Photographer Ilona Szwarc’s work examines gender, identity and beauty in the context of American culture. Her recent project, American Girls, is a series of portraits of girls in the U.S. who own and idolize their American Girl dolls.

We’ve always been fascinated with the obsession of the American Girl doll craze, and Ilona’s photographs captures a side of American girlhood and culture that has been a rite of passage for so many.

Ilona explains the project in her artist statement:

When I first came to the U.S. from Poland, the phenomenon of the American Girl doll immediately caught my attention. Photographically it was a beautiful image – girls with their sculptural representations, their twins, their avatars.

I realized that their designs embodied contemporary cultural values. They were conceived to be anti-Barbie toys modeled after a body of a nine year old. Each doll can be customized to look exactly like its owner, yet all of them really look the same.

American Girl dolls offer an illusion of choice therefore an illusion of individuality. Despite that, they play a crucial role for girls in a moment when they are forming their identities. With a wide variety of miniature accessories, a doll hospital, a doll hair salon with personal stylists, they are perhaps among the most luxurious toys ever invented.

American Girl products define and categorize American girls – future American women – and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how. Branding behind the doll perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles. I examine how culture and society conditions gender and how it invents childhood. Gender becomes a performance that is again mirrored in the performance of my subjects for the camera.”

© Ilona Szwarc - Jenna

© Ilona Szwarc - Gillian

© Ilona Szwarc - School Girls

© Ilona Szwarc - Maya & Leela

To view the full series, visit Ilona Szwarc’s website.

We also recommend checking out Ilona’s ongoing portrait project Rodeo Girls, about young girls from Texas who compete in rodeos, capturing the confidence and vitality of her subjects, while pondering ideas about femininity and traditional gender roles in society.

More About The Artist

Ilona Szwarc by Matthew LeifheitBorn in Warsaw, Poland, Ilona currently lives and works in New York City. She earned a BFA in Photography at the School of Visual Arts in 2013.

Her work has already won numerous awards, and has been featured in exhibitions and publications worldwide including The New York Times Magazine, TIME, The New Yorker, The UK Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine, among others.

All images © Ilona Szwarc