"American Girl Doll" from "Glass Ceiling" by Jill Greenberg

In conjunction with the Annenberg Space for Photography’s exhibition, Beauty Culture, Jill Greenberg was recently asked to speak about her work.  Greenberg is one of the few photographers whose professional career straddles the worlds of editorial, advertising and fine art with a remarkable amount of balance.  After working with her on a range of editorial assignments including portraits of actors, air-borne fashion and some of the baddest pictures of cheerleaders ever, I’ve had a unique vantage point to observe her career. Not only is Greenberg one of the most focused, hard-working photographers out there, but she is also a witty collaborator, with a dry sense of humor and an unrelenting drive to make the strongest work possible.  She could always be relied upon to bring her best to any job and generally make me laugh in the process.  In spite of the fierce commitment it takes to compete in magazine and ad work, Greenberg’s dedication to building and expanding her body of creative personal work is equally driven.  Utilizing the many skills attained on commercial shoots Greenberg has created a signature lighting style uniquely her own.  So much so, that simple Internet searches of her name can turn up an array of young photographers struggling to emulate the Greenberg lighting.

Greenberg's UCLA v. USC for Los Angeles magazine

Greenberg photographed Glenn Beck in a tizzy for GQ.

Mr. Stewart goes to Washington via Jill Greenberg's TV Guide cover.


The assignment fulfilled by Greenberg.

The former candidate as horror show.

Yet few photographers have sparked the vitriol that Greenberg incurred when she acted upon her political beliefs while photographing then-GOP Presidential candidate John McCain for The Atlantic.  Her sinister, bottom-lit portraits were ultimately edited into vampiric, blood-dripping illustrations, alluding to McCain’s ties to a war-hungry regime, questionable ethics and less-than-honorable tactics to win the election at any cost.  I recall the excitement expressed by Greenberg’s assistant as we waited for actor Richard Jenkins to arrive for a shoot the day after the McCain session. He couldn’t believe they were allowed to get these shots after finishing the portraits intended for the magazine.  After all, any kid with a flashlight knows what happens when you put the light facing up below your chin.

In my experience, every celebrity photographer is hovered over.  Publicists do their damnedest to control shoots to prevent any real editorial opinion from forming in a portrait of their client.  To a large extent, it has gone too far and often backfires into a portrait that could have been stronger had the photographer had his or her way with things.  I also know that certain assurances or trusts are generally made or assumed and no self-respecting publicist would have allowed their client a single minute with the kind of lighting used on the McCain shoot.  They fell asleep on the job, apparently.

When the altered images were published weeks later and I found myself treading along in the swell of America’s economic sinkhole, I welcomed the low blow when Greenberg posted her images on the net.  Of course they plunged into comic–book depths, but on the other hand, my economic-crisis-induced layoff from editorial made me less than sympathetic to the plight of either McCain or any magazine for that matter.   While I would not have allowed a subject to be duped in this way had I supervised that shoot, I no longer had to maintain a journalistic objectivity.  I welcomed the rabble-rousing.  Sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

One of the additional shot opportunities was from the simple act of a misfired strobe.

What I didn’t expect was the amount of hateful speech posted in online forums by some photographers (and I’m not referring to the Fox mouthpieces).  I’d spent my career looking after the interests of photographers and I was always surprised by the ease in which they quietly rolled over to sign away rights in order to get the big picture.  I honestly had been too busy working to notice how low people would stoop and how loudly.  The resentment and loathing expressed toward Jill Greenberg for getting the unthinkable shot was palpable.  It was more than just the perceived abuse of her photographic opportunity that was in the air.  Responses reeked of jealousy.  The girl is ruining it for the rest of us.  How dare she.  Photography is a competitive business and there are too many trying to make their living from a small pool of work and very few in the upper tiers of editorial and advertising photography were women.  While Greenberg crossed a line on her Atlantic  editorial assignment, the reaction among photographers seemed personal – like the way some white men reacted to losing a college placement to an African-American through affirmative action policies.  Jill just pissed them off.  She had work they didn’t have, did it better than many, and now had the nerve to cross a line and make it more difficult for them.  She was a lightning rod.

