"AFTERIMAGE," Thomas McGovern - March 2003
Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture is an unflinching look at the social pressures faced by young American women. At times tough and sympathetic, it is a major work for women's studies and represents an important shift away from the conspicuously staged photography of the past decade, returning to the medium's roots as a spontaneous and intuitive art form. The exhibition was organized and debuted at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson in October and overlapped with the showing at Pace MacGill in New York and closed in February at Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition has an extensive travelling schedule, which can be found at www.girlculture.com.
Photography is such a plastic medium that it easily accommodates diverse modes of expression and has certainly seen a variety of approaches to all subjects since the announcement of its invention in 1839. As such, Greenfield's work is not a new direction but a reaffirmation of a familiar one. As we all know, contemporary photography has ventured deeply into the staged fictions of Hollywood films, with obvious inspiration derived from digital technology that makes seamless fictions possible and the massive, super-sharp digital print the norm. Increasingly, large production crews, storyboards and meticulous staging are employed. With this important and innovative approach has come a cost- the reduction of spontaneous photographs that seek to address important social and political issues and an impersonal photographic print, perfect in its production but often lacking in emotional resonance. With the zeal of a religious fanatic, Greenfield sidesteps this current trend and brings photography back down to earth, r eminding us why so many have taken up cameras in the first place.
Working with a 35mm camera and photographing and interviewing women and girls in myriad situations, the photographer produces modestly sized prints that deeply examine young women across America. As powerful and ambitious as Robert Frank's The Americans, the photographs are intimate, but the project is expansive and the artist's personal point of view masterfully balanced with an evident but tempered respect for the people pictured. Two of the striking characteristics of the photographs are that some are slightly out of focus and most are quite grainy, both being unheard of in today's highly controlled staged photography and digital prints. Though these two characteristics may seem minor points, they are refreshing and demonstrate a return to the basics of picture making. Obviously, the photographer is working quickly and intuitively and her prints are traditional photographs without the aid of fractal-based software. Most of the prints are 11 x 14" and 16" x 20", quaint by contemporary standards.
This work reminds me of the day when I first saw Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency in 1986. At the time, postmodernism reigned and Cindy Sherman was empress, along with the dense, theory inspired works of Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince and others. Their works were highly intellectual and anti-photographic in that the images were pre-concelved, and it really didn't matter who actually made the photograph as much as who determined the context or who staged the scene. Traditional photography, that is, images about the real world or those that sought order from the chaos of real life, was on the wan except in editorial and the growing photojournalism-as-art circle. Goldin's no-holes-barred diary was shocking for its lack of control, brutal honesty and anti-intellectualism. These characteristics went against the grain of photo traditionalists and post modernists and in doing so she set another course to follow. Times have changed a lot and the methods and approaches to photography are expans ive and give artists many roads to follow, but the prominence of Greenfield's work and practically universal acclaim it has received signals a renewed interest in the intuitive and tough eye of the working photographer. This influence can be seen in many of the younger photographers of the moment, especially the work of Ryan McGinley currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (www.phhfineart.com).
For this project, Greenfield spent over five years photographing young women and girls, seeking insight into their unique experiences and influence, with an emphasis on sexuality and body image. As you can imagine, the outcome has many troubling conclusions but Greenfield's talent and obvious commitment to the subject create a compelling and complex sociological/artistic study. The exhibitions keep our attention on the images with only cursory wall statements. The handsome publication of the same title adds a deeper layer of sociological analysis with text by Joan Jacobs Brumberg and excerpts from interviews with the subjects. Though both book and exhibition are able to stand alone, to fully appreciate Greenfield's content and innovative approach, viewers need to see both. I found a pervasive sadness to many of the interviews and photographs, where young women recount the pressure on them to be sexual, thin and attractive. While practically everyone interviewed scorns such superficial ideals, they simultaneou sly collude by furthering the same stereotypes and pass these misguided ideas on to each other, creating a disturbing portrait of self awareness intertwined with victimization.
Though Greenfield's pictures can be harsh and deeply revealing of this inconsistency, she is fortunately gentle with the youngest and most vulnerable girls. The photographs of kids and teenagers, some at weight-loss camp, exude a compassion that is balanced with the artist's tough eye. "Paula, 11, at weight-loss camp, Catskill, New York" is heartbreaking but empowering. The pudgy girl with crimson cheeks slightly turns away, apprehensive of the camera and clasps her hands in front of her chest defensively. Greenfield photographs her in the shade without a flash and the soft, cool-cyan light speaks to the girl's vulnerability. Using a wide-angle lens and slightly tilting the camera, she keeps our attention on the girl's face and accents her expression and wide body. The image is gentle but also has the effect of suggesting her inner power and creates an optimism not seen in the more critical pictures.
This tenderness is discarded when dealing with the adults and is sometimes painfully harsh, displaying an acerbic wit and cynicism and are used mercilessly in some of the images. "Lillian, then 18, shops at Kirna Zabete, New York, New York" shows the pretty blonde sitting in an up-scale boutique holding a red shoe. Her mouth hangs open in mid-sentence and its redlined, oval shape is echoed in the red, open-toed, ankle-strapped sling-back she is holding. Lillian reeks of having too much money and too little taste and the photograph is an indictment of her shallowness and vanity. In the interview, Lillian says she hates being blonde but claims to be so because she is an actress. Her awareness of the burden of beauty is only outweighed by her greedy consumerism.
In viewing the work one can sense the artist's vision and roving eye, always on the look out for an emotionally profound or provocative instant, bringing to mind Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," Frank's cynicism and Winogrand's poetry. The work is inspiring for its simplicity and reliance on the vision of the individual artist. It reminds us of the power of the thoughtful, beautiful photograph and demonstrates an almost humble economy of means in what is otherwise a dramatic project. There is something very accessible about the work too: the small prints create an intimate experience and the everyday subjects and straightforward but artful compositions are all things any photographer can strive to accomplish, regardless of education, income or technological expertise.