Pure Art


David Magnusson
Purity
(Bokförlaget Max Ström, 2014)

“Believing that I am worth waiting for, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual purity from this day until the day I enter a committed, faithful, lifetime marriage.”

—A Daughter’s Purity Pledge

Purity balls are Christian ceremonies, during which fathers and daughters exchange promises to protect their purity mentally (by abstaining from knowledge) and physically (by abstaining from sexual experience). In 2010, Swedish photographer, David Magnusson, became fascinated with the American ritual and began taking portraits of the attendees. Over the years, a handful of these images have been widely circulated and almost unanimously scorned by those, the photographed refer to as, swimming with the current in “mainstream society.” Now collected into a photography monograph, Magnusson’s first, he presents 28 color portraits of fathers and daughters in Purity that are as remarkable for their luminosity as they are for their subject matter.

In his artist statement, Magnusson expresses, “My purpose hasn’t been either to belittle or glorify the ceremonies—the interpretation is all up to the eye of the viewer.” In Purity, Magnusson does offer observers the opportunity to bear witness to a public display of purity so profound it may stir even the most strident of viewers to examine their personal beliefs. However, in focusing on the artwork itself, specifically the photographic method—that vigilantly controls for light, composition, time, and exhibition—photography becomes a provocative medium in which to reflect upon the current phenomenon of purity balls.

Light

Per Magnusson’s request, the fathers and daughters arrived an hour and a half before dawn, wearing the formal attire they had donned for their purity balls. Daughters—aged two to 18—wore tiaras, elbow gloves, up-dos, and a predominance of white debutante-style gowns. Some proudly displayed purity rings, charm bracelets, and other symbolic tokens of their vows. The fathers wore the tuxes, suits, and full-military dress in which he had vowed to protect her promise as well as personally pledged to model pure manhood. As the God-appointed head of household, he vowed to guide his family, with integrity and authority, to follow the gospel that commanded Bible believers to be “light in a dark world.”

Similar to leading a family’s spirituality, controlling for light and darkness is also the foundation of photography. “The light is what makes this project visually coherent,” Ayperi Karabuda Ecer writes in Purity’s introduction. “David Magnusson’s lighting appeals…but its airy subtlety also adds a surreal tone which contrasts with the solid convictions of the photographed.”

Indeed, part of what makes this portrait series so gripping is that these are real people. They are not ancient paintings that can be dismissed as representing another era. These photographs capture human beings in the 21st century dedicated to living in accordance with prehistoric principles. There can be no doubt that the photographed esteem the Bible and its teachings to be the master narrative of their lives. Their devotion to its contemporary interpretation is illuminated; when at sunrise, the moment between night and day, Magnusson directed the fathers and daughters to pose “in light of the decisions you have made.”

Composition

The relationship between the fathers and daughters was Magnusson’s focal point. Magnusson directed but didn’t suppose to control how the family members would feel moved to position themselves in order to convey their commitments to one another as well as to the Holy Spirit that they prayed to embody.

Their poses and attire evoke visual comparisons to other kinds of couple imagery. Some are so lovingly intertwined they resemble wedding-day portraits. Some come across as adorably awkward prom pics. Some, against all reason, bring to mind “We’re expecting!” announcements due to their back-to-front stance, low slung embrace with hands joining beneath a high, empire-waist gown. And others conjure yesteryear associations with pioneers standing side-by-side in the Wild West.

Many appear to be praying or slow dancing or emoting sympathy for those girls who come from “bad homes where the dads aren’t in the picture.”The fathers’ dedication to their God-ordained duty to “cover” their daughters can be read in their body language. In turn, the daughters appear to return their embraces, accept their hands, and rise to meet their cupped palms resting on their shoulders. Some cling to their upright fathers.

Notably, in Purity all of the daughters have long faces, as if they are posing for an old-timey Daguerreotype and must hold their expressions. In a way they did, Magnusson’s shoots lasted for one hour. During which he took 16 portraits of each family. Magnusson used a large-format camera. The portraits are masterfully reproduced in the exquisitely designed and typeset 11 by 13 inch limited edition, cloth-bound book by Swedish publisher, Max Ström.

Purity’s large format serves Magnusson’s photographic composition style that involves the subjects as well as their surroundings. The photographer and families chose the settings together. All were located near to the families’ homes in Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. The wide-open sky, mountains, deserts, and grassland spotlights the closeness of the fathers and daughters due to their juxtaposition against such expansive frames. Furthermore, Magnusson positions his subjects in the dead center of the portrait. There is equidistance on all sides, including the foreground and the sky, perhaps creating a visual nod to how the subjects are firmly planted on earth but have their heads in the clouds, while the horizon appears to weigh heavily on some of the fathers’ shoulders.