When speaking with Greenberg recently regarding this article, she mentioned a few significant notes regarding her contract with Atlantic:   “I was shooting for free-no fee, just expenses.  I own my images.  I had a two-week domestic embargo, and no international embargo.  I always post images and even outtakes on my site once the magazine has hit stands.  Embargos don’t apply to photographers’ websites and there was nothing in the contract to indicate I could not post them.  Further, the contract said, and this was a totally new one to me:  ‘you will use your best efforts to publicize this shoot.’  The fact that they did a major redesign which launched the month after the McCain issue, is somewhat suspicious.  Before my shoot, brand awareness was close to nil for them.  The scandal that they inflated (but not simply stating that I was a freelancer, who owns my images, acting independently and within my legal rights) drew 1,000,000 hits to their site that week.”

"Torture" (2005) from End Times

Greenberg encountered similar volatile reactions to her earlier body of fine art work.  The simple act of taking a lollipop from a child incurred fits of tears and the sobbing children of End Times became a metaphor to express so many feelings of a failing world.  While the lollipop explanation was enough for me to diminish any abusive concerns, it was barely a speed bump for the cranky masses just looking for excuses to write reams of loathing letters to the artist.   All this anger seems to follow Greenberg around like a shadow.

When I learned of Jill’s scheduled talk at the Annenberg Center on June 2, 2011, I was disappointed that I would be unable to attend.  Knowing Jill, I thought it might turn out to be more complex than the Annenberg or anyone in the audience would anticipate and I asked her if I might use her notes for an article here. She complied.  In the following passages Jill Greenberg discusses critical theory, feminism, and her many accomplished bodies of photographic work.  It’s thought provoking stuff, refreshingly honest, bold and surely controversial.

Jill Greenberg speaking at The Annenberg Space for Photography, Century City, California.

Jill Greenberg’s Annenberg talk:

I am pleased to be invited to speak on the occasion of the Beauty Culture exhibition.  Thank you to everyone at the Annenberg, for inviting me here tonight.  I do have to ask:  who is my audience that snatched up all these tickets in 3 minutes flat?  If it’s photo nerds, just so you know, this talk will barely discuss technique.  And no, feminism is NOT a Photoshop filter nor is the panopticon the latest digital back.

"The Female Object," 1989, still from multimedia slide show

So as it happens, the subject ostensibly at hand was also the subject of my senior thesis at RISD in 1989.  It was called “The Female Object” and it consisted of a multitrack recording and a multiple projector slide show as well as an installation of mural C-prints.  I will show some of it but unfortunately it’s not in great condition.  I provided the voice of a fictitious female narrator.  I adjusted the pitch so that I would sound like Melanie Griffiths in Working Girl.  I went on about how if I fixed my body then I would have control of my life; that I wanted to devote myself to controlling my appetite and shrinking my body.  There were staged photographs of my art school friends in various states of anguish about their bodies.  In some cases I projected images onto them.  This worked well visually as well as conceptually to show society’s acceptable images projected onto their bodies.  My father is an eye doctor so I raided his file of diseased eye slides and projected them, lined up with the areolas of my model’s breasts.  It appeared that the male gaze was toxic and eating away at the female flesh.  The eerie pounding music I mixed into the soundtrack was mid 80s art-electronica –Chris and Cosey, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, which added to the surreal and horrific relentlessness of the work.

Slide shows had been a favorite medium of mine since high school when I did one called Photophobia using Cabaret Voltaire as the soundtrack.  In the female object, a male narrator announced, “in contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women, woman lives her body as seen by another, an anonymous patriarchal other.  She stands perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment.”

A panopticon prison.

My studies led me to the amazing book Feminism and Foucault written and edited by Sandra Lee Bartky, and her essay in which she discussed the panoptical and self-policing nature of women’s internalized male gaze. The panopticon prison was a circular shaped structure where the inmates had windows on two sides, the central guard tower could see into the prison cells at any time, and therefore the prisoners had to assume that they were always being watched and modified their own behavior, policing themselves..

