friendships that have lasted for decades, where I can not talk to someone for seven years, and then in about three grunts we know where each other's at, we have that connection. In watching the women grow, I understood, for myself, how important that is and what that trajectory is. It kind of validated what my intuition was back then." 

three women sat on a sofa talking
Leslie, Jen and Blake, 2000 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'

When one of the women was in her late 20s, she continues, they became a news editor at two teenage magazines, despite having never read or cared much about magazines in their own youth. "She said I inspired her, and made her realise how important those years are," Karen says of the anecdote, taken from a quote edited out of one of the many recordings. "I feel really honoured that they let me in at that age."

As I speak to Karen over Zoom in late September, some of the women have just received their copies of the book. It's a nerve-racking moment, but the reviews are in and still very enthusiastic. "I've heard back from two of them, and they are totally blown away," she says. "I got a text this morning: 'wow, it's beautiful you pulled this from all our lives, double exclamation point'. I feel the same way."

Molly, Leslie and Jen © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'.jpg
women in a kitchen talking and holding drinks, the women in the middle is pregnant
Blake with her mother, Jen and friends, 1997 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'
two women hug surrounded by people dressed formally
Blake, 1994 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'
two women leaning on the wall that borders a river
Jen and Molly 1985 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'
two young women sat on subway seats facing each other
Molly and Zoe, 1985 © Karen Marshall from 'Between Girls'


All images © Karen Marshall from Between Girls

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