Identity

Looks Like Teen Spirit: Intimate Portraits of 90s American Girlhood

Photographer Lauren Greenfield has documented female life through direct, gritty images of young girls and women for decades. Her new monograph "Girl Culture" offers an empathetic perspective that humanizes rather than reduces its female subjects.

by Anna Furman
Oct 27 2016, 3:52pm

All photos from "Girl Culture" by Lauren Greenfield, published by Chronicle Books

This year, at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the writer and filmmaker Jill Soloway spoke about the female gaze. She defined it as a "conscious effort to create empathy as a political tool...a wresting away of the [masculine] point-of-view" and went on to say that it's "more than a camera or a shooting style, [but] an empathy generator that says, 'I was there in that room.'" Departing from the "male gaze," a term Laura Mulvey coined in 1975 to define points-of-view that treat women as objects of male pleasure, the female gaze involves what Soloway calls a sort of "feeling-seeing." It's a practice "of changing the way the world feels for women when they move in their bodies through the world, feeling themselves as the subject."

The documentary photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield sets out to capture the interior lives of her subjects—contestants at beauty competitions, girlfriends at high school dances, patients at eating disorder clinics, and teenagers at weight-loss camps—by using her lens to do what Soloway calls, "evoke a feeling of being in feeling." In the photo series Girl Culture, Greenfield takes a sobering look at American girlhood, paying particular attention to the harmful, sometimes dangerous ways girls and young women try to alter their bodies.

Read more: Photos of the Inner Lives of Women

In a profile published in the New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe described the photographer Petra Collins's work as "dreamy" and possessing a "hyper-feminine aesthetic." Titled "The Female Gaze of Petra Collins," the profile highlights how Collins captures subjects in "moody, inward moments that emphasize their interiority and hint at a larger narrative." While Greenfield, who is 50, and Collins come from different generations and have distinct artistic approaches, both women are diaristic photographers concerned with establishing female subjectivity and challenging impossible beauty standards. Whereas Collins's photos are warmly lit with atmospheric bubbles of color, Greenfield's photos are grittier and more stripped down—leaving subjects vulnerable to the effects of harsh lighting and a direct angle. When viewed together, their work suggests an exciting, wide range of female gaze-y possibilities.

The fourth edition of Greenfield's monograph Girl Culture, out October 25 from Chronicle Books, features 100 photographs taken in the late 80s and early 90s that bring the viewer into poster-plastered bedrooms and messy, product-packed bathrooms. Popular 90s trends—tube tops, Baby-G watches, thinly plucked eyebrows, star appliques positioned at eye corners—abound. Removed from its era, the work makes it clear that, just as material trends shift, so too do the ideal body shape and size.

Men don't appear very often in Girl Culture world. Neither does food—though it surely plays a significant role in many of the subjects' lives. In one photograph, a six-year-old steps onto a scale at a weight-loss camp in the Catskills; in another, a group of extremely muscular women pose together at a fitness competition in Redondo Beach. While these environments are dissimilar and the communities are distinct from each other, Greenfield includes both microcosms in the book's final edit, as if to say, Look at the premium our culture puts on being thin, and to emphasize the detrimental effects this has on women, no matter who they are.

While none of these photographs are self-portraits, the series is informed by Greenfield's grappling with her own image. "When I was six, shortly after my parents' separation, I remember looking hard at my reflection in the mirror, realizing that I was unimaginably ugly, and crying hysterically," she writes. "It is my first memory of painful self-consciousness." In the book, she also interviews Cindy Margolis, a model who became the Guinness Book of World Records "Most Downloaded Woman" in 1999, and Margolis tells her, "I look at my own pictures and wish I could look like that."

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While Greenfield's work is engaged with the "feeling-seeing" Soloway describes, it also evinces a gap between what women see in and feel about themselves. "I was not consciously thinking about these early memories of girlhood when I began photographing Girl Culture," Greenfield writes. "I was, however, thinking about my chronic teenage dieting, my gravitation toward good-looking and thin friends for as long as I can remember, and the importance of clothes and status symbols in the highly materialistic, image-oriented Los Angeles milieu in which I grew up."

Ultimately, this collection of photographs sets out to collage the myriad ways girls construct their identities in order to reconcile the fragmentary parts. Interviews with 18 of the subjects appear alongside portraits, injecting personality and a directed narrative. While she is careful to trace their external influences, Greenfield finds that her subjects are very much the authors of their own stories—not blank spaces, or objects we can project onto.

The social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg introduces the book with the hand-wringing common to how we talk about young women, and the result is somewhat disconnected from the subjects in Greenfield's series. Instead of recognizing the relative agency these girls exercise, she harps on their vulnerability, in some cases pathologizing it, with alarm: "What has happened to American girls?" But what Greenfield proves in Girl Culture is that it's possible to capture multiplicitous, sometimes contradictory elements of female identity at once.

In her speech, Soloway said that the female gaze doesn't exist yet, but is something for writers and artists to strive for, though there are "buried gems" in art and literature that provide models for new creative approaches that challenge the male gaze. Perhaps Greenfield's work is one of these buried gems, an empathetic perspective that humanizes rather than reduces its female subjects.