Lauren Greenfield is an American photographer who chronicles the obsessions of the popular culture she participates in. What makes her vision historic and uniquely potent is her ability to reveal the ironic and emotional effects of those obsessions as they are lived by real people. She gives form and voice to individual identity and experience as she betrays the consequences of our times in human terms. With singular clarity, visual signature, and presence of mind, Greenfield creates recognition and understanding for her audiences.
Lauren Greenfield’s Thin began with a news assignment for Time magazine at a South Florida residential eating disorder clinic called the Renfrew Center. Having achieved a rare and ethically structured professional balance of photojournalism, advertising, and art photography, Greenfield often builds personal projects from issues raised and subjects uncovered in her assigned and commissioned work. At Renfrew, she discerned a powerful and resonant contemporary subject in a contained, clinical context. Here, the women of Renfrew, all suffering from severe cases of eating disorders, would inspire the most extended and intense scrutiny Greenfield had yet brought to a single setting and story.
To capture the riveting sagas of Renfrew, Greenfield turned to filmmaking, a new medium for the hitherto still photographer. Through months of shooting with a minimal crew and many more months of editing, she directed Thin’s first iteration, a feature length documentary produced and broadcast by HBO. The film is an aptly claustrophobic, wending ride through the daily survival rituals of struggling Renfrew residents. In a seemingly self-propelled narrative featuring four women who are followed through treatment—Shelly, Polly, Brittany, and Alisa—the drama is explained only by its own unfolding. Selected scenes from the film are part of this exhibition.
The film did not exhaust Greenfield’s interest in Renfrew but instead increased it. She returned again and again to the clinic, now to photograph and conduct lengthy interviews. Working in the more familiar documentary language of image and text, she recast and expanded her inquiry beyond the limitation of film’s real time. To grow and diversify her audience, she envisioned three platforms for this approach: a book contextualized by academic and medical experts; a layered museum exhibition to effect an open-ended, three-dimensional experience; and an exhaustive website anchored by a vital public forum.
The Thin photographs freshly emphasize stirring, direct, and detailed portraiture. Greenfield’s earned, often intimate access allows a frank address of the sufferers of anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating. The results are a poignant litany of women whose physical selves, by definition, outwardly manifest their disorders. Pairing these photographs with interviews is a tried Greenfield idiom, empowering her subjects with the first person. But new is the sensitive compilation of journal entries, therapeutic art, and family photographs to add the authenticity and backstory that artifacts well convey. With these personal albums, and the film, photographs, and interviews, Lauren Greenfield’s Thin is now complete.
Already a landmark occasion for public attention and dialogue, the project unforgettably explores the insidious and increasingly widespread problem of eating disorders. Unsanitized, fascinating, and deeply cautionary, Thin is an epic journey to be reckoned with.
TRUDY WILNER STACK
Every girl is affected by the desire to be thin. In the United States, we grow up feeling like our bodies are an expression of our inner selves. To be thin is to be beautiful, disciplined, and even moral. Fat is equated with laziness, slovenliness, a lack of regard for oneself, and a deficiency of self-control.
Perhaps it is due to the power of these ideas in our culture that the pathology of eating disorders has become so common and severe. Eating disorders now affect one in seven American women and have become a mental health epidemic. Though often glamorized or trivialized in popular culture, they are actually the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders.
The making of Thin was a continuation of my decade-long exploration of body image and the way the female body has become a primary expression of identity for girls and women. In my last project, Girl Culture, I explored the way the body is a medium for girls to express their identities, ambitions, insecurities, and struggles. I was interested in the fact that girls learn from an early age that a woman’s power comes from her body and its display. The way girls present, decorate, reveal, and manipulate their bodies is a reflection of society’s conflicting messages and expectations of women.
In this context, the pathology of eating disorders is compelling, symbolic, and important to understand. It is extreme and atypical, but unlike most other mental illness, it has a visible relationship to the values of mainstream culture. While the symptoms look strangely familiar, it is unfathomable to most of us how or why the common dieter crosses the abyss into irrational, selfdestructive, and even suicidal behavior.
Although the reasons people develop eating disorders are complex and individual, it is clear that they function as a coping mechanism, like drugs, alcohol, or cutting—used to numb out intolerable emotional pain and experience a sense of control. The fact that this particular coping strategy is so prevalent in our time is a logical consequence of a society obsessed with the concept of an ideal body.
Embarking on Thin was a crossing into the unknown. Though it began with a familiar depar ture point of the body project, it descended quickly into the heart of darkness of mental illness. The women in the film and photographs helped me navigate the deep, difficult places that I have never known firsthand. They allowed me to bear witness to their struggle and document the disease and its damage.
The women you see and hear from in this exhibition are incredibly brave to share their stories and the intimate details of their private struggles with a tragic illness. Eating disorders are fueled by secrets and lies. These women decided that by being honest with the camera and with me, they could possibly make a difference for themselves and for others.