We asked Lauren Greenfield to tell us about a picture that means something to her, and why. GENERATION WEALTH by Lauren Greenfield, originally presented at the Annenberg Space for Photography, is on view at the ICP Museum through January 7.
The photo that launched my career was called Mijanou and friends from Beverly Hills High School on Senior Beach Day, a picture I took in 1993 in Santa Monica, California. In the process of making this photograph, I found my voice as a photographer.
After studying film and anthropology in college, I spent a year traveling around the world. I decided I wanted to examine culture as a profession, and I became an intern at National Geographic. I expected to spend my future documenting the other. After my internship, my first assignment for National Geographic was a story about the Zinacenteco Indians in Chiapas. My access was mostly limited to other women, who only spoke the Maya language I was struggling to learn. The Zinacenteco traditionally believed that taking one’s picture meant taking one’s soul, so each photograph involved a protracted negotiation. I started dreaming of photographing in a place where people actually liked being photographed, in a culture I understood.
I found an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero in our rented house, and I realized that the world I grew up in, Los Angeles, was worthy of the same kind of anthropological study. So I came back to my hometown and started documenting kids in LA – I was interested in how they are affected by the culture of materialism and the cult of image.
I ended up photographing and interviewing kids in Los Angeles for several years. I dreamed of making a book, but it took me two years and more than 20 rejections to find a publisher. Knopf eventually published 15,000 copies, and the ICP offered me my first major exhibition. The book was even optioned by Columbia Pictures. But the most important part of the picture was that it helped me find my voice, and I have been drawing inspiration from the creative direction of that early work ever since.