Sugar and spice? Photos examine girl culture

In one of Lauren Greenfield’s photographs, a young woman, Lillian, sits on a purple cushioned bench in a New York store with a bright pink high-heeled shoe in one hand, mouth ajar. In another, Sheena tries on clothes with her friend Amber, age 14, in a dressing room in San Jose. It’s a girl thing.

Sugar and spice? Photos examine girl culture

Lauren Greenfield

Greenfield, an acclaimed photographer, unflinchingly catches these intimate female moments with the eye of a documentarian and the sensibility of an anthropologist. In her show, “Girl Culture,” she photographs girls, adolescents and women in settings as varied as spring break, a weight loss camp, a bat mitzvah and a quinceañera. This show aims to be the definitive photographic documentation of American girls in the 21st century, exploring girls’ relationships with their bodies and popular culture.

On April 8, “Girl Culture” opens at the Arthur Ross Gallery on campus. The exhibit, which runs through July 31, features 46 images from Greenfield’s traveling exhibition. The artist’s short film, “Fashion Show,” will also be on display (for the first time in an exhibit), featuring behind-the-scenes still photographs and video of fashion shows in Paris, New York and Milan.

“[‘Girl Culture’ is] very frank, and it really addresses how American girls are raised [from a very early age] in an environment which is extremely sexualized,” says Lynn Marsden-Atlass, director of the Arthur Ross Gallery. The exhibition, she says, presents “the amazing proliferation in all media of how women are supposed to look, and the nonverbal messages to be successful—you see it in every magazine.”

And these messages sometimes take root early in life. In one of the show’s most striking photos, (pictured on page 3), a 4-year-old girl dressed in a pink leotard, gold heels and lipstick strikes a pose for an off-camera audience. Greenfield has also taken photos of Las Vegas showgirls, teenage girls going through cultural rites of passage and a girl walking down the street being looked at by a variety of men.

It’s about the expectations of women’s bodies, says Marsden-Atlass, “which are unrealistic through the media and through all the imaging and sexualization that young girls get.”

Greenfield’s companion book, also titled “Girl Culture,” features accompanying quotes from the young women and adults next to their photographs. The Arthur Ross Gallery show will maintain that tone, only featuring brief introductions from Greenfield, the artist’s curator and Marsden-Atlass. “We’re not taking a curatorial voice here except to say, ‘This is an important topic,’” says Marsden-Atlass.

The Arthur Ross Gallery worked with Greenfield over the past year to select images from the “Girl Culture” traveling exhibit. Marsden-Atlass first saw Greenfield’s work when the exhibit was on display at Smith College. The show has been exhibited at venues around the world, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz. and the Theater Royal de Namur in Belgium. Since 1991, Greenfield’s other work has regularly appeared in publications including The New York Times MagazineVanity Fair,National Geographic and Harper’s Bazaar.

The “Girl Culture” show, says Marsden-Atlass, can be used as a teaching tool by faculty from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, fine arts and women’s studies. There will be an opening reception for the exhibit on Friday, April 8, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Gallery, 220 S. 34th St. On Thursday, April 28, at 6 p.m., the Gallery will host The Penn Monologues, a series of performances and publications covering topics such as sexual violence, body image and college culture, inspired by “The Vagina Monologues.”

“That’s exactly what the Arthur Ross Gallery should be doing,” says Marsden-Atlass, “engaging with faculty and classes and students [about] a timely subject matter.”

For more information on the exhibit, go to www.upenn.edu/ARG or call 215-898-2083.

Originally published on April 7, 2011