"The Kids Stay in the Pictures," Strawberry Saroyan - 2006
There are toddlers vamping à la Britney Spears. A beanpole of a teen, clad in pearls and a little black dress, weighs herself on a bathroom scale. An overweight girl, marooned on her bed, sits surrounded by posters of the teen-crush pop group Hanson. On a beach, a topless college girl runs a gauntlet of drunken guys on spring break. The photographs are seductive on the surface, but they leave an aftertaste of anxiety. Which is why it is something of a surprise to encounter an upbeat, cherubically pretty Greenfield—think Molly Ringwald, all grown up—one morning at her airy home in Venice, Calif. “I’m trying to lose the baby weight,” says the pleasantly plump mother of five-month-old Gabriel and six-year-old Noah. “But I’m not obsessed with it.”
In beige silk cargo pants and a loose, bright print top, Greenfield bears no resemblance to the fraught young exhibitionists and fashion victims she shoots. But it is, in fact, her closeness to her subjects that makes her an astute chronicler. She came of age in early-1980s Los Angeles, the daughter of Harvard-educated academics in a town not inclined to elevate intellectuals. A standout student whose mother tried to be a countercultural influence, Greenfield still found herself “concerned with weight and fashion and fitting in.” She says now, reflecting, “I realized if I was thinking about these things—what kinds of jeans I’m buying—then there must be something in this.”
That connection to her subjects lends Greenfield’s work its immediacy, says Trudy Wilner Stack, the co-curator of the traveling museum exhibit tied to Greenfield’s 2002 book, Girl Culture. “The tradition of photojournalism is often of looking at the other—coming in as a photographer and making sense of something that’s outside your experience,” she says. “I think oneof the keys to Lauren’s work has been her willingness to implicate herself and to not hide.” And that’s what makes Thin, her upcoming film about girls in a treatment center for eating disorders, shockingly, eerily intimate.
Greenfield broke onto the scene with her ﬁrst book, Fast Forward, in 1997. A portrait of a generation growing up in the shadows of Los Angeles, the photographs run the gamut from MTV-worthy prep-school proms to pimped-out loiterers in South Central. Lush but subversive, they depict a world where money seems to be out of control and sex is sold to kids as though it were soda. With its complex interplay between the candy-colored drama of the photos and the surreal self-absorption of the interviews that accompany them, the work won her the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Young Photographer in 1997. It also introduced Greenfield—who spent three years researching and shooting the book—as a journalist.
Her next book, Girl Culture, took the themes of Fast Forward a step further. For inspiration, she turned to Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, which explores the contemporary emphasis of appearance over personal values. “What I was trying to talk about was the way the body has become the primary expression of identity for girls and women,” Greenfield says.
Now, four years later, Greenfield has directed Thin, a documentary airing on HBO in November that takes viewers inside Renfrew, a Florida residential treatment center for eating disorders. “It is her warmest work, in a way, her most richly human work,” says R.J. Cutler, her co-producer.
The narrative follows four young women, each intimately and affectionately portrayed. Polly is the talkative ringleader, the type who initiates illicit smoking under the vents in the ladies’ room; Brittany, the youngest at 15, seems to use her Goth eyeliner to distract from her cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat vulnerability; Shelly, even more physically fragile than the rest, is a budding intellectual and caretaker; and Alisa is the smiling, athletic-looking mother of two who seems so strong that it makes her weakness, when it comes to her disease, all the more shocking. “Her photography is not only extremely revealing and extremely beautiful, but her process is really to get under their skin,” Cutler says of Greenfield.
At points, the film is uncomfortably personal, showing tearful group therapy sessions and Alisa purging. “Sometimes I would feel like we were such an intrusion, and I would expect everyone to go nuts about the film,” says Greenfield, who has never suffered from an eating disorder. “But the idea that we were the biggest thing going on in their lives was just not so at all. Because first of all, they were very sick, and second of all, it’s a really narcissistic disease.”
That doesn’t mean they weren’t concerned with how they would appear. To get unguarded access, Greenfield assured her subjects that Amanda Micheli, her cinematographer, would turn the camera off at any time; in the end, Greenfield estimates, she spent half of her time negotiating with her subjects about what she could film.
