Editors: Nina & Terri Jean

Jill Greenberg from Photowisdom: Master Photographers on their Art


Our ongoing Photowisdom Series brings you the story behind the careers of the world's most highly regarded photographers. This week, fine art and portrait photographer Jill Greenberg. From her work End Times, in which Greenberg photographed emotionally distressed children to reflect her feelings on the Bush administration, to her well publicized and intentionally unflattering portraits of 2008 Presidential hopeful John McCain, Greenberg manages to straddle the line between fine art and political protest effortlessly.

Torture from End of Times 

What’s driving me in how my images look? It reflects what I am feeling at a particular time, and the reality of the world I live in, even the day-to-day light. When I moved to California there was more daylight. That was influential. And when you go to a rock concert and see the light playing off the performer on stage, or notice how it looks in a movie, then study what the cinematographer has done. I figure out what moves me and learn from that.

This has been my aesthetic ever since I began making images, and as a child I was drawing and painting and taking pictures. I started taking pictures of my friends when I was ten or eleven years old. My approach has always been in your face, very graphic, strongly lit, and has never been about documenting in soft, natural daylight. I began lighting my pictures quite deliberately when I was in high school. In college I started doing studio lighting with coloured gels and strange scenarios. I would project things on people and shoot reflections. As soon as Photoshop came out I started playing with it, found it very exciting.

The actual shoot doesn’t usually take that long. A shoot day is a few hours, but if you are shooting a celebrity you might only have fifteen minutes or an hour. It is more about the preparation – the pre-production is the most time, second is the post-production, and the actual shooting is usually the least amount of time.

I have always been interested in portraits. I used to draw and paint just people, make up all different kinds of crazy characters. I only really noticed it recently, when I looked back at my old sketchbooks and saw that all my drawings were of really strange people or animals – animals with human bodies, and other things.

People are usually very happy to be made to look amazingly perfect. I don’t want to retouch them to make them look too plastic. With a celebrity I can’t take it too far – they have to look like themselves, so I make them a better version of themselves … just a little more perfect.

Petulant from Monkey Portraits.

If we are working with a model we can perhaps rearrange their face a little if that would improve their appearance. Most subjects are very happy and say, “The skin looks so amazing, the lighting is so amazing. I am so happy to be photographed by you!” They’re just happy and I want people to be happy with how they are photographed.

With the End Times project it was different. It was a series of children’s portraits I made to explore and illustrate the feelings that I had, and perhaps other parents had, about what faced our children. With George Bush being re-elected, it was so awful and upsetting. There were the evangelical Christians believing in “end times” – that the more bad things happen then the better it is, because we can all die and go to heaven, and these people had power. George Bush was listening to these crazy religious people who wanted the world to end.

So I made these images of children looking very distressed, as if they knew what was happening to their world. It is still upsetting. The message got across, because the controversy around them (for showing children crying) made a lot of people look at the pictures. I did not encourage the controversy; the works were shown in New York in an art fair and people liked them and no controversy.

But then there was controversy as the media picked it up. I don’t feel it is controversial to make children cry – you have to make them cry, you can’t always give them what they want, five bowls of ice cream. At some point you have to say no more and they may start crying. They are children; they cry! It doesn’t mean they are being tortured. My children were among the models. I was pregnant with my son when I was first shooting the series and later I photographed him at about two years old.

This project in turn inspired me to shoot portraits of grizzly bears, the Ursine series. I was really taken aback by the anger, the vitriol, of the media. I wanted to capture that with growling, angry, ferocious bears. The bears were animal actors, but still definitely dangerous. Commercial and personal are very much two different areas. You don’t always have the freedom to spend time or resources on personal when the economy isn’t so good. The personal projects are expensive in time and money.
Heatmiser from Monkey Portraits.

I have a new series I have been working on, and reworking, an even more painterly series. My inspirations range from pop, and simple, clean portraits like Irving Penn, and then painters – Francis Bacon – and then some of the Surrealists; I used to love DalĂ­ and still think he is great.
For somebody starting out, I would say: “You have to work very hard, try to develop and hone your own vision, find something that is personal to you. With all the photographs that are being made daily, it may seem almost impossible to make something that stands out, but you have to do it!”

People do copy, but hopefully people take things and can make it different, make it their own. When I was in college I started out trying to do stuff like other photographers. But you need it to end up looking like your own.

I am always thinking of new ideas and would love to pursue them. But it is expensive to produce images like the ones I want to make. The hardest part is you want to do this amazing picture and, whether for yourself or for a client, it can turn out you can’t afford to produce it in the way you want to. You need to be a bit of a business person, too, in this work. I would love to have unlimited money and time to make all the pictures I wanted! I have a million ideas, things I see in my head, and want to do them all.


You can see more of Jill's work at www.jillgreenberg.com/ 




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