Bound together, the portrait backgrounds also create another visual theme. Beneath the cartoon-blue sky captured in the majority of the portraits, there is an oil drill in one, a cross staked in another, there are multiple American flags, skyscrapers, freeways, a fire truck in one, and farmland in many. All are representations of the human endeavor to exert dominion over nature.

Time

Beyond the dawning hour, Magnusson captures a moment in time in the photographed lives and in American culture. Esteeming female virginity is nothing new; in fact, it’s ancient. Societies have been chiseling virgin esteem into sculptures and stoning wayward daughters long before Deuteronomy. However, the purity ball is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first was held in 1998 hosted by the Colorado Springs Christian ministry, Generations of Light, but it wasn’t until 2008 that it started to bloom into an annual, nation-wide practice.

The creators of the purity ball, Randy Wilson and his wife, Lisa, have been widely criticized from Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (2009) to Jennifer Baumgardner’s groundbreaking Glamour article in 2007. Alternatively, the Wilson family was welcomed by Dr. James Dobson, the renowned childrearing evangelist of Focus on the Family. A joyful experience that Dobson recounted in his book Bringing up Girls (2012), proclaiming that the purity ball episode was one of the most popular internationally syndicated radio programs of the year. During the episode, Randy explained how the idea sprang from a desire to have a coming-of-age celebration for his eldest daughter when she turned 13.

“They have accused us of being too patriarchal and of sheltering the girls too much. It is a distortion,” Randy vented frustration over the “popular press,” including the New York Times article, Dancing the Night Away with a Higher Purpose, by Neela Banerjee. “We are trying to support our daughters and help them withstand a confused culture that could cause them harm.”

Randy Wilson and two of his seven children are included in Purity. Randy is the center of his family’s portrait. He squints squarely into the camera while his two young daughters, wearing tiaras and gloves, are tucked under his arms. Kaalyn, age nine, holds her sister’s hand, with eyes closed, and remarks, “I’ve been going to Purity Balls ever since I was born.” Kameryn, age 14, rests her cheek on her father’s shoulder, eyes closed, in a rose-colored gown.

At Randy Wilson’s purity balls, he emphasizes the father’s (or any male relative willing to escort) commitment. He calls “the fathers to live a life of high character and integrity as individuals and lead their children in that lifestyle.” At his balls, the daughters do not sign anything or write down any vows, because “we feel it puts undue pressure on them. If they choose to, they can join a procession to place a white rose at the base of the cross as a symbol of their decision.” Randy states: “We definitely do not want to communicate that they aren’t good enough if any of them would happen to fail.”

Similar to the lifelong vows these daughters make, their words and images are recorded in Purity. Captured on the pages, these girls cannot age or change, fail or succeed. Photography is a fixed medium. Viewing these images can elicit wariness, not unlike the sinking feeling one might also sense over revenge porn, leaked nudes, or social media “slut shaming.” These young women are boxed in. Their existence searchable, their vulnerability is viewable for their future selves to be measured against.

Exhibition

And this is the point. Similar to art, evangelical purity pledges are intended to be shared—exhibited—so that others might bare witness to their testimony. However, Magnusson explains, “Many were hesitant, especially since the concept of the Purity Ball is generally derided in the USA.

Outside of the Religious Right, the purity culture featured in this portrait series has been largely maligned in the media. A Jezebel headline declared in 2012: “Purity Balls Still the Creepiest Shit Ever.” When Magnusson’s photos went viral, they were called “Touching” and “Admirable” but “Problematic” by Hypergenic. “Bizarre” noted The Huffington Post, and “Fucking Weird” said Flavorwire. Slate shied away from the subject matter and pronounced the photographs, “Striking.” Hundreds of comments followed the BuzzFeed photo compilation to essentially agree with the top one: “Sorry but these are fucking creepy.” At last check, the comment had 590 likes.

Those who participate in purity balls are acutely aware of their minority status—even within the Christian community. Magnusson persisted for four years and one-by-one convinced the couple dozen families featured in Purity of his good intentions: “I wanted to make the pictures as beautiful as possible so that the participants could be proud of them in the same way that they are proud of their vows of purity.” The portraits were first exhibited in full at Fotografiska, The Swedish Museum of Photography, in Stockholm. The prints are arresting. Hung at eye-level and nearly life-size, observers come face-to-face with the observed. Only 1,500 monographs were produced to accompany the exhibition and thus makes securing one a thing of value. A concept not so dissimilar than the reasoning behind why the photographed refer to their purity as “precious.”