These discussions have been going on at least since the 1970s, initially in the work of Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem and in the ‘80s with Susan Brownmiller.  In the early ‘90s, Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth.  The basic premise of The Beauty Myth continued Bartky’s argument, positing that unconscious forced adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women as they gained power in other arenas.  In the book, Wolf argued that “beauty” as a normative value is entirely socially constructed, and that the patriarchy determines the content of that construction with the goal of reproducing its own hegemony.

For Crest, Greenberg created faux perfection

The work I did for my thesis informs everything I do.  As someone with a parallel career in commercial photography and art, I am often assigned to shoot women, and I don’t even need to be told to retouch them.  I just do it.  I suppose I am a self-policing photographer?  I shoot models and actresses and retouch them to make them look even thinner, younger looking, and more impossibly beautiful.  Everyone in this room knows, or should know, that photographs, even “documentary photography” doesn’t represent the truth, any more than my glossiest and most retouched image.  Images have jobs to do:  sell us a product, make us feel bad about ourselves so we can go buy something to make us feel better, or tell a slanted story about who a person is.

Carlos Ghosn for Conde Nast's story, photographed by Jill Greenberg

For this shot I was flown to Tokyo by Conde Nast, for a three-minute photo shoot with Carlos Ghosn.  We needed to do three different set-ups, and at least one of them needed to make him look like a murderer.  The article was called Speed Kills.  He is the CEO of Renault Nissan and apparently such a tyrant that many of his employees have killed themselves.

The nature of photography is that the subjective taker of the photo composes, lights, and subsequently edits from hundreds if not thousands of images to convey the exact story he or she wants to tell.  There is an implied veracity in photography, but this is wrong.  Especially these days: a single image can be made up of multiple shots of one person “frankensteined” together to create an extra perfect and completely unnatural representation.  Further, the angle, the point of view, from which the photo is taken, is of the utmost importance. Photograph someone from below and they are powerful and heroic. From above and they are weak and passive.  I don’t have images shot from above since I very rarely do this.  I like making people look heroic.  Everyone and every thing photographed becomes objectified, passive, and visually ownable.

Lindsay Lohan, Rashida Jones and Janelle Monae after their Jill Greenberg retouch.

What are we to make of this?  What can we do?  We need to educate everyone, most importantly little girls, that nothing in the glossy women’s magazines represents reality and that it’s futile to compare ourselves to them.  Would an average guy reading Sports Illustrated feel bad about themselves when learning of a top athlete’s successes?  I don’t think so.  I truly love photographing beautiful people, despite the inherent contradictions between some of my beliefs and some of my creative output.  I am very aware that the representation of “perfection” comes with lots of baggage, but it’s exciting and personally rewarding to make beautiful images and I am happy to it for a living.  By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a photographer and artist.  Originally I thought I would be an illustration major. I have been drawing and photographing since I was very young.  In fact one of my first photos that I took at summer camp while in 4th grade was an underlit flashlight shot of my friend Linda. I guess I never got the under lighting thing out of my system.

"Glare" from the Monkey Portraits by Jill Greenberg.

As for the animals… In 5th grade we got a puppy named Plato, and he was my muse.  I used to stage elaborate tableaus where he looked drunk with those little airplane liquor bottles.  For portraits I used Vaseline on the lens to achieve a vignette effect.  I also used to draw horses obsessively.  I sculpted them out of clay, did cast wax horses, photographed my model horses, and even rode horses at riding camp for a summer.  The animal work has continued.

"Anxious" from Greenberg's "Monkey Portraits."

"Untitled #11" from Jill Greenberg's series "Ursine."

"Untitled #8" from "Ursine"

I’ve been working on a series of horses for a book for Rizzoli for the past year.  I had originally associated horses with the male physique, with their muscle, sinew and phallic necks. But then I discovered the dual gender iconography of the horse and the found some comparable issues facing horses and women.  And while I have tried to treat the animal portraiture as a poppy escape from some of the more theoretical personal work, it seems my worlds have collided.

Elegant lighting enhances the sinew and muscularity in Greenberg's "Casey 01."

"Hielke 0356" by Jill Greenberg.

Restraint is explored in Jill Greenberg's untitled work in progress.

