Lauren Greenfield; Photographic Signs Of Our Times

No way is Lauren Greenfield a mainstream photographer. Her genre falls into the realm of portraiture and social documentary but her true subject is loss of innocence in a society dominated by media exposure. Greenfield's focus is on the importance of image with young girls caught up in the rituals of pop culture.

Her photographic message is unsettling and Greenfield knows her subject well. At a recent exhibition at Tufts University outside of Boston the work drew great attention. Many photographs provided an insider's look at low-riding jeans, midriff tops, and excessive partying.

Ruby, 15, on the day of her quinceañera, a "sweet 15" ritual in the Hispanic community, Huntington Park, California.
All Photos © 2005 Lauren Greenfield, All Rights Reserved

"The project has been most rewarding, judging from the reaction in communities where it has appeared," Greenfield says. "Since 9/11 people have a renewed interest in looking at what is going on."

What is emphatically going on in Greenfield's photographs are bodies more on display, companies marketing thong underwear, issues that have been explored in other media. Greenfield has been inspired to explore the culture more closely, and says, "I tried to see it photographically and in my book Girl Culture, I have photographed the individual lives of young girls who are part of our time, to document the moment."

Have girls changed that much? Having fashionable clothes and being part of the group was always important, but now is more extreme. "It's all pretty suggestive," Greenfield agrees.

What Greenfield really tells us is that exhibitionism is going more and more over the top and the body has become the young girl's way of expressing her identity, insecurities, ambitions, and struggles. "It has become a palimpsest for our culture," she says, "and a tablet that is written and rewritten."

Among the issues that Greenfield explores are eating disorders. In one series we meet Erin who gets on the scale backward to avoid seeing the numbers. It is heartrending. Erin was also a "cutter," her belly obviously ridden with scars.

Greenfield was working on a film at an eating disorder clinic where she met Erin. "I was concerned how being in my book would affect her because she was so ill. She told me things in our interview that her family didn't know and in the end when the book came out her family was proud of her and Erin felt that being in the book had become part of her recovery. As an anorexic she had not known how to use her voice and used her body instead. In telling her story she learned how to speak."

Growing close to many of the girls, Greenfield's images have become a canvas filled with messages and ideas, a place to view this dilemma of our time and in many cases, send a message to parents to tighten the reins and take a closer look.

Although her exhibitions have traveled worldwide, the trend is more dominant in America. "European families have more structure, more institutions and values that serve against these things," Greenfield explains. "They are familiar with the movement because America is very good at exploiting pop culture. In places like Russia, France, and Italy the writing is on the wall and they are beginning to see it among teen-agers and women. In Russia the younger generation has really embraced pop culture and their elders have trouble understanding it. In France they call us `those crazy Americans!'"

Some occasions on which Greenfield focused were the traditional rituals of partying for girls in the Latino communities. "I used these celebrations in two ways," she says. "One is the traditional party for graduations or other events. But I also used it to show the daily rituals that mark a young girl's life, like putting on makeup for a big party or shopping with friends, places where our values are formed and reinforced."

In Hollywood, 6-year-old Elita has her hair and makeup done, dressed as a model in a fashion show and preparing for a tea party. Ruby, 15, stands in an exquisite "wedding dress" accompanied by her beautifully gowned attendants at a sweet 15 ritual in the Hispanic community, shot in Huntington Park, California. No longer is age the criterion.

Greenfield shoots it all--from a beer bong party in Florida to a weight loss camp for girls struggling with their own reflections. A particularly appealing image is of a heavy but beautiful 12-year-old Lilly who makes us take a second look at our own interpretation of beauty when we look at the photograph. Greenfield took her picture at the camp. Greenfield explains through her photographs about the hierarchy that prevails even at the camp where the "slimmer" are the more popular. In the introduction to Girl Culture Cornell professor Joan Brumberg relates one young girl's comment, "My mother weighs me with her eyes."