Unique to the Purity monograph are testimonies by the daughters and fathers. A brief note of dialogue accompanies each portrait, in which, in their own words, they express what purity means to them. The typeface is a serif; the type size is small at eight-point font. On the grand, stark-white, portrait-sized pages, the testimonies come across as if they are being delivered with the understanding that within the culture at large their voices are tiny, their words muted, their thoughts minimized.

The book-cover portrait is of a 13-year-old named Jamie. She is from Shreveport, Louisiana. You can almost hear her gushing girlishly over how “fun” and “really cool” it was to attend the purity ball and “see all those girls making vows of purity.”

Jamie testifies, “I wanted to make the vows of purity because God asks us to in the Bible.” She and her father posed for the portrait with closed eyes. Standing in a white gown with her back to his black suit, her father’s arm cuts across her bodice to embrace her. The near overexposure is so extreme that the lines between her dress and skin blur around her neck and shoulders. Jamie’s hands are intertwined around one of her father’s hands, while the other is pressed flat against her womb. Jamie states how much the purity ball strengthened their relationship: “He is my protector and my best friend.” 

There are three other 13-year-olds included in Purity.

Hope from Haughton, Louisiana explains, “To me purity means that if I stay pure I can have my dream…” Hope and her father appear as though they are slow dancing, in parched grassland beneath a water tower that very well could be painted with their town’s name. Her white satin hemline drags in the dirt, while she rests her bobby-pinned curls against her father’s upright chest. “My biggest dream is to go to France,” Hope reveals. “And I can’t do that if I get pregnant before marriage.”

Miranda says, “Purity means staying abstinent and having a special relationship with your spouse when you get married.” She poses with her face tilted heavenward in the Arizona desert. “Because you’ll be each other’s first, you won’t have to worry about anything else.” Her father holds her from behind. Their hands fall into a loose heart-shape formation beneath her white dress’ sweetheart neckline. Miranda’s eyes are closed, her countenance a mix of dreamy yet determined, while her curling-iron coaxed spirals are aloft in the wind. Her white heels sink in the sand. Miranda’s father, in military dress, looks directly into the camera with a hard stare.

Another Louisianan, Sarah declares, with her eyes wide-open: “[The Purity Ball] was beautiful and meaningful and I think it made us all feel like princesses and just so very special.” She and her father are standing temple to temple as if about to charge into a fiery tango right in the middle of a deserted downtown cement parking lot. She states, purity “means trying to be perfect even though you know you’ll never be.”

Danielle, now 17, testifies to making her first commitment to purity around age 13. She poses with her father in a navy, chiffon gown that covers her from her wrists to her ankles. Her hair is precisely parted and then swept back in a loose bun that ages her. Danielle states that while she has never dated, she is excited for her wedding. She has been writing letters to her future husband, “telling him about my promises to keep myself pure for him,” and plans to give them all to him on their wedding night. In her portrait, Danielle’s eyes cut across her father. He is standing behind her, his palm on her hip as stiff as a robot; he dons dress blues and a clenched jaw. Her gaze continues, with a laser-focus, to an endpoint that observers are left to imagine exists well beyond the frame.

Interpretation

That the portraits are both intimate and exhibitionist is further complicated by the fact that nearly all of the girls are underage. The majority of the daughters are aged 12 to 17. Five are under the age of 10.

The single 18-year-old included in the monograph, Bethany, clings to her father. She is hunched over, because she has grown too tall to comfortably rest her head against his heart. Their portrait is set under a freeway overpass, begging the question of whether she will stay or go her own way. In her testimony, she reveals that like Danielle, she has never felt the need to date. “When God wants to, He’ll bring the right person to me,” she states, while also acknowledging: “I think that a lot of people don’t understand my decision.”

As tempting as it might be to shout, “Whose decision is this?” and wail that these children are brainwashed to the point of abuse, Magnusson suggests that doing so may indicate a cultural blind spot. He states, “I was struck by the idea that what set us apart wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values it had instilled in us.”

Undoubtedly, all of these daughters are endeavoring to make the best decision possible—as we all do—in light of the information available to her. Just as Magnusson cannot take a photograph of something that isn’t there; no one can have an understanding of something other than what they (have been allowed to) know.

What if she changes her mind?

Magnusson did. His perception of the purity balls changed from “appalled” and “fascinated” to sympathetic. He writes in Purity how he gained a new understanding of the hearts of the fathers and was pleasantly surprised by the “independent, strong, insightful” daughters, many of whom took the initiative to invite their fathers to the ball.