While visiting stables and riding with my daughter, I was struck by the oppressive and cruel nature of the portion of the bridle called the bit.  It is pieces of metal inserted into the horse’s mouth.  The horse is made to submit to the bit.  A horse must be BROKEN.  And I felt that the bit was like bondage, and hurtful.  Look at them.  In researching the horse bits I unearthed something quite serendipitous: the scold’s bridle.  Over in Ireland in the 1500s, men used to punish their mouthy women-folk by putting a metal cage, sometimes with a serrated tongue depressor, which would cut up the tongue if speech were attempted.  In many cases a bell, or animal ears and leash were also part of this scold’s bridle.  She could be led around town with maximal shaming.  So this scold’s bridle albeit an item from medieval times is something that goes one step further, SILENCING women.  Speech was said to be one of the main things that set humans apart from all other animals.  By taking away her power of speech, the bridle made a woman more bestial in practice as well as in theory.  Back then, not that it’s really changed, a scold was defined as: “A troublesome and angry woman who by brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbors breaks the public peace, increases discord and becomes a public nuisance to the neighborhood.”  Wait that’s me?

The silent treatment.

In terms of restrictive clothing, corsets, hobble skirts paved the way, but now the modern era we have spanx and high heels.  Honestly, I find purses which require an arm and hand to hold, that can’t be slung over your shoulder freeing up both hands, to be quite restrictive.  We only have two hands.  We need them both!  By the way, I found these on vogue.com’s best-dressed list.  She can’t run, and she only has the use of one hand!  So impractical.  Fashion as oppressor.  Women will never rule the world with these constraints.

Jill Greenberg's "Glass Ceiling 2-298"

Before I began the horse book project, I had been working on a body of work that was intentionally imbued with feminist ideas: my Glass Ceiling series.  It began in 2008, during a fashion shoot with the US Olympic Synchronized Swim Team for Radar magazine.  The magazine wanted me to shoot the women under water, so it was handy that I am a certified scuba diver.  I had shot an album cover for Moby in a swimming pool and we both would just hold our breath over and over.  That was quite tiring.  These I shot while sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool, in full scuba gear:  tanks weights, regulator, two on-camera flashes on arms…I tend to make my life really difficult what with the toddlers, animals and scuba shooting, don’t you think?  Anyway, the images for the magazine were upbeat and graceful, but the images, which really excited me, were the ones I took between the official practiced and controlled formations, when one of the athletes came up for air.  When this occurred the surface of the water sliced through the neck of the woman, seeming to decapitate her, and the water above appeared like a reflective glass ceiling.

"Glass Ceiling 1-1017" complete with accessories.

It took me two years to coordinate, to find local synchronized swimmers for a second shoot.  By then the technology had advanced so I shot with the Hassleblad H2 with the Phase P65 back.  The images have a breathtaking amount of detail.  They are actually quite straight.  The major adjustments occur when I process out the Raw files.  I massively tweak the curves and white points.  In some cases I process the file out multiple times, in 16 bit of course, with varying settings and composite the images together to get an enhanced tonal and color range.  That is for you photo nerds!  I do have a bit of fun painting on the image in Photoshop, which I have used since version 1.0, for over 20 years.  Actually, I feel that my mastery of the techniques, even one might say-domination of the science, hardware and software, is a traditionally male trait and it therefore adds a layer of meaning, since I am nothing if not an incredibly technically adept photographer.  By the way, that self-flattering comment was also quite male.

"Glass Ceiling 2-462" by Jill Greenberg

So, at the root of it, these professional athletes, synchronized swimmers and dancers try to perform and pose but the water knocks them into awkward positions.  They wear high heels and bikinis for work when performing yet it is absurd.  They adjust their swimsuits and shoes, gasp for air, and are pushed around by the force of their surroundings.  Some of my favorite parts of the image are where the figure meets the surface of the water.  Recently I tried cropping out the figures altogether. Now it’s just an image of dissolved women.

"Glass Ceiling" with the woman cropped out.

The late surrealist painter Leonara Carrington, determined to be nobody's muse.

