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A clear lens on distorted values

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  March 24, 2009 11:10 AM

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AivaFirstDay.jpg AivaLastDay.jpg
The girls Lauren Greenfield photographed for her exhibit ''Thin'' were at a residential facility that treats eating disorders. Above: Aiva, 16, on her first day (left) and after 10 weeks. (Photos by Lauren Greenfield)

A photographer's unsettling look at girls' culture

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

NORTHAMPTON - There were 1,600 people in my college freshman class, so it took a lot to stand out. One woman did. Among all those well-fed young faces, she looked as though she could have been her own grandmother: face drawn, skin wizened, fingers as bony as claws. Her appearance seemed strange, of course; but being your basic 18-year-old guy - meaning, a dolt - I thought nothing further of it. When she returned next fall, moon-faced and pudgy, even I understood. She had been anorexic.

Seeing is a crucial factor in anorexia nervosa. It's the sufferer's distorted body image that leads her to starve herself. (Anorexia can also occur with males, though much less commonly.) The 53 color photographs in Lauren Greenfield's "Thin" can't reveal how the patients at the Renfrew Center, a residential facility in Florida that treats eating disorders, see themselves. But Greenfield shows a degree of physical distortion so overwhelming - so horrifying - as to give all too clear a sense of the psychic distortion driving it.

Even in an age that reflexively spends millions on "Saw" and "Hostel" movies, "horrifying" is not a word to use loosely. Yet so many of Greenfield's pictures are just that. They're profoundly unsettling - and necessarily so. There's nothing gratuitous about these images, not even their scale, which is big. They're either 26 1/2 inches by 40 inches or 20 inches by 30 inches. A visitor may choose not to look, but once looking there's no way not to notice.

"Thin," and a companion show of Greenfield's work, "Girl Culture," run at the Smith College Museum of Art through April 26.

The most obviously grotesque sights aren't necessarily the ghastliest: individuals showing off scars from failed suicide attempts or having to wear feeding tubes (the only way to ensure they get enough nutrients). Rather, it's the matter-of-fact evidence of such self-punishment inflicted so rigorously. Bodies looking like this are usually seen only in funhouse mirrors. Or concentration camps.

 
Shelly
"Shelly near her home in Salt Lake City, Utah,
6 months after leaving treatment at Renfrew"

Greenfield is as much sociologist as artist. That is, she works to place her subjects within a personal context. A member of the photo agency VII, Greenfield's always a reporter. Several of her sitters we see several times over: at Renfrew, after Renfrew, and, in some cases, at Renfrew again. As we watch their body mass change, our knowledge of them deepens. There are also extensive wall texts from the women's own writings. Greenfield's contextualization of her subjects received its fullest expression in a 2006 counterpart documentary, also called "Thin," that she made for HBO.

This sense of context is crucial in human terms, of course. It's also crucial artistically. Many of these pictures, seen out of context, would look comic. There's the eagerness on a Renfrew resident's face as she sucks on an illicit cigarette or the stares directed at a box of Pop-Tarts sitting on a conference table as part of a "mindful eating" therapy session.

That collision between larger context and bleak comedy informs "Girl Culture." The world Greenfield shows there is the context that gives rise to what we see in "Thin." "Girl Culture" records what Greenfield calls "the element of performance and exhibitionism that seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl." Among those seen in Greenfield's 32 images are a Vegas showgirl, beauty contestants, little girls playing dress-up, members of the Stanford varsity swim team, cheerleaders, Jennifer Lopez, and teens at a weight-loss camp.

 
Allegra
"Allegra, 4, plays dress-up, Malibu, California"
 
Contestants
"Contestants in the Fitness America competition pose for a photograph,
Redondo Beach, California"

The juxtaposition of the last group with the women in the next gallery is heartbreaking. It's no small relief to leave all that behind and see Angie, Chelsea, and Melissa, of the Little Indians softball team, from Naples, Fla., blowing bubblegum bubbles for Greenfield's camera. They're 11, 12, and 14, respectively. Let's hope no one points out to them that the colors of their chipped and cracked nail polish don't match the pink of their bubbles. Still, they are the exception here. So many of Greenfield's subjects - little girls no less than grown women - are like drag versions of themselves.

There's nothing prurient about these pictures, per se, or even sensationalist. Surely, though, that's a function of how inured we've become to our own excesses. A visitor from another culture would express shock at the extent to which these girls and women engage in what might best be called self-commodification.

The most grotesque thing about "Girl Culture" is how nobody in it notices any grotesqueness. When Weegee photographed crime scenes, the people on the other side of his camera would visibly cringe when they saw he was recording them. They'd cover their face or look away. There's nothing surreptitious about Greenfield's photographic procedure. Yet when she shoots a dressing room or fashion show, the people in the picture are, at most, nonchalant; some are visibly excited or proud to be the object of attention.

 
Sheena
"Sheena tries on clothes with Amber, 15, in a department store dressing room,
San Jose, California"

It's easy to be puritanical about what these pictures show and to make moralistic comments about sexualization and materialism and vulgarity. But that response says as much about the moralizer. Let's face it, sex and material indulgence and vulgar behavior can be a lot of fun. Worse, they can be all the more fun for being inappropriate. No, the truly awful thing about the scenes Greenfield shows is how utterly joyless they appear to be. The bright colors and crisp focus make them seem all the sadder. They're like postcards from a vacation in hell. "Having a great time! Wish we weren't here!"

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield: "Thin" and "Girl Culture"
Through April 26
Smith College Museum of Art
Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, Northampton
413-585-2760
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