As a result, Magnusson wanted to create something that spurred “visual questioning.” After years of shooting news stories, Magnusson yearned to veer away from real-time documentation or staging literal editorial portraits in order to create images that provoked questions without supplying immediate answers. This is the artist’s job, and Magnusson is successful. In Purity, he presents observers with the opportunity to lift latent or suppressed feelings, assumptions, or privately held beliefs about love, sexuality, relationships, and faith to the surface and engage in dialogue so that we might share, discuss, and evolve. In doing so, we might also see how our cultural upbringing or current surroundings inform our perceptions of what makes our notions seem “normal.” All moral judgments—including the idea that sexuality can be categorized as pure or impure—are as subjective and culturally entrenched as the assessment of whether a photograph is good or bad.

“Every young woman has to develop that for herself. You can guide them and point them in the right direction, but…” testifies Kevin Rogers of Tucson, Arizona, after affirming that the purity ball set a good foundation for his 12-year-old, Morgan. In their portrait, he wears a white cowboy hat and pink shirt, bringing to mind an unflattering association with Boss Hog, while Morgan, in a cute pink chiffon dress, can only be described as giving the camera the stink eye. They stand in the middle of freshly tilled field, surrounded by clumps of dank dirt and a tractor in the background. Kevin continues: “…in the end, it’s they themselves that have to accept the decisions that they need to make to follow what the Bible teaches us about how to be pure and how to live a wholesome, good, clean life.”

All of the fathers in Purity testify that they hope their daughters make the “right” decisions, that she won’t “be tempted” to “make the same mistakes” they did or “stray” or “end up like other people out there,” because she just lets “anybody corrupt” her instead of “staying pure,” keeping her “whole heart,” and remaining “pleasing to God.”

As if these states of being good/bad, pure/impure, clean/dirty, pleasing/displeasing are as fixed as the gender roles most of the photographed ascribe to the sexes that subsequently govern the relationships between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives. “Purity means staying a pure woman, not trying to incorporate the same rights as boys,” states Grace Kruse, age 14, in a cornflower blue, 1950s style prom dress. “I’m a woman and I have different responsibilities in raising a family and teaching my children.”

Grace’s father poses with her in one portrait and her younger sisters, aged 10 and two, in another. Grace inherited her father’s pale features; their complexions nearly blend into the snow-capped Colorado mountains peaking behind them. Their facial expressions are nearly identical, except Grace’s eyes are commanding. The Black Forest air catches the throat when Gary states that purity in his family of 11 “means preserving the way they were created to be, not letting anyone corrupt them in any manner.”

This theme is echoed through nearly every testimony: God’s design is perfect, his plan not to be tampered with or “messed up” says one daughter or “ruined” says another or “misused” or “disrespected.” Avoiding this lesser state is frequently mentioned by the daughters, who feel called to protect their purity, and by father after father gallantly vowing to be that protection.

However, if the primary concern was protection, then might this vigilance be fortified with comprehensive sexual education, information about exploring desire personally and partnered, support during the trial and error of learning to negotiate preferences and boundaries, access to birth control, and all available methods of infection prevention? And if protecting women were of the utmost importance, then wouldn’t just punishment for sexual violence, coercion, and rape be the headline news? Protection includes taking an active, informed role in deciding to abstain as well as consent.

If, as one daughter put it, she no longer desired for her body to be “my witnessing tool,” then logic follows in a absolute, binary worldview that she would deserve to suffer the “serious consequences,” wonder if she was indeed “robbing herself of freedom,” or fret that she “gave away” too much of herself, and ought to internalize that she no longer warrants “being set apart” or considered “special.” Unless, of course, she repents for her “sin,” so Randy Wilson and his ilk can “lift any burden of guilt off them.”

Purity culture is not primarily about protecting young women. The first—and arguably only—thing being protected is not virginity or even the daughters of fundamentalist Christians, but instead the belief system. Ultimately, these pledges are to protect the patriarchal prerogative of God’s supremacy, a father’s headship, and the husband’s dominion—while simultaneously prioritizing their pleasure. Above all, however, it protects the sacred belief that because God created them, they are pure art.

The fireman Craig Kennedy expresses the sentiment succinctly to his 14-year-old, Shelby: “It was such an honor to…place the crown on her head, setting her up on that pedestal, and letting her know that she is important, that she is beautiful, and that she is God’s creation.”

The photography monograph Purity is a stunning testament to this ideal. And while, Magnusson is right to an extent, when he states, “To me, Purity is about how we are shaped by the society in which we grow up and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate as our own.” This assumes a worldview that is developed beyond only being able to see life as a fixed medium.




To see photos discussed in the review, click here.

Contributor

Amy Deneson

AMY DENESON is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her reviews of activist art and other essays have contributed to the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Bust, Curve magazine, and more. All of her raves can be read at amydeneson.com.

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