About six months ago, I was reading Deborah Bright’s essays on her own horse photography and I discovered Leonora Carrington, the last living surrealist artist.  She died just last week in Mexico at 94.  It was sad to me that though I have been in love with surrealism since I was in high school, I had not heard of her.  Carrington herself was fighting against being simply categorized as a muse for her fellow surrealists–her boyfriend was Max Ernst.  She wanted to be taken seriously as an artist in her own right.  She said, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse, I was too busy rebelling against my parents, and learning to become an artist”  Apparently, Miró once handed her a few coins and told her to run out and buy him a pack of cigarettes.  She said, “I gave it back and said if he wanted cigarettes, he could bloody well get them himself.”  She too, became more and more interested in the roles of femininity, patriarchal oppression and used animals, specifically horses, in her work to represent herself.

The conservative British art critic, Brian Sewell, interviewed for the UK’s Guardian newspaper said of women artists:  “The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank.  There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.  Women make up 50 percent or more of classes at art school.  Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s.  Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”  Jonathan Jones in the same publication: “it’s not that great women artists do not exist.  It is that men are very good at finding new reasons to underrate them.”  Jones continued, “We didn’t rule the world for millennia without being pretty ingenious when it comes to preserving our territory.”  I discovered that in my two bodies of work the horses, were controlled by the bit and bridle, and women were controlled by the weight of the water.  The opaque and seemingly unbreakable glass ceiling and high-heeled shoes which immobilize them-the signifiers that surround and infect our minds and bodies, were not two disparate series;  they overlapped, joined at the bridle.  I feel that high-heels are like the horse bit and bridle.

Bit and Glass Shoe by Jill Greenberg

I recently had some heels cast in glass.   This is my first sculpture work since college.  Here’s some work I did back then, I made all these disgusting little clay men, painted them and set up vignettes and photographed them.  They were unfired clay so they didn’t survive, except this one.  This is a man I made who had no arms or legs. And he rocks and is trying to give himself a blowjob.  One side of his face is sad and one is angry.  His stump legs and penis broke off.  But I still think it’s hilarious.

"Shock" from Jill Greenberg's "End Times" 2005

"Misinformation" from End Times, 2005

Okay, I am going to show some images of crying little girls, while I talk gender politics for a bit.  Has anyone seen Platon’s new book Power Platon? It has ninety-nine portraits of men but just four of women.  These are the international heads of state and other decision makers.  It’s not HIS fault.  The book seems great.  These are, in fact, all the people who have most of power in the world.  So lets not delude ourselves into thinking that the gender inequality problem has been solved.  Why are women’s issues a special interest group?  We are a majority of the world’s population.  The default setting for our discussions about powerful women is to cut them down, to criticize them much more harshly than we would a man.  They are nags, bitches, scolds.  I call it the Martha Stewart complex.  When she was nabbed for insider trading of a measly $50,000, she went to jail.  The Wall Street banker boys, all of them cronies on the golf links with their regulating counterparts, avoided so much as a wrist slap for derailing the world economy with their selfish and irresponsible behavior – criminal.  Meanwhile Martha still refuses to call her self a feminist.

Hitting the "Glass Ceiling"in heels.

Installation of "Glass Ceiling" at Clampart in New York's Chelsea neighborhood.

The journalist Ann Kornblut, wrote a book about the 2008 presidential run of Hillary Clinton called Notes From The Cracked Ceiling.  Kornblut doesn’t believe America is anywhere near ready to elect a woman president, possibly in 2016.  The thought that sexism is over just because so many women work is absurd.  A woman who is afraid to call herself a feminist is so misguided.  Any woman who doesn’t realize that they are standing on the backs of those who came before them, who fought for the right to vote -it took 70 years of hard work for women to get that right to vote.  And some women don’t want to identify with them?  We need to speak up for ourselves.  The fact is this: we live in a patriarchal culture.  My answer?  Expose the phallus!  I want to turn things on their head.  Since not only did I love to draw horses as a child, I loved to draw penises too.  This (image) is Pork Sword, scanned from a used gay men’s porno mag called HONCHO, that I bought on 14th Street in NYC.  This was from 1991.  Like I said, I have been doing Photoshop a REALLY long time.  Right after school, when I still thought I could pursue both fine art and commercial photography at the same time, I was doing body scans and digital drawings.  I exhibited this image in 1993 at a Brooklyn group show.

