The River Cities' Reader

The River Cities' Reader

“Art Has Something to Add to the Dialogue,” Jeff Ignatius - April 30, 2003

In a slide lecture for her new exhibition, Lauren Greenfield begins with 15-year-old black-and-white photographs of French aristocrats who have status but little money. The pictures are handsome and filled with minutiae but seemingly worlds away from her recent work: vibrant, often disturbing photos of women and girls.

Greenfield shows the old pictures to chart her own journey from outsider to insider. Her earlier photographs had their strengths, she told an audience at the Davenport Museum of Art (DMA) on Sunday, but the same pictures could have been taken by any photographer.

That's not true any more. Greenfield's recent works have a startling intimacy with and affection for most of their subjects, the result of spending a lot of time with the girls she was photographing. “I think access is my personal strength,” Greenfield told the audience at the DMA.

Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture, on display at the museum through July 6, is the culmination of five years of work and collects 50 photographs of women and girls, showing how the photographer feels that popular culture has impacted the way females view their bodies. That theme manifests itself in images of young girls dressing up like adults, heavy teenagers at weight-loss camps, pretty 13-year-olds getting ready for parties, spring-break horrors, people with eating disorders, aspiring actresses, exotic dancers, showgirls, plastic surgery, girls who cut themselves, gaunt models, busty porn stars, and a handful of successful actresses.

Greenfield's argument is essentially that “the body has become the primary vehicle for expression” for females, she said in an interview with the River Cities' Reader.

Girl Culture is by far the boldest exhibit the Davenport Museum of Art has ever brought in, and it will probably be a hot topic around the Quad Cities throughout its run. “This exhibition is for risk-takers,” said DMA Director Linda Downs, in introducing Greenfield on Sunday.

And the exhibit is already speaking to people. In attendance on Sunday were dozens of teenagers.

One advocate for girls said a show such as Girl Culture is long overdue. “It's timely for people to start accepting it, but it should have been done years ago,” said Minda Powers-Douglas, who runs the Girls Make a Difference program for girls nine to 14 years old and will be participating in some of the programming related to Girl Culture.

“It's really a toxic environment for girls to grow up in right now,” Greenfield said. Yet “girls are resilient and survive.”

That angle is hardly groundbreaking, as Greenfield herself admits. “I think there's nothing new in this show,” she said, “but we haven't seen this in photographs before.” Books such as Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls have reached large audiences by mining similar territory.

Even so, Girl Culture feels fresh. That's partly a function of Greenfield's skills - the pictures are beautifully composed and revel in the details of the subjects and their settings. The images are vivid and personal, and they find a rare balance of being idiosyncratic while touching on universal issues. “There are certain things you can do photographically … that you couldn't do in literature,” Greenfield said. “Art has something to add to the dialogue.”

But the exhibit's power also stems from approaching the topic from different angles and giving many subjects the opportunity to tell their stories. Both exhibit and book feature interviews with some of the girls and women in the photographs. Greenfield in that way not only puts a face on eating disorders, for example, but gives voice to them, as well. Greenfield said she was anxious about one anorexic girl's reaction to the book because it was such a dark time in her life, but the subject said she was pleased. “She was very clear she was doing it to help other girls,” the photographer said.

Greenfield said she cannot separate the content of the work from its style, and she thinks the sheen of her pictures might attract the young people who need to hear her message the most. She said teenagers, who are “visually savvy and visually literate,” might connect with her work in a way that they might not with other media. Her photographs have a quality “like the images we see in the popular culture,” she said, and that draws young people in. “Once they're there, they get something new.”

The exhibit is an extension of the Girl Culture book, which was published late last year and serves as the show's catalog. But the two are very different experiences. Greenfield's book is full of interesting juxtapositions that the exhibit doesn't allow. In the book, one left-hand page shows an aerobics class at a weight-loss camp, while the right-hand page features two thin, shockingly flexible ballet dancers. The content isn't the only contrast; visually, one uses bright colors and vertical lines, while the other is dominated by earth tones and horizontal lines. Similarly, a picture of actress Amy Smart has its match on following page with four-year-old Allegra, in a dress that sparkles in the same way as Smart's.

The interplay among the photographs is one of the chief strengths of the exhibit and the book. We've all seen photographs of actresses in ritzy hotels, and we can't avoid the images of miniature adults such as Allegra and JonBenet Ramsey. What Girl Culture does is force us to look at the images together, and put them in the context of a larger culture that encourages Allegra to aspire to become Madonna or Amy Smart. These photographs have a collective impact. “I think you can get a lot from the collection that you wouldn't get from the individual image,” Greenfield said.

The photographer admits that her show represents her “most subjective and least narrative” work, and that its message is “not that subtle.” But she said that she worked hard to keep the images and subjects in context. The trouble is that they're all in service of the message, and the innocence and joy of some of the individual photos get crushed by the weight.

That heaviness has also raises in some older viewers the question of authenticity, Greenfield said. The artist said that the show is representative of what all girls and women face in our culture, but it's not representative of the subjects' lives or those of women and girls in general. In other words, the exhibit shows one aspect, but not the whole picture. “A lot of these are the down moments,” Greenfield said. “I did present kind of a dark picture.”

But she stressed that she feels it's accurate. “This is true to what girls' lives are like,” she said. While adults often ask her whether the photographs are representative, “teenagers never say that.”

Nonetheless, there's a glibness to some of the images that cheapens them. The spring-break photos appear to be the most documentary, and they are among the most disturbing while at the same time being the weakest in the show. They lack the intimacy of the rest of the exhibit, and they almost seem part of a project tangential to Girl Culture. There's a similar quality to the celebrity shots, and they feel like cheap shots. Those photos stand out because they don't have the complexity - ambivalence, both in photographer and audience - of the rest of the show.

And while Greenfield articulates the challenges facing girls and women in American culture, she has no ready solutions. She doesn't claim to know whether current trends are reversible, or whether there's a course of action society can take to create a healthier environment. “I'm a photographer, not an activist,” she said.

Yet the first step to developing solutions is identifying the problem, and Girl Culture puts human faces and stories to complex, troubling issues better than any book could. Yes, the photographs and narratives are anecdotal, but they tell powerful, sad stories.

Upcoming events related to Girl Culture include a lecture by Dr. Joyce Brothers (May 2), an open house for senior women (May 7), and “An Evening for Mothers & Daughters” (May 9). From May 3 to 31, the DMA will also have the companion exhibit Teen Culture: A Local Perspective. For more information on programming related to the Girl Culture exhibit, visit (http://www.art-dma.org/greenfield.htm). To explore images and resources related to the exhibit and book, visit (http://www.girlculture.com)