Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham Argue About Earrings, Not Art

For mother and daughter, their relationship has been one of mutual — but not stifling — dependence.

Article by Kate Guadagnino

Mothers and Daughters_Lena DunhamFrom left: Lena Dunham, 36, writer, director and actor, “Girls” (2012-17), and Laurie Simmons, 73, photographer and filmmaker, photographed at Simmons’s studio in Cornwall, Conn., on Nov. 25, 2022. Photography by Chase Middleton

Laurie Simmons: My father was a first-generation American small-town dentist on Long Island with an office off our kitchen and a darkroom in the basement; I’d sit at his feet as he developed his dental X-rays. I see his work ethic in you — you’re relentless in your desire to keep making things — but I’d like to think that came from me, too.

Lena Dunham: Well, it did. I’ve seen you go into your studio and come out 12 hours later in the same outfit looking confused, like you don’t know when you went in. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in that space. My favourite thing to do was to look through the loupe at slides on the light box. And then you’d take the red pen and X out the ones that weren’t good.

L.S.: I can’t believe you remember that. 

L.D.: Sometimes I’d set up my own little things next to yours. I realised very quickly that there was just a feeling I got when I made things. Some of it was the joy of creating, and some of it was the pleasure of connecting with you and Papa [the painter Carroll Dunham]. I’d take pictures on a disposable waterproof camera and show them to you or write a short story and read it to him. The real breakthrough was when I realised that filmmaking allowed a person to be a writer who also told stories in pictures, and your aesthetic totally formed the way I do that. 

L.S.: For me, so much of my becoming an artist was a rebellion against my background and what was expected of me, particularly as a woman. I was curious about what would happen to you since you didn’t have that resistance within your family. I didn’t understand that there was going to be a worldwide internet that would provide a million admonishing mothers.

L.D.: I was rebelling against Grandma, too, though. Her preconceived notions about what being female looked like were massive enough to engulf us all. 

L.S.: Your biggest influence on my work has been in giving me permission to tell a story. When I came of age, the art world was focused on lofty conceptual ideas, not narrative. You’ve also taught me not to sweat the small stuff. I feel like I had to fight so hard when I was younger, and I was so angry. You’ve helped me let that go to a degree. 

L.D.: But I also understand that there are days when you have to be in fighting mode, and I’ve learned that from you.

L.S.: I also learned a lot from watching you on the set of [Dunham’s debut feature film] “Tiny Furniture” (2010), which felt like a secret collaboration because it had a small crew and I had a lot of little jobs. Later, when I was making my second film [“My Art,” 2016] and felt unsettled, I’d excuse myself and call you. I thought, “If the rest of the crew knew I was rushing out to call this kid. . . .”

L.D.: That makes me so happy because I was a late bloomer and spent a long time relying on you, and sometimes still do. You’re just the best person to ask for advice, and when it comes to the artistic stuff, we don’t argue. It’ll be an argument later about whether I —

L.S.: Returned my earrings. That’s the level: “You borrowed my sweater without asking.”