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Lauren Greenfield ’87: Inspired by the American dream

Lauren Greenfield '87 PHOTO: Roxanne Lowit

As an undergraduate in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies department, Lauren Greenfield ’87 was given sound advice by her photography teacher Christopher James: “Follow your heart.” The path Greenfield has chosen to follow has led her to produce award-winning documentaries such as Thin and The Queen of Versailles, as well as numerous photographic exhibitions such as Girl Culture. On January 23, Greenfield will take the Harvard community down her own path in a talk at the Fong Auditorium as part of the Office for the Arts Wintersession JAMS!

Greenfield has been interested in photography since elementary school, but did not immediately plan on pursuing a career in the arts. “I did not see myself as an artist; I didn’t see it a serious career. I went to Harvard thinking I would study French or international relations,” recalls Greenfield in a phone interview. Greenfield eventually declared a social studies concentration, but switched into VES after an eye-opening trip around the world her junior year.

“We spent the year travelling around the world studying film, anthropology and culture, as well as living with families,” she says. “It was on that trip that I realized I wanted to look at culture, and I wasn’t sure whether it would be through photography or filmmaking or academia. I liked being direct in the world, as a journalist, and being in the field. That was the turning point for me.”

After graduation, Greenfield interned with National Geographic, which helped to provide a specific direction to her artistic goals. “In the case of that kind of photojournalism, the emphasis was placed on looking at the other,” says Greenfield. “My first big story was in Mexico photographing a Maya Indian village, struggling to understand the culture. When I was there, I had a kind of epiphany that I needed to look at my own culture.” Greenfield returned to her hometown of Los Angeles and began to examine the world she grew up in. “My first project after the Mexico one was about kids growing up in LA,” she says. “So it was really me going home to my own culture and looking at the world I had grown up in, and how that was always changing. Ever since then, the work and the people I met became the inspiration.”

Former beauty queen Jackie Siegel and her billionaire husband were the subject of Lauren Greenfield's documentary "The Queen of Versailles," about a home building project inspired by the Palace of Versailles. PHOTO: Lauren Greenfield

Greenfield’s Fast Forward led organically to her photographic exhibition Girl Culture. “I realized I had a special connection with the teenage girls and their world, and the way they make up their identity, and the kind of intersection between their development, the material world, and the world of popular culture,” she says. “That became the springboard for my next project.”

Greenfield produced The Queen of Versailles after working for many years on a project about wealth and the American dream. She was photographing an assignment for ELLE magazine about Donatella Versace, and, while following Donatella, she met Jackie Siegel, who revealed she was building the biggest house in America. “I went to visit her in Orlando, and I went to take pictures,” says Greenfield. “While I was there, she was so amazing, as was the house, and the nannies, and the kids, and the environment and this project she had. It related to so many things I had worked it on. It was such a lively and dramatic atmosphere infused with themes from my work. I knew immediately I wanted to make a film and began filming.”

The documentary went on to win numerous awards at film festivals such as Sundance and RiverRun. Today, Greenfield uses both photography and film to convey her examinations of culture and the American dream. “Film is a way to push the narrative and tell a story and have a narrative arc in a way that is more emotional than photography,” she says. “Photography is more like an essay. I can mix China with Moscow with Iceland with the U.S., and I can look at the similarities and run around the world to mix it together in a different way.” Greenfield’s next exhibition will mix the mediums and incorporate work she created as an undergraduate at Harvard.

During Wintersession, Greenfield will take audience members along her own creative journey using pictures and clips from her works throughout the years. “Finding your voice is the hardest and most important thing to do. For me, it took 10 years to find and express that voice,” says Greenfield. “I think one of the things that’s great about a Harvard experience is helping to give confidence to your voice.” It comes back to that initial lesson she learned at VES: “The only way to do that is follow your heart and find your passion.”

Greenfield’s talk will take place in the Fong Auditorium, 3-4:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 23. Sign up here.

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