“Political art, or any art, that has a message isn’t going to fix anything, but it might remind people that these things are out there.”
Few artists get to toggle a line between working for the man and working against the man.
Photographer Jill Greenberg, however, has built a career around exactly that acrobatic feat.
Greenberg, a.k.a. The Manipulator, is a seasoned artist who, as one of the earliest adopters of Photoshop, created her own style of surreal photography. This allows her to feed the too-good-to-be-true world of commercial photography, while simultaneously contorting images to make defiant statements.
After decades in the business, Greenberg’s portfolio is loaded with magazine cover shots of the who’s who in Hollywood, to conceptual political/feminist series that have drawn international attention.
So, on the same day you walk into a bookstore and see a flawless picture gracing a magazine cover, you could also flip on the evening news to learn about a photographer who made children cry to show her frustration with the Bush administration.
The commerical work of Greenberg is excellently executed, but it’s the conceptual stuff that really grabbed my attention. Here are some of the highlights:
2006 – Jill Greenberg creates a series called “End Times.” It features close-ups of children crying. It stirred up a great deal of controversy because in order to capture the image the kids had to be prodded to cry. The children, however, were volunteered by their parents and even included Greenberg’s kids.
2008 – Greenberg is hired to photograph presidential hopeful John McCain for Atlantic Magazine. After getting the shot she needs, she takes a few more pictures in a “sinister” light and uses them to reveal her politics: she’s not a fan of the Republicans.
2012 – A series called “Glass Ceilings” is released. It depicts women wearing high heels swimming with their heads cuts off by the water’s edge. It represents Greenberg’s frustration with the continual barriers and restrictions placed upon women in society.
Along with her political/feminist catalogue, Greenberg has also created a fantastic series of animal portraits. Since 2006, she’s compiled portrait collections of monkeys, bears, and now horses.
On October 2, 2012, she will release her latest collection simply, but accurately, entitled: Horses. This time the collection presents a critical and historical reflection. It’s not just a pretty picture book of one of nature’s finest creations. It’s a look at the treatment of horses over time and how that mirrors the experience of many women.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from Jill Greenberg, and I caught up with her over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.
From her new collection of horses, to the infamous pictures of McCain and crying children, to the paradox of her photography, to Larry David, we cover it all.
. . .
Ryan Kohls: Congratulations on your latest collections of photographs: Horses. This is the third in a series of animal portraits. You refer to horses as your first muse in the book’s introduction. What led you, after all your other work, to do a collection of horses now?
Jill Greenberg: They came up because my daughter had just started riding, so I was spending time around horses. It reminded me of how much I love horses, or they way they look at least. And, I was also thinking I may stop shooting animals, so I wanted to shoot horses before that.
RK: In your other collections of monkeys and bears I know you faced some particular challenges with photographing them. Were there any new challenges with horses?
JG: Horses were the hardest to photograph. They’re afraid of you and they’re really big and powerful. Some of the animals I’ve shot are predators, like we are, so if you are pretty cool with other predators they can be cool with you, but if you’re trying to get a prey animal to be comfortable it’s difficult, they think you’re going to kill them at any point. So, they’re really, really dangerous. Also it was hard to get some of the high-end million dollar horses I wanted because their owners didn’t want them to get hurt.
RK: I noticed that unlike the other collections you photographed the horses in their natural environment as well, was that in part due to their size and temperament?
JG: No, I just wanted to have more variation in the book. This book has 120 images, the other books were about half that.
RK: How much of your trademark manipulation was done to the horses in this book?
JG: There was a lot more done in post-production. I’m starting to show the painting, the hand coloring aspect of Photoshop, more. Some of them you can really see the stripes and lines I’m drawing in on the horse. You can see a lot of the colors that I’m painting in. It’s like digital painting. I didn’t do much with the monkeys, and a little bit with the bears, but I have painted the most onto the horses.
RK: I love the shot of the horse flipping its hair. It seems to capture that “humanness” that your other collections did. Were you at all trying to portray the horses in a human light in this collection?
JG: Well, this isn’t all about the personalities of the horses. It’s much more about the form than portraiture. If the other animal series were like portraits actors, then these horses are more like supermodels. They were chosen for their physique and shape, and less so about their personality.
