Conscientious has an excellent summary-plus-opinion post on the unfolding scandal of Jill Greenberg’s flagrant violation of the standards of ethical journalism. I’ve refrained from reviewing Greenberg’s work before, primarily because I’ve felt that anyone with any taste or sophistication can only come away from her shows with one impression: that Greenberg’s work is tacky and heavy-handed. Even when she begins with what seems like a solid foundation, she manages to crank up the postproduction to such embarrassing levels that any ideas or craft are obliterated by the final product–a sort of blend between the portrait photographs churned out at your local mall and a black-velvet religious painting. A prime example is her earlier controversial work of photographing babies after she took candy and other comforts away from them–a nice exploration and revitalization of the metaphor, I thought, until I saw the images themselves. Even then, I would have been willing to admit the possibility of a certain self-conscious kitsch. Then I saw her titles, which are all references to the Bush administration. Only wait…”references” makes them sound too subtle. I should say that her titles shout that she is making serious political work–a shout embarrassing both to political art as a genre and to any individual who has the capacity to express dissent from the Bush regime in a reasonable or intelligent manner. Her later series on primates, which seeks to examine (or maybe just mine? exploit?) animals for amusing hints of human emotion, was an enormous financial success. That comes as no surprise when you consider that it belongs more in the tradition of LOLcats than it does fine art. (Her McCain series owes an even greater debt to LOLcats.) Following the money–I mean, her series on primates–she applied the same technique to bears.
Greenberg’s work translates well to magazines and books, because the glossy 8×10″ page makes her work look far less gauche than it does in person. (Her matte printing methods contrast with the glitzy overbearing lighting of the studio to produce a really unpleasant friction that links her work to the unflattering artistic traditions I mentioned earlier.) I liked her bloody-mouthed lamb for GQ’s otherwise questionable “Violence of the Lambs” story back in February. It was funny, in the way Greenberg’s work would be funny overall if I thought that she herself were in on the joke. When my copy of the Atlantic arrived in the mail, I thought the portrait of McCain a little unflattering but didn’t recognize the trademark Greenberg “look.” It’s sad that such an estimable magazine would feel compelled to apologize for a low-brow panderer like Greenberg.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, while what Greenberg did is stupid and unethical, it’s hardly surprising. If there’s any justice in the world, she will pay dearly for this as far as her career in editorial photo-illustration goes–ironically, the one field in which she exhibited some talent.
It’s a nice touch that Greenberg’s studio is called “manipulator,” which I originally guessed was just her name for the series of crudely defaced portraits of McCain. It’s also cute that Greenberg, who has essentially stolen McCain’s image for her own use, should have a warning against stealing images from her site.