A dry plain stretches back toward a stand of winter trees, bare and dark under a cold blue sky. In the foreground, a man encircles a woman in his arms, his cheek rested protectively on her head. With their eyes closed in quiet reflection, this navy suit and long white dress might be a blissful couple on their wedding day. However, the promise celebrated in this photograph is, in fact, a very different one: that of chastity until marriage, made by a young virgin to her father.
Taken by Swedish photographer David Magnusson—who recently joined Pictura Gallery in Bloomington, Indiana—this provocative image is part of his recent “Purity Project,” which debuted in 2014 at the Swedish Museum of Photography in Stockholm. Documenting a number of so-called Purity Balls conducted every year throughout the United States, the series focuses on subjects based in Louisiana, Colorado, and Arizona, illuminating this recently initiated tradition—conceived in 1998 by Colorado Springs couple Randy and Lisa Wilson for their five daughters—in which nubile girls promise to “live pure lives before God.” In return, their fathers sign a commitment to “protect” their chastity, and, occasionally, rings are exchanged as symbols of this familial pact.
Eschewing the tendency to cast judgment on value systems that seem more limiting—and perhaps limited—than our own, Magnusson’s interest in the ceremony originally derived from a genuine appreciation of participants’ conviction in their faith. “As I learnt more,” he explains, “I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love—in the best way they know how. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls.”
Carefully curated by Magnusson, each shoot took up to an hour. The resulting images are strangely radiant, bathed in the soft, glowing light of early dawn – but their formal sublimity belies a deluge of unsettling suggestions. Will these girls ever be able to love anyone more than their own progenitor? And how powerfully are our conclusions about these photographs, and their pictured characters, informed by our own biases and discontents? “To me,” Magnusson concludes, “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.”