Manipulator: Jill Greenberg

Social and political commentary has long been reserved for artists and musicians, rather than fine art photographers. Aside from photojournalists, perhaps, whose whose very work exists as commentary, of sorts, fine art photographers, by and large, shoot solely for art’s sake, not necessarily to make a statement on society. Photographer Jill Greenberg, however, seems to be an exception to this and is known in many circles for the controversy surrounding her photography as much as her photography itself. Indeed, she seems to be almost comfortable when heated discourse accompanies her work. She calls herself “Manipulator”, a nickname taken from an 80’s German culture magazine of the same name. It’s a fitting moniker, since she has been manipulating her images using Photoshop since1990. Then there are the messages, the meanings, the underlying ideologies behind her photographs. She has strong opinions and chooses to use her art as a means of political expression as well as a creative endeavor.

I saw Jill Greenberg’s work for the first time a few years ago, shortly after her “End Times” series came out. This series became the first of several controversies of which both she and her work were the center. I remember looking at some of the photos and wondering how she got those kids to cry with such intensity. I couldn’t imagine that it would have been done on purpose, that anyone would purposely make kids cry like that for a photograph. I was wrong. She got the idea from a previous shoot she did involving children. One of the kids became hysterically upset. She said it reminded her of the helplessness and anger she felt with the Bush administration. She decided she wanted to do something with those feelings, with that intensity. Like any artist, she wanted to be able to express her outrage through her work.

I have gone back and forth over this particular series, wanting to like them because I understand the feelings behind them. I see the rage and the helplessness and the work does speak to me. I don’t think, however, that I can condone or even begin to understand why she did what she did to those children to make them cry. From what I have read she did things like giving them candy only to snatch it away, or having parents tell the kids their favorite toys would get taken from them and thrown in the trash as soon as they got home. Jeffery and I have talked about it several times and he doesn’t agree with me. He thinks that there really was no permanent harm done to the kids, therefore the purpose in the art justifies her actions. My point was that it is a parent’s job to be totally trustworthy, especially at that age (all of the kids were three and under). To take a child into a situation where they are lied to and bullied for the sake of art seems exploitative to me, no matter how “good” the outcome may be. When I saw these photographs I was immediately struck with how powerful they are. These are not the types of portraits parents would hang over their mantel, but they do hold your gaze. You find yourself almost mesmerized over them. When I found out they were made over a political agenda, however, it took some of that meaning away from me. There is now a stigma attached that I can’t get past.

Political agendas in art can do the opposite, however, and give images even greater depth and importance. Greenberg recently finished a series of photos partly inspired by the controversy surrounding her shoot for The Atlantic with John McCain in 2008. After photographing McCain and delivering the assignment to The Atlantic, Greenberg posted additional images of the shoot on her site, images that were purposefully lit with harsh light and dark shadows, which presented McCain as what the magazine called “devilish, with bulging eyebrows and washed out skin”. Releasing the subsequent images whipped up media firestorm for something Greenberg felt she had a right to do – to use her work to express herself as an artist. She did not feel this would have caused such an uproar had she been a man. Despite the controversy, she was hired shortly thereafter to photograph the US Olympic Synchronized Swim Team and, while shooting the assignment, had the idea of photographing women dressed in heels trying to swim, knowing how ridiculous they would look, never quite being able to break the surface. She called the project “Glass Ceiling” and I was drawn to these photos without knowing what they were about, what statement she was trying to make. I simply found the colors and the movement of the water just beautiful. Knowing what the meaning was behind the photographs only made them more powerful to me.

Greenberg’s photographs do not always have some sort of hidden agenda. Some are just fun. She has expanded her portraiture to include animals, which are some of my favorites of hers. It is impossible not to anthropomorphize animals when you see the portraits she has done of monkeys and bears. The expressions she is able capture are so… human. You look at them and you can’t help but smile.These photographs were taken just because she wanted to, simply for the joy of working with and shooting these creatures. These portraits exist solely for her pleasure and ours.

Regardless of how I feel about some of her methods, she is a fantastic photographer. Her images are perfectly lit and superbly retouched. Her style is precise and unique. Once you see a photo of hers it is pretty easy to distinguish it from someone else’s (despite the fact that hers is a style that has been ripped off and copied by countless other photographers). Although my style is nothing like hers, I do appreciate her work and her confidence as an artist. She does what she wants to do and expresses herself well. I admire how she walks the line between artist and activist, that her art is relevant and stands on its own, but also communicates about issues she believes in or has problems with. Her work does make me question how far we need to go in order to express ourselves as artists. Do we express ourselves no matter the cost? No matter who gets hurt? That seems pretty selfish to me. Also, is it necessary to use art as a vehicle for social or political statements? Can you just make art for art’s sake or does that nullify you as an artist? Can you no longer label yourself as an artist if you aren’t “saying something” of import, making people look at their lives, the world they live in and question it? Or can you just make something beautiful because you want to see more beauty in the world? Is that legitimate?

I don’t know that you do have to “say something” in order to be an artist. In my opinion, art can be meaningful just on its own. I can look at a painting by Kandinsky or Pollock and appreciate the beauty, color and lines, and get joy from seeing it without understanding the particular message that may or may not accompany it. The fact that someone created it and put it into the world is often enough for me. For me, the more important point is that art is here, in the world, and that there is beauty in the world that exists or is created simply for its own sake, simply in order that we may see it. It enriches our lives, makes us better people, because if we see the beauty in a painting or a sculpture or a photograph then, maybe we start to look around and see beauty in our own existence.

View images by Jill Greenberg on Pinterest


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