RK: Right, and what I found interesting about this collection is that at first glance it appears to be a book of glossy horse photos, but there’s also an underlying message. Specifically, you tackle a very interesting gender bending perspective on horses. Can you explain what that main paradox is with horses and gender?
JG: I think some of the horse images are more conceptual than others, but it’s a study of an animal that turns out to be both masculine and feminine. In culture the horse is treated in many ways like the woman is treated, as property, to be owned, traded, harnessed and ridden, Their necks are incredibly phallic, their musculature is toned and strong like a man’s. I think it’s also interesting the way that women really worship horses. I think horses are a complicated animal. They’re symbolic of many things and represent many things. The book was a means of exploring that.
RK: One of the more provocative things you discuss in the book is the connection between the bit (used to control horses) and an old medieval tool called the “Scold’s Bridle” (used to control women). How did you make that discovery and draw that connection?
JG: I actually made that discovery while searching on a special search engine someone told me about. I really felt the bits were bondage for the horses, but you can’t really Google horses and bondage because you get all this fetish stuff. So, I found this search engine and I was trying it out and discovered the “Scold’s Bridle” which I hadn’t heard about before. I found a British academic who compared the horse’s bit with the Scold’s Bridle for women. A writer in England, Gavin Robinson.
RK: Thankfully the Scold’s Bridle isn’t used anymore, but you draw a comparison to the high heel shoe as being, in some ways, a similar tool of control. Is that correct?
JG: Yes, I do think it’s related. Women wear a lot of fashion that’s restrictive and uncomfortable. Women are oppressing themselves. Of course they look good, but we are socially conditioned to think they look good. But, they’re incredibly uncomfortable and make it so you can’t run if you were being chased. And if you have a clutch purse, you have the use of only one hand. Contemporary fashion seems to act to literally hobble women,
RK: Do you feel like this collection has a deeper message than the other ones?
JG: I think this has gone further with its conception. The monkey pictures were more accessible,
playing on the studio portrait, the tradition of the portrait. The monkeys and apes reminded us that we are animals. The bears were supposed to be just scary and channel the rage and vitriol I felt directed at me in reaction to my “End Times” work, but then I ended up finding all these cute little bears that were too compelling to ignore. With the Horse series, I felt like it was going to be important for me to do some real digging with the subject of the horse because it can be really trite. Horses are gorgeous animals and therefore people have photographed and drawn horses since the beginning of art.
RK: Your early education in photography was at the Rhode Island School of Design. You did your thesis called “The Female Object,” a powerful slideshow with a soundtrack and narration which explored women’s perceptions of their bodies. Is this when you discovered you could use your photography to spark conversations about issues that were important to you?
JG: Yes, definitely. I was doing drawings in high school that also explored gender politics. I arrived at art school thinking that all these male fashion photographers were really cool – like Helmut Newton – and then suddenly realized that they were objectifying women. I discovered the power dynamics in image making. I studied semiotics at Brown University and took a class called “Discourses in Pornography” at RISD. I was very keen on learning all about this stuff. It was an awakening.
RK: Your “Glass Ceiling” exhibition also happened this year. This was a provocative look at societies limits and expectations on women. What was the main message you were trying to drive home with these images?
JG: Well, I do commercial work many of photo agents have told me, “Of course you’re not going to work as much as a man.” Is there any doubt that we are still living in a “Man’s World” ?
But political art, or any art, that has a message isn’t going to fix anything, but it might remind people that these things exist.
RK: You were in the news recently because of a guerilla art show that projected video of laughing white men at a popular steakhouse in Tampa. The project, which happened during the Republican
National Convention, was launched by “Wake the Beast” and video with a soundtrack of laughter was provided by you and aimed to be a “direct critique of the Republican Party and the merciless role of money within partisan politics.” How did this collaboration come to be?
JG: I have these themes that I keep revisiting. When I was at RISD, in senior year, I was making these little figurines out of clay, and then I would photograph them. They were disgusting little men. There was one bust of a guy, and he basically looked like the “Entitled” video. He was this older white guy with no arms or legs and a suit and tie. I also made a little sculpture of a guy trying to fellate himself, he rocks and rocks and cant ever reach. I’ve always been interested in mocking men. As a woman, no matter how successful I get, I’m never going to be on the outside . Men are the ultimate privileged players in our culture. And, they’re the ones who go around saying things like, “I’d hit that.”