“Growing up, I never thought I was going to be an artist,” Greenfield says. It was during college, when she spent her junior year abroad, that “I kind of felt like I had found my calling—looking at culture.” Among her inﬂuences was the work of Barbara P. Norﬂeet, whose book All the Right People chronicled Boston’s upper crust in images and interviews, along with that of Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank.
But on an early assignment in Chiapas, Mexico, for National Geographic, Greenfield’s struggle to gain access to subjects got her thinking about her own backyard. In Chiapas, language was only the first barrier. Shooting at all was difficult: Locals believe being photographed steals one’s soul. “I felt like I spent months trying to get in, and once I got in I could make a picture that was just describing the surface,” she says. While there, Greenfield came upon a dog-eared copy of the Bret Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero and reread it. “I started thinking, this is the culture that I grew up in,” she recalls. She began to think that the look-at-me inhabitants of her hometown might be a good creative bet. It made sense, she realized, “to gravitate toward people who want to talk to me and are interested in being photographed.” She spent the next three years creating Fast Forward. Thirty-one rejection slips later, she signed with Knopf, and, as her husband and business partner Frank Evers says, “We kicked into gear.”
Greenfield is aware that some of the enthusiasm her work generates is a result of the sexiness of her subjects. But she hopes Thin will deglamorize a disease that obsessive coverage of celebrities like Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan effectively celebrates. So she was excited when the entertainment program Extra ran a segment on Thin when the documentary screened at Sundance earlier this year. “I feel like it’s going to give this problem a lot of exposure,” she says.
Greenfield’s inner compass clearly demands that she use her power cannily, a sort of jujitsu to challenge the culture that is the source of the problems she elucidates. That can be especially tricky in advertising and fashion work. Although Greenfield makes a point of not shooting ads that she feels feed into women’s neuroses (she recently turned down a freelance job with Slim-Fast), her fashion work was initially a conundrum.
“At first I was like, how can I do fashion? My work has all been about how fashion affects girls in a really negative way.” But when Elle’s creative director, Gilles Bensimon, recruited her, he told her to “do your thing.” Still unsure, Greenfield considered what one of the magazine’s editors said was going on in sartorial circles that season. Boxy skirts did nothing for her, but the next trend—lingerie as outerwear—did. “I thought, that’s perfect for me because Girl Culture had really been about exhibitionism.” She shot the models in a retirement home, playing with the idea of how inappropriate skimpy outfits can be in daily life. “We get there and a stretcher comes out—somebody had had a heart attack,” she recalls. “The French stylist from Elle was like, what are we doing?”
Greenfield has occasionally been able to land a one-two punch with a single photograph. A portrait of the actress Azura Skye commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar later became a page in Girl Culture. “She looked so thin that I thought the magazine wouldn’t run any of the pictures. But they ran a double spread,” she says. In Girl Culture, she was able to juxtapose that photo with an image of a patient being blind-weighed at an eating-disorder clinic. “At the end of the day,” Greenfield says, “it’s all part of a bigger project for me.”
Greenfield is hoping to bring even more people into the project this fall during what Evers calls “the period of Thin.” In addition to the HBO documentary and its accompanying book, there’s an October exhibit at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles; a separate traveling show, co-curated by Wilner Stack (who worked with Greenfield on the Girl Culture exhibit), that opens at the Women’s Museum in Dallas in February; and the launch of a website that will serve as a forum for discussion about eating disorders and body image.
One thing Greenfield has been faulted for is focusing fairly relentlessly on the downside of girl culture—ignoring, say, the Riot Grrl movement of the ’90s and failing to showcase positive relationships that girls have in their adolescent years. To counter that, some school classes that have seen the traveling exhibit have taken it upon themselves to mount parallel exhibits showing their own vision of their culture. Which Greenfield applauds. “I was just isolating one part of girl culture,” she says. “It wasn’t really fair that I called it that, when there are a million other books that could be done. But part of the reason I use the broad titles is the same reason I use the bright colors and glossy images. You bring people in, and then they find out something else.”