Tufts Exhibit Explores the Female Psyche

What do Jennifer Lopez, a virgin from Tennessee, and the Stanford swim team have in common?

They’re all a part of “Girl Culture,” a photography show on display at the Tufts University Art Gallery through March 27.

The artist, Lauren Greenfield ’87, takes bold color photos that capture the essences of contemporary culture. Composed of both candid and posed portraits of women, the show also presents the written reflections of some of the subjects, juxtaposing their images with complementary musings on beauty, sexuality, and growing up. The texts and photographs, both part of Greenfield’s book of the same title, play off one another to create a powerful message on what it means to be a woman today.

The photographs have the same appeal as billboards and magazine advertisements: they are stark, bright, and pleasant. But Greenfield puts away advertising’s air brush and reveals the women with all their imperfections. In fact, just about any imperfection a contemporary woman might have is photographed and mounted on the wall here.

There are the rebellious debutantes, the Playboy playmates, the drug addicts, the intoxicated spring breakers revealing their breasts to sinister male crowds, the anorexics, the overweight girls at weight-loss camp, the strippers, the athletes, the athlete-stripper, the porn stars, and the five-year-old dressed as Britney Spears.

But in “Girl Culture,” Greenfield intends to be exhaustive—not simply extremist and sensationalist—and, as a result, she also captures the mundane. “Monica, 13, dances with her boyfriend Adam, 13, at a Bat Mitzvah party” recalls the tense atmosphere of a middle school dance. Monica, her face lit by multicolor stage lights, looks up and away, bored, while Adam, his hands around her waist, turns his face away from the camera.

Another photo, “Aya, 16, in her basement bedroom looks for an outfit to wear to school,” shows a teenager surrounded by a colorful sea of rejected clothes.

Although both photographs seem unassuming, they force a viewer to confront familiar situations (After all, who has not been bored at a dance or struggled to get dressed?), and in so doing, to reconsider adjacent, more extreme photographs.

Greenfield thus sets a trap; viewers who identify with Monica or Aya are then prepared to identify with women who seem to inhabit a different world. “Spring Break, Panama City, Florida” is one of the more shocking photographs. A tan blond in a green thong bikini mimes fellatio on a tan, muscular man. A second man stands behind the recipient and a third holds the woman’s legs, so she is bridged backwards, her face wedged in the first man’s crotch. Tan onlookers laugh and jeer, unlike gallery onlookers who will be shaken.

But what is most disconcerting about the photograph is not the action it captures but the sympathy and empathy it evokes for the blond. Once the initial shock wears off, this girl seems as real and as pigeonholed as the Harvard student who, for whatever reason, lifted up her shirt at a party last weekend.

The emphasis on the similarity among women across cultural, geographic, and age divides is what makes a visit to this show invaluable, especially in light of all the recent talk about women and academia. Greenfield’s work is ceaselessly surprising, alarmingly revealing, and close to home, both philosophically and geographically.

But if the T-ride to Tufts seems too imposing, Greenfield’s website, www.laurengreenfield.com, offers a wide selection of the “Girl Culture” photographs.