Basically, I wanted to do something again with old white men. It was a project I did and I really needed somewhere to show it. Initially i wanted to project it at events like the 99% rallies, so I was looking for politically engaged people in Los Angeles. I met Wake the Beast and we planned to project my video on a steak house for the RNC. What I like, also, is that it was a counterpoint to the kid’s crying series. Listening to the laughter of the men makes you laugh along with them, but then you realize they’re laughing at you. Then you think, why am I letting them laugh at me when they have all the power and don’t care about anyone else? I’m happy with that project.
RK: The last time there was an election, you made quite a splash with your freaky, manipulated, picture of John McCain. I was wondering, if you had a chance to get your hands on Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney would you like to try a picture of them?
JG: It was a one-time thing. People didn’t seem to understand it. Myself, I thought of it as “the artist Jill Greenberg appropriating the commercial photographer Jill Greenberg’s work”. Others steal my work, and images, all the time for various political messages. No one seemed to get I wouldn’t ever do that to a celebrity. In my mind, he’s a well known high-profile politician and civil servant so I should be able to create my own version of a political cartoon like everyone else. It’s also part of the reason the glass ceiling came up and the Scold’s bridle: there’s not much tolerance for women to speak out and have an opinion. We’re supposed to know our place. But if people continue to be “business as usual” nothing is going to change. And, there is so much more insane stuff going on that we need to put ourselves out there a little more, its just hard when the economy is like this, we are all just trying not to rock the boat too hard. I cant totally resist, though
RK: There was a huge risk taking that photograph. When that story went viral were you worried you might have hurt your career?
JG: Honestly, I was surprised at the reaction. I thought it was overblown. It was merely a political cartoon like all the others. Interestingly, I’ve been assigned by prominent magazines to make my subjects look like murderers at their behest. Writers routinely misleadtheir subjects in for interviews. They say they’re going to write about one thing and then write about something else. You think it’s going to be a positive portrayal but it turns out to be negative. I think, too, the power of the image is partially to blame in this situation. But I think if a manhad done it they would be like, “high five awesome.” But a woman doing it? You’re a bitch and you should be taken down. It’s pretty plain to me.
RK: The risk seems to have paid off in terms of respect, I would say, but has it hurt your workflow?
JG: Um, unfortunately, I think it might have hurt my work I’m still working though. You may have noticed the climate and culture has gotten increasingly fearful of making strong statements. Most art is so self referential and safe as a result.
RK: So overall, do you think it was worth it?
JG: That’s a hard question.
RK: I’ll interview you again in five years, and ask you then.
RK: Now, another one of your famous works, the portraits of crying kids, remains a relevant conversation starter. Recently in Spain, they were displayed on the side of buildings for an art instillation. Not to retread on old territory, but the controversy seems a bit exaggerated to me. Kids cry all the time over nothing and it’s not like you were poking them with a spear to make them cry, were you?
JG: Of course not, obviously I didn’t touch them or speak to them. Their own parents were the ones who gently coaxed them to cry. But it’s the look of the image-; the photographs overdramatize the emotions , the viewer thinks something horrible is happening. You have to take things away from a child as part of bringing them up. You can’t let them go around playing with matches, so you take them away and they start crying. It’s part of raising children. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be scarred for life if their mother gives them a lollipop and takes it away.
RK: You have also, people should know, taken “normal” photographs of kids playing and laughing. What do you enjoy most about children as subjects?
JG: I do love photographing children. Their emotions are 100 percent honest. Their expressions are super authentic and I just love their innocence and beauty. They have perfect skin and are so beautiful.
RK: We’ve discussed the gender/political side of your work, but a lot of people know you for your glossy celebrity photographs. Considering that you clearly have a passion for conceptual art, what do you get out of your commercial work?
JG: It’s fun to meet people in popular culture. Every so often, there’s someone I’m a fan of. It’s fun to discover projects through meeting them in person. I don’t necessarily become best friends with celebrities, but sometime I’ll meet writers or musicians and other artists.
It is a living and it’s fun to have my pictures be on billboards and magazine covers.
RK: In some ways, though, do you see it as the cash cow? Would you rather just focus on your conceptual art if you could?