In 1993 I applied to the New York’s Whitney museum’s independent study program.  I almost got in.  I had recommendations from Peter Macgill and Andres Serrano, but I sort of suck at talking about art.  I forget people’s names.  I am fine writing about it….so I didn’t make the final cut, but that same week I got a job shooting for Sassy magazine, and shortly thereafter for Time magazine.  So, I felt my direction was chosen for me.

Back to “exposing the phallus!”  In 1999, I used a well-endowed boy toy I was dating, and I did Pork Sword 2000.  It was exhibited it in an awesome group show, at the prestigious American Fine Art Gallery.   I just think it’s hilarious, to poke and prod at the object of repression.  People, especially men, seem too insecure and afraid to look at another man’s penis.  We objectify women, visually chop up their bodies like it’s nothing and are afraid to turn the tables?

Thomas Jane of HBO's "Hung" by Jill Greenberg.

I did some animated digital art in 1997 for Razorfish’s the Nvelope art content.  It’s in SF MOMA…you can tell Hans Bellmer is an influence.  I was showing what I thought men would do if they could genetically engineer the women of their dreams.  No pesky heads, just lots and lots of orifices.  The phallus has been a recurring theme. I recently shot the star of HBO’s Hung, and as much as I try to avoid those “homage” photos since I prefer to make new iconic images.  I came up with the perfect solution on the fly.  Pun intended.  The magazine had sent me a khaki suit, which I had no idea how to use, this was to be for the RISK issue.  Then it dawned on me:  Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit. Needless to say, I have not yet found a publication with the balls to run this picture.

Greenberg's portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger for GQ.

I just shot Arnold for a second time.  He really likes being photographed by a woman.  He requested me…and when I shot MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews for The New York Times magazine in 1998 he was obsessed with my appearance as well.  Of course, I was thinner and younger…  We know what a problem with women he has.  During Hillary’s run for presidency Matthews referred to her “scolding manner in terms of public speaking” and called her “witchy.”  The rules are different for men and women.

Let me be clear.  I am not complaining about my lot in life.  I am quite happy to be a woman.  After all, not only can I make photographs– art when I am lucky, but I can also make people (kids photos).  But in this particular case, discussing our culture it would be handy to be a feminist man, since I would not want to come off as a complaining woman.  I am merely stating facts.  Not enough people are calling attention to these glaringly asymmetrical economies of power.  This stuff really matters.  Our government is picking on women’s issues.  Planned parenthood – the US is spiraling backwards.  It’s like a time machine to the Middle Ages.  Soon we will be wearing scold’s bridles.  I should wrap this up without making any more waves, or not.

So…this Beauty Culture show.  From the brochure: Beauty Culture provides a seminal examination of photography’s role…”seminal” indeed.  The etymology of that word is semen. This show is primarily men’s images, men’s gaze, and men’s perspective, despite the stated goals.  There are 74 men but only 18 women photographers represented in this show.  Wow.  Apparently there are four times more appropriate male photographers than female.  Perhaps it is only male photographers are uniquely qualified comment on issues of women’s beauty?  The Lauren Greenfield video is really great. But when it’s not playing, this is primarily a show of men’s objectification of women.  We are purportedly discussing the twenty-first century multimedia objectification of women, the culturally sanctioned self-loathing and the attendant self-mutilation aka cosmetic surgery through a distorted lens, that is 4/5ths men!!!!  This is a space named for a woman, run by women at every level.  Yet as is made plain by the curious curation choices, sexism is truly insidious and operates on a subconscious level.

I recently shot a cover of Wired magazine of the engineer, Limor Fried.  She was the FIRST female engineer to be put on their cover in the 19 years Wired magazine has been in print. About this fact her associate said, “We are what we celebrate”.  And I feel strongly we need to celebrate more women.

Jill Greenberg’s Glass Ceiling and Horses are on exhibition through August 19, 2011 at Clampart in New York.

The beautiful feminized equine from Jill Greenberg's series "Horses."


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