Jul 5, 2012
The manipulator

Laughter and Tears

Artist:Jill Greenberg

Typically, the ability to see the ridiculousness in everything is the contented reserve of childhood. In adults, it can be a double-edged sword. Humor, which so distinguishes ones’ vision, also tends to court controversy.

Credited with innovating numerous seminal visual styles, renowned photographer and Photoshop-early-adopter Jill Greenberg is neither novice to nor victim of this phenomenon.

Greenberg, aka The Manipulator, has been analogizing humans and animals, and technically enhancing our shared merits and foibles since the outset of the digital era.

As the heated reactions to her work with crying children in the contentious series End Times attests, a figurative barb delivered with dark humor can be as powerful as a direct blow.

And Greenberg is laughing – all the way into the inviolable folds of the top international art institutions – not to mention the celebrity homes – that display her work.

Kid-In spoke with the artist about creativity, censorship and a sense of humor – and their place in our Culture and our enculturation.

Do you come from an artistic family?

My parents were not artistic per se. My mother was programming computers in the sixties when my dad was in medical school. Both were science majors at McGill. We were into emerging technology; we had a modem when I was in high school (the early 80s) and I was chatting online with boys way back! We had an Apple, two Atari’s, etc. I’ve been doing Photoshop since it came out in 1990.

That explains it! What is your earliest childhood memory of handling a camera?

I‘ve been taking pictures and drawing since I can remember. I was in the darkroom at summer camp when I was eight. I used to ride horses and took photos of them. I also obsessively drew horses and made unicorn sculptures.

In fact, you’ve alluded that your subjects haven’t changed much since youth (i.e. representations of animals). What about your approach?

The approach is much the same. I’ve always treated animals as people. When I drew them they had personalities. My drawings were cartoony and comedic. I love humor.

But what is it in animal’s and children’s emotional makeup that lends itself to greater social commentary?

Children are disarmingly honest. Their emotions are on the surface. Animals too.

A few years ago my daughter started riding horses, which rekindled my own love affair with them. We bonded over our love for all animals.

Later this year Rizzoli will release my book about horses. We don’t have a title finalized but I’m pushing for Horse/Power. I’ve uncovered overlaps between the treatment of horses and that of women historically. Horses, as I mentioned, were my original muse and subject. Some of the images are pure fantasy – girly – and some are conceptual.

Are your children budding artists?

My daughter is. She has a very sensitive and artistic personality, so that can be a bit rough.

What’s her medium and topic of choice?

My kids are not really obsessed with visual arts only – and she actually loves music just as much, as do both her father and I.

How is it, as a feminist, raising a daughter in this day and age?

It’s a nightmare. We live right off the Sunset Strip, which is full of nasty billboards. There is a Glass Ceiling, especially in the commercial photography industry. So, I instill in her that she can do anything, like my parents did in me.

As a parent, were you surprised with some of the negative responses to your kid-focused series End Times; particularlyby the emphasis placed on the fact that real children were shedding real tears for the camera?

I was shocked at the vitriol in some of the responses. It distracted from the ideas I wished to explore. When I shot the series, I was pregnant with my son and was a new mother of a little girl.

Initially, I had thought about doing a series on little girls, and was shooting a 7-year-old who came with her little brother. I thought of shooting him and when we changed his t-shirt, he started crying. When I saw the contact sheets I thought four more years! – as Bush had just been inaugurated.

I was also reading Robert F. Kennedy’s book about how the environment was being trashed by corporations, as well as Bill Moyers essay about Right Wing Christians. This group believes in End Times and The Rapture. There existed a website called The Rapture Index, which cheered on every natural disaster because it meant End Times were approaching and they’d all exit to heaven.

This was the circular logic at play: the children were crying because it was the end of the world, but if they knew about the people who had the president’s ear, who wanted the world to end, then they really would be crying.

Was your follow up miniseries Cornfed, with images like This is Worse, a response to the criticism?

These titles were not engaging the criticism, but were borrowed from a series Goya did called The Capriccios, in which he critiqued Spanish society. They were shown just recently along with some other of my work in Los Angeles in an exhibition called Commentary and Dissent.

Images from that show also borrowed titles from Monty Python – who were quite prescient in their social critique; the short film preceding The Meaning of Life was all about corporate greed.

So there’s a link between Goya and Monty Python?

I made the link somewhat as stream of conscious. I was thinking about revisiting Goya’s work that I’d seen in an amazing exhibition in Madrid at the Prado Museum in 2009. I was blown away by the biting series. And, I was thinking about the Spanish Inquisition and, voila, No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition! Monty Python cracks me up. I pretty much love to just crack myself up.

Do you find implicit censorship in the American art world funny?

It fascinates me that American men, and men in many cultures, are so afraid to look at another man’s penis. I like to poke fun at men and their sensitivity about it. Women have to deal with everyone talking about our bodies all the time. I take the immature route with this stuff. I simply turn the tables. It’s more fun than taking the moral high ground.

So, my pet project is to expose the phallus. Another obsession used to be drawing penises and orgies. Later, I made sexual drawings which showed power and gender dynamics.

However, when I recently shot Thomas Jane for V Man’s “Risk Issue” and used a real-looking dildo as a prop, they and every other edgy European magazine refused to run it!

With the current focus on horses now, will you be incorporating children into your work again any time soon?

Not at this point, but that isn’t to say that I don’t shoot kids nonstop. I’m lucky to have super-gorgeous kids; my live-in muses, so amazing! I had started a series called Precious – portraits of young children as our most precious possession and how we dress them up, these children of the 1%. But I am currently reworking…

-Larissa Zaharuk

For more on Jill Greenberg, here: http://www.jillgreenberg.com/