JG: I think that at this point I wouldn’t mind if I could make a living doing fine art. I wouldn’t mind just doing that. If I had unlimited money then sure. I do advertising and all different things that are fun, but I think the photo industry is getting more competitive, its so amazing to be able to take pictures and get paid for it, so young photographers are underbidding and fees continue to get eroded year by year. so I wouldn’t mind doing less of it.
RK: Some might see a bit of a paradox in your work. You advocate for women’s rights and condemn the stereotypes but then your photo’s set an unrealistic, and socially defined, expectation of women and their bodies. This, of course, leads many women to feel insecure about themselves. Why are you OK with being apart of that?
JG: It’s never been a problem for me. I don’t look at people in magazines and think, “Oh my god, I don’t look like that. That’s really upsetting.” I think it’s really stupid and crazy. Painters and artists have always created what their idealized version of beauty is. They want to capture beauty, so do photographers. We’re only going to present an image that speaks to us and is communicating a certain beauty. We’re going to make the image so it looks right for us. In our culture it is a specific thing. Yes, our culture values youth and beauty, but it always has.
RK: It’s amazing that you don’t seem to be affected by the images in magazines and on TV. But, there are millions of men and women who are. Do you ever feel a little bit guilty about promoting that unrealistic ideal?
JG: I think people need to be educated. You should be as healthy as you can for yourself. I think people are born with the bodies they are going to have. They shouldn’t get too obsessed, especially women. They are wasting their time. I feel like the representation of women is a symptom of all this stuff rather than the cause of it. It’s circular.
RK: It must be a tough position to be in. You might not want to promote it, but you just have to.
JG: I think there’s also a certain element that because it’s an unattainable beauty – super long legs, 18-year-old face, 8-inch heels – which it’s like that’s a backlash against women. It drives women crazy and makes them think they should be something they can’t be.
RK: The difficulties of being a female photographer might be vast, but it seems like there are some benefits for you. You once talked about having a great photo-shoot with Arnold Schwarzenegger because he was very flirty with you. Does that aspect of gender relations play in your favor when photographing men?
JG: I don’t know what my life would be like if I wasn’t a woman, so I can’t really tell you, but sure, women can flirt if the situation is appropriate for such behaviour. I don’t think it’s necessarily advanced my career.
That said, I’m not a very flirty person. I generally want to be taken seriously. I do joke around non stop though.
RK: These days it seems anyone can take great looking photographs. Whether it’s touching up photos in Photoshop or using apps like hipstamatic. In your opinion, has this technology taken away any of the art/skill required to produce quality photography?
JG: I think it’s easier to take good photos, but it’s hard to consistently deliver amazing photos. Sure, if someone is going to continually take great photographs with their iPhone, then maybe they’re a great photographer. It’s possible that every so often people take great photos but if people are going to be hired for a job they need to know what they’re doing so they won’t screw it up.
That’s a reason, though, why it’s become much more competitive; everyone has a Canon and Photoshop. Complaining about it would sound Luddite and like sour grapes. It is what it is. The Internet is great. I can email people from around the world, but then my pictures are also stolen from around the world. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Its complicated but technology continues to evolve, there is no stopping it.
RK: There are a lot of videos on YouTube that unpack the “Jill Greenberg Effect,” and teach viewers how to create similar images. I know that you also do a lot of important lighting work before the photographs, so does it annoy you that people think you just rely on after effects?
JG: It’s mostly lighting. And, you know what, a lot of things annoy me. (Laughs). People tell me I’m supposed to be flattered that everyone is copying me, but I don’t really like it. Nevertheless, I’m continuing to work on new approaches. I was doing something totally different in the late 90s and people told me I should do something new because people would think it was all I did. You have to continue evolving.
RK: You took a picture of one of my heroes: Larry David. What was that experience like?
JG: He was cool, super cool. I just remember at the end he said, “Goodbye, Jill Greenberg.” It so was funny the way he said it.
RK: Do you like to be in front of the camera?
JG: I really don’t. I don’t like other people doing it. I was thinking I might do some self-portraits before I get too old. (Laughs). I’ll take pictures of myself when I’m having a really good hair day.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON JILL GREENBERG:
3) If you’re in the LA area in October, check out this event: