Even as a young girl, photographer, artist and mother of two, Jill Greenberg staged photographs and created characters through drawing, painting, sculpture, film and photography. Known for her remarkable, human-like images of animals, celebrity portraits and political art, Greenberg has established a reputation for pushing the limits with her subjects while often delivering highly controversial results. Her distinct style and ability to evoke strong emotions from viewers has earned her international acclaim, as well as the moniker “Manipulator” for her original mastery of manipulating her photographs.
In her newly released book Horses, Greenberg brings her childhood fascination with this majestic creature to life. Her images capture the powerful, provocative and sensual beauty of the animals, leaving us guessing if they are real or something more mystical.
Some of her more controversial images include End Times, which exploits the raw emotions of distressed toddlers that caused considerable debate among her critics, and Glass Ceiling, the series that drew WYSK to learn more about Greenberg’s work. Glass Ceiling represents a return to the postmodern feminist theory that inspired Greenberg’s senior thesis as an art student in the 80s. As she explains in her artist statement, “The result is a sadly relevant series of shots depicting women struggling to keep head above water in a context defined by the constraints pressed upon them by others.”
Greenberg is a phenomenal photographer. She sees the world through her own lens, creates images that are full of meaning and uses her art as a platform of political expression as well as a creative outlet. She has strong opinions and we wouldn’t want it any other way! We recently chatted with Jill to learn more about her new book as well as what makes her tick.
Women Talk: 10+ Questions With Jill Greenberg
You mention you were fascinated with horses as a young girl, what led to the fascination?
JG: I think many little girls are in love with horses. I was one of them. Horses are timeless and romantic. They are beautiful and powerful and fantastical. They have captured the imaginations of little girls forever. As a little girl I loved all animals, but horses were special for me.
How do you make the connection between horses, gender and power dynamics?
JG: My essay in the book goes into detail, but I found it striking to see an illustration of a horse in bridle and a woman in a “Scold’s Bridle” torture device, and then to read about the way women were treated in medieval times. It also struck me that women are still discussed this way and in many countries treated more overtly like second-class citizens. In America, it is widely assumed that the playing field has been leveled, but of course it’s still a man’s world.
How do you balance your art with your commercial work?
JG: It’s not easy. I work all the time; my art is expanding more than the commercial, though, which makes me very happy.
You tackle a lot of important, current issues with your art, what are you hoping to communicate to the viewers?
JG: I have a lot on my mind and I enjoy making art about it. I mostly do it for myself. I can only hope to make people think. Art should not be too overly didactic, as it is mine is quite overt in its message.
Controversy seems to follow you around, particularly in regard to the methods used in creating the End Times series, what do you say to your naysayers?
JG: To me that is a non-issue. To raise children you need to say “no” to them, and frequently they cry to get you to change your mind, ideally you need to be very consistent. To clarify, [what has been said about me regarding the methods to make the children cry] I didn’t do or say anything to get them upset; it was the kids’ own parents getting them to cry for the photos.
A lot of your work is focused on feminist issues, why?
JG: Because I am a feminist, I present things from that perspective on occasion, it’s just part of what motivates me, though I have lots of other interests.
Have you experienced gender bias in your industry? How did you overcome it?
JG: It’s very hard to know what is said behind closed doors, when one is a freelancer. There have been sexual comments made about me, but when you are freelancer, there is little recourse. My various agents over the years have offered that it’s not as easy getting work as a woman photographer.
What advice, if any, would you offer to a young woman trying to break into commercial photography today?
JG: I think… get a sex change. I have been told by my agents that some clients “don’t even want to ‘go there'” – meaning hire a woman.
We are fascinated with the Glass Ceiling series, tell us how it came about?
JG: In 2008, I was commissioned to do a “fashion” shoot using the US Olympic Synchronized Swim Team as models. Two of the set-ups included high heels. Inspired by the shoot’s outtakes I hired a local synchronized swim troupe in 2010 and directed the women with gestures as I sat at the bottom of a pool in full scuba gear with a state-of-the-art 65 megapixel back on my digital camera. As these athletes attempt to pose for me the water knocks them into awkward positions. The heels are overtly absurd and hinder their movement, amplifying their lack of control in this world. The identities of the women have become inconsequential as their heads are cut off, the sexualized bodies are the focus. As a female artist, I have experimented with imagery, which explores the objectification of women for many years.
You have shot a lot of celebrities and covers for magazines, is there one shoot or subject that stands out for you? Why?
JG: I love meeting all the different types of people I am assigned to shoot. I discover their music or writing or films. I tend to get along best with the more offbeat of them. For example, I have become friends with Eric Wareheim from Tim and Eric Awesome Show and other comedians, less so with the more mainstream characters.
What or who inspires you?
JG: I get inspired by anything and everything I see.
What’s next for you?
JG: I have lots of ideas, but it’s a bit too soon. I am still busy with this work. Though, I have been drawing a bit, and also I would really love to find someone to sponsor the fabrication of the Emily Davison and Anmer collision* sculpture in time for the 100th anniversary of it occurring next year. There is a mockup for it in the book.
* (In a 1913 Derby, jockey Herbert Jones was riding the horse, Anmer. There was a collision that killed suffragette Emily Davison)
More about the artist
Jill Greenberg earned her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989. She is represented by ClampArt in New York and Katherine Cone Gallery in Los Angeles. As a commercial photographer, Greenberg has worked for Disney, Fox, Coca Cola, Warner Brothers and her photos have been on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Entertainment Weekly.
Upcoming exhibitions Jaski Solo Exhibition: “Horse” December 1st-16th 2012 Jaski Art Gallery Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 29 1017 DB Amsterdam
Katherine Cone Solo Exhibition: “Horse” February 2013 Katherine Cone Gallery 2673 La Cienega Boulevard Los Angeles CA 90034