An Interview with American photographer Jill Greenberg
Alida Ivanov from Stockholm 30/01/2014
Jill Greenberg’s retrospective “Work 2001-2011” will be on display at Fotografiska museum in Sweden until February 9, 2014
When walking into the darkened space at Fotografiska in Stockholm, you encounter photographic portraits of different animals: horses, apes and bears – side by side with pictures of crying children. It almost seems as if Jill Greenberg tries to play with our conceptions of humanity and reality. In the exhibition, Works 2001-2011,we get to take part in her body of work from that period. I met up with her to discuss her process, perspective and aesthetic.
Jill Greenberg was born in 1967 in Montreal, Canada, but then grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, in 1989, and moved to New York. Soon enough, she started getting commissions to photograph different personalities for magazines like Raygun, Spin and Newsweek; and to make images for album covers for record companies like Atlantic, Electra and Sony Music.
Since the mid 1980’s, Greenberg has experimented with different techniques: photographing and re-photographing slide projections, photographing reflections in mylar, and making cyanotypes. So, when Photoshop 1.0 was introduced in 1990, she immediately started using it as a tool. It became a tool for her create a world that mirrors drawing and painting techniques. Today, she continues to make both fine art projects and commissioned assignments. Her portraits have received a lot of attention over the years, and are probably what she is most famous for. There is a political consciousness in Greenberg’s work that comes through as a sense of humor. Her work also makes fun of the concepts of high- and low-culture; she tries to question art and commerce from both sides.
So, we’re recording now. Could you tell me a bit about your background? How did you end up in photography? You know the story behind it all…
Sure. I’ve been taking pictures and drawing since I was a child. And so it’s interesting, because I used to photograph my pet dog, Plato, and horses all the time, as a young girl. I’ve really just been doing the same thing… making pictures of people and animals.
How did you continue with that during your education? Why photography, and not painting, or drawing?
I almost was going to do painting, or illustration, or film. I’ve been doing photography and painting the whole time, ever since I was little, so it was a choice. What’s interesting is that the pictures I do now, I paint digitally. In other words, I still get to do the painting.
You do both artistic and commercial photography. When I was reading about you on Wikipedia, I found it funny that they make the distinction: “Jill Greenberg is a photographer and an artist”. Do you feel that there is a difference there?
Well, I think there’s a difference there. Because I do commercial photography, and it’s really great to be able to make a living doing my photography also. But to me, it’s very different.
I know that some of the other work that they show here (Fotografiska editor’s note) and then also at some galleries, sometimes they also show the artist’s commercial work as art. I’ve never thought about doing that. I think it’s important for my personal work to be just, you know, for my own interests.
But, don’t you feel that even artistic photography and other art is commercial, too; it is sold…
Well, commissions sometimes…
The whole art world is a venture. The commercial gallery system is very commercial, and people don’t actually acknowledge that, which is strange. And I think that it’s hard. People sometimes think that because I do commercial work also, I can’t be taken seriously as a fine artist. That doesn’t make any sense. Especially when you take into account that the gallery system is commercial.
And that the art world is, too, as a whole…
The art world is very commercial and has more and more speculation, and money, which is becoming a little bit more transparent. I can have a whole discussion about this, but it’s not necessarily about my work. But I think it is interesting.
But, do you feel that you work differently commercially, versus artistically?
Definitely, because I don’t have a client. I do whatever I want and use whatever color I want. The picture is about what I want to make it about.
I did this very sort of aggressive body of work last year. Almost sort of making fun of advertising in a way – the images were very shock-value. Pictures of people vomiting and doing these crazy things. Dead animal parts, and calling attention to the power of the image. I would never be able to do anything like that with a client.
If you look at the End Times pictures, the ones that stirred a lot of controversy back in 2006, and afterwards – they were basically plagiarized…
Yeah. How can an image that is so provocative as an art piece, then have that kind of commercial “value”, or rather, commercial success? Or does this make sense?
What I mean is: why were they so provocative?
Are you asking me? (Laughs)
Yeah, why not? (Laughs) Like, your opinion of it all. If you were on the other side of the matter, why do you think that they were provocative?
I thought that they were strong pictures, but I had no idea that they would have the life that they’ve had. At all. And I didn’t think it would be controversial that two-year-old children cry. It’s ridiculous. They’re making their parents crazy. They’re just manipulating their parents or something. They’re not in pain, they’re just communicating.
I was actually quite surprised when I read about this. I didn’t really understand what the fuss was all about. It’s like… “why????”… (Laughs)
(Laughs) A lot of people say “why”, but then I also get other kind of people. Just last week, I got some crazy email saying that I was a horrible person and that I should be dead. Somebody else didn’t want to live on the same planet as me, because I’m a horrible person. It’s crazy.
I guess that is evidence that the pictures are strong and that they make people feel.
Sure, you see children crying at the grocery store, or on an airplane – all the time, basically. But you don’t normally see them photographed the way that I photograph them, with the lighting, the re-touching, the drama and the heroic angle. That makes people feel something, and they’re confused about what they’re feeling.
What do you feel distinguishes your body of work from that of other photographers?
(Laughs) You’re asking me questions, like… How are you supposed to answer that question?
I just do my work…
Maybe it’s the wrong way of thinking, in terms of art... Let me rephrase it: what drives you to continue?
What drives me to continue is to make images that I like; that make me excited; that are satisfying to make.
That’s interesting. Can we talk a bit about your relationship to Photoshop?
Is there a lot of re-touching?
There is, but there isn’t.
Tell me about your process.
All of these pictures were shot on film, except three of those horses.
So, everything was shot on film with a medium-format camera. And many, I mean all of these pictures, basically, look just like this when on the contact sheet. What I’m doing is adding a layer; I’m just adding layers of color and shading by using Photoshop. So, that bear looks exactly like that…that’s why I leave some of the garbage on the surface, it’s just like that. I have some sort of arbitrary decisions in my mind of what needs to stay and what needs to go, but it looks just like that.
Do you know when to stop?
That’s a good question, because I’ll change things later, and make myself crazy. We’ll have various versions of the same picture. But once I print it for a fine art edition, then I have to stop. Once it’s printed, it has to stop.
If you would leave the pictures the way they are – without retouching them – would that add “soul” to them?
I’ve been thinking about showing some of the pictures. I show them on my website un-retouched. There’s one on my Facebook. It looks basically like that, I just clean it up.
How did you work before you started retouching your images? How long have you made pictures in this manner?
I haven’t done pictures in this manner without Photoshop. I used to photograph my dog when I was in fifth grade, with Vaseline [petroleum jelly] on the lens. I’ve been using Photoshop since it was invented in 1990, so it’s hard to know. In the early nineties, I was doing all different kinds of manipulations; no, actually even before Photoshop came out. I was projecting slides on people and painting on the prints from the dark room. I always like to start with a strong image, but then I want to continue working on it further. But in many cases, the picture looks very similar to how it looked when I shot it on film.
Big Brother, 2005
Tell me a bit about your thoughts on your exhibition here at Fotografiska. About the layout, presentation, and so on.
I saw it yesterday, and it’s amazing. This space is really great. They take their installations very seriously in Stockholm. I mean, I saw some other museum spaces, and it’s really great.
You know, it would’ve been fun to see all of my series. I have some feminist work, Glass Ceiling…actually, I think that’s the only one that’s missing – Glass Ceiling. That work is very different. Maybe it would’ve been confusing.
So, do you feel that it’s a good selection?
It is a good selection.
Your relationship to politics. End Times was a critique of the Bush administration, for example. How does the political aspect show itself in the image?
I think a lot about politics, and the political. Besides the feminist work… which I’ve always been doing. My main political interest is in feminism. My husband is very political; he’s very interested in politics and the world. Some of the political work that I’ve done is inspired by my husband and his family – his whole family is political and political writers who go back generations. There was a part of my show that I had last year, called Commentary and Dissent, in which there was sort of a joke about that. Because my husband's father’s mother was the editor of Commentary Magazine, which was a left-wing magazine that later became a right-wing magazine, and then my father-in-law also writes for Dissent. Which are both pretty famous left-wing Jewish intellectual magazines. So, I was again going back to that other body of work, Commentary and Dissent, which was last year, and for me, it was sort of mocking political art in a way.
Casey #4-50 , 2010
Because political art obviously is sort of “you’re preaching to the choir”. The people who are seeing this art tend to already agree with you, and the people who don’t agree with the art, aren’t going to be looking in art galleries to appreciate the art. I feel like you’re not going to change anybody's mind with political art. So, the show that I did was sort of calling attention to that, making fun of advertising and political art. And that was just last year. It’s hard to talk about work that’s older, because my head isn’t there anymore, you know?
At the same time, I can imagine that there is a connection between the older work that you’ve done, and what you’re doing now.
Yeah, because I made it! (Laughs)
(Laughs) That, too! But also, the fact that there might be a theme running through it.
Aren’t you supposed to come up with this stuff? (Laughs)
I’m suggesting food for thought, instead. (Laughs) It goes back to a question of what inspires you, I guess.
I suppose you could say that that would be the questioning of portraiture. You know, photographing animals in a traditional portraiture setting. There is an ongoing philosophical discussion concerning: “can you do a portrait of an animal?” – of course you can.
You do capture an image of somebody. I actually don’t believe that portraiture, of anybody, really gets at a true essence of the person; I think it’s much more a portrait of the person who takes the picture. The photographer projects themselves onto the subject. Always.
When you do a portrait of a celebrity, or a personality, or a writer or musician, it’s not a portrait of that person, so much as a projection of the photographer.
Monkey Suit, from the series Monkey Portraits, 2005
But that’s also how you can distinguish who the photographer is, right?
When you look at a photograph, you can tell! That’s what I think is interesting, you can always tell. The photographer’s personality and creative brain is imprinted on the subject. Because every picture that the photographer takes, shows and selects, all those decisions are being made by the photographer, as an artist. That’s how you know.