By Robin Heffler
Lauren Greenfield Being named one of the 25 most influential photographers by American Photo magazine in 2003 was a heady experience for Lauren Greenfield, whose work has appeared in The New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Life, National Geographic and other publications. "To be respected by your peers and put in a group of people who were my heroes growing up was an incredible, surreal honor," she says.
Greenfield, 37, received the recognition largely based on two projects that reflect different aspects of American youth culture and became successful books and exhibitions. In Fast Forward (Knopf, 1997), Greenfield, who was raised in Venice, Calif., documents growing up in a media-saturated society under the influence of Hollywood values—materialism, celebrity and the importance of image. Her second major work, Girl Culture (Chronicle Books, 2002), examines how the body has become the primary expression of identity for girls and women. Museum exhibitions of Girl Culture are being mounted internationally through 2005.
Paradoxically, the seeds of Greenfield's interest in American culture were planted in France, where she lived with an aristocratic French family for nine months when she was 14. "I got close to them, but I realized how different their values were from mine," she says. "As a result, I became really interested in culture, cultural differences and values." After viewing the work of renowned photographers Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank, she came to see photography as a way to comment on that interest.
After graduating from Harvard, Greenfield worked on a photo project about the French aristocracy, opening the door to an internship with National Geographic magazine. While on assignment in Mexico, she realized that her own culture was worth documenting, which led to Fast Forward. Greenfield grew up in a heavily Jewish community, and the book includes numerous images of Jewish kids and bar mitzvahs. Both of her parents were university professors and emphasized "education, questioning things and making the world a better place, which certainly reflect Jewish values."
Greenfield also sees being Jewish and a woman as pluses for her work. "There's something about being an outsider—a minority who has a critical eye on society—that goes well with this kind of documentary photography," she says. "I also was lucky to grow up at a time when different points of view were being celebrated and the female perspective was fresher, because prior generations were primarily male-dominated."
Part of the motivation for embarking on the five-year photographic journey that became Girl Culture was Greenfield's fascination with exhibitionism in girls as young as four. She was also influenced by books examining the crisis in self-esteem among teenagers and the evolution of how teen girls' bodies have been viewed since the 19th century to the current obsession with physical appearance.
But Greenfield has been astounded at the response to Girl Culture, which is in its third printing and has logged 2 million hits on her website. "I get letters from teens literally every week saying it reminds them of their own lives. And people use the guest book at exhibitions as a diary, writing very personal things."
In recent projects, she has photographed the children of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for the cover of Rolling Stone and served as executive producer on the film version of Girl Culture.
Equally challenging for the mother of a four-year-old girl is balancing career with family. "As a photojournalist, I have to travel for my work," Greenfield says. "I feel really lucky because a lot of women in the generation before me had to choose between work and family. I have a very supportive husband, and we just make it work."
Robin Heffler is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.