These are photographs of actual paintings which I make by hand. There is no CGI or Photoshop.
The ”Paintings” series was motivated by a turning-of-the-tables on painters who use photography as their source material, those who find the need to re-render “found” photography. This casual and institutionalized disrespect of the original author, the photographer, has become so entrenched that even photographers themselves are buying into image appropriation as a way of making art. This is important and personal to me since my photography has been stolen or copied with an absurd frequency. The work which people are asking to “transform” are not merely snapshots but have been set up and lit painstakingly, then hand painted digitally. I am pinged almost daily with these requests- for my work to be used as source material, for someone else’s work. As if due the fact that they are merely photographs deems them fair game to be turned into that highest of art forms: painting.
So I set out to make a body of work that commented on this trope of paintings of photographs but ultimately, as with all of my work, have combined it with my deep engagement with making luscious and compelling, vivid and emotional images. I combine acrylic, tempera, oils, and water on a glass painter’s palette. I manipulate the paint using brushes and palette knives, allowing it to dry, adding water back, and rotating the glass to change the reflections.
To create the lighting, I use both natural light from my studio skylights as well as studio strobes with soft boxes and hand cut stencils which cast shapes or words visible in the paint’s reflections.
There is no retouching—just cleaning up dust caught in the wet paint, although the image data is quite processed in the image capture program. I adjust contrast, hue, sharpness, and utilize almost every slider for maximal effect.
A simulacra of impasto. Lens-based, 80 or 100 megapixel paintings. Hand-made and high res.
They are time-based paintings and do not look like much of anything in “real life;” the majority of the effect is lighting and reflection, and image processing. Many have been upset that I toss the raw materials used to make these images, that I wash away the original “painting,” but the painting, once dry and without all the punched up contrast, looks nothing like the final works. The value of the destroyed paintings still haunts the confused audience who feels that painting is the fairest form of art in the land. One would not save a moldy bowl of fruit or rotting flowers that were painted as a still life. The photograph is the culmination of the work here, the new medium made with mastery of both light and paint, time and the hand, not a mere painting.
This series is an exploration of the projected identity of the human male, as such, it is intended to include a full range of emotions and gestures. I am enthralled by the painterly effect achieved by photographing the male form through water, the way the forms seem to radiate carnal energy. Beyond that, I have decided to leave the interpretation more open than I had initially planned.
I started planning this collection of bear photographs in the summer of 2006. It was just after the exhibiting “End Times,” a series of portraits depicting children crying. The return to animal portraiture was in reaction to the vitriol directed at me in response to “End Times.” It felt “safer” to photograph these huge predatory beasts than the tiny but emotional toddlers who had the angry bloggers up in arms. As I embarked on the project, I intended to show epic bear power, their animalistic rage as an analogy to the human behavior I was experiencing.
I discovered that Ruth Le Barge in Alberta, Canada, had some of the best “close contact bears” in the world, and that I could shoot intimate portraits of them with my outdoor studio lighting setup. This setup requires an animal that can (a) stay on a mark for long periods of time while (b) not eating me or my crew. In August of 2006 I flew up to Calgary for my first shoot with six different bears: five Kodiaks and one black bear.
I went for a brief tour of the compound just after arriving and Ruth introduced me to the various bears. When she asked the twenty-five-year-old, eight-foot-tall Kodiak, Ali Oop to give me a kiss on the cheek, I realized I would survive the project. The next morning, as we began to shoot, I was examining my Polaroids; I was surprised to discover that the bears didn’t look alive or real in the pictures. I don’t think I had ever seen such a close-up, artificially lit bear picture; it was amazing to be able to examine the details of each bears face and even the teeth inside their mouths. Usually when you are that close to a bear’s mouth, it is the last thing you see.
As the project continued and I photographed other bears, I realized I had to include a polar bear for reasons beyond their inherent beauty or symbolic ferocity. Polar bears are short-timers on this planet, with probably twenty-five more years before they exist only in zoos. They are the canaries in the coal mine of global warming, and their world is being devastated. I believe that the consequences of their loss of habitat will soon become all too apparent to us as well.
I found a working polar bear named Agee outside Vancouver with her own private pool and personal compound. Mark Dumas, her owner, splits his time between there and California where he also owns Koda, a massive 1600-pound grizzly bear. The reason for the two homes is that U.S. authorities won’t let Mark bring Agee into the country, so she is resentful of mark every time he has to leave and for a while after he returns. Agee gets so possessive of Mark that she won’t work directly with other women. Thus, while on the set with Agee, I was forced to communicate with Mark’s wife, who would in turn tell Agee what to do. She was definitely the scariest bear I photographed. Polar bears are the most vicious predators on the planet.
Luckily for me, all of these animals are raised from birth to think that their trainers are their parents or, in some cases, their girlfriends. That the bears would sit like adorable Teddy bears – albeit Teddy bears with huge claws that could tear your flesh in an instant – also stand on their hind legs and growl silently on cue, was surreal and amazing to me.
One of my favorite shoots was with Amos, the baby bear cub. I actually photographed him in the living room of our house just after I shot the young actress Abigail Breslin for New York magazine. Needless to say, she stayed on to see the adorable cub – as well as the chimp the trainer had brought along. During the shoot, the chimp played in my childrens’ play structure in the backyard. Amos was solid and his hair coarse, not soft as I had imagined, and although he was just a four-month old he was quite dangerous, too. To this day my son, who is three, asks is there is a baby bear coming to the house when I do a portrait shoot at home.
For the most part, I make my living photographing well-known people. However, I have done animal portraits since I was very young. In the fifth grade I was shooting pictures of my West Highland white terrier, Plato, with Vaseline on the lens, among other techniques. Now, for my creative work, I photograph trained animals with studio lighting in traditional portrait setups to explore and draw parallels with human qualities and behaviors. The veneer of socialization and intelligence that sets us apart from many other animals is just that – a veneer. In 2001, when I began the series of photographs that became “Monkey Portraits*”, it was to show the striking similarities of character and “personality” between us and other simians.
In photographing bears, I had been looking to reflect the misguided angry criticism that had been anonymously pointed my way. **Back in 2005, the blogosphere had been recently born, and I was one of the first women to be publicly terrorized. But that intent changed as the project grew. I learned to see the duality of the bears’ nature, the irony in the misleadingly innocent outward appearance they often exhibit. This in turn brought to mind society’s misguided anthropomorphization of all animals, and our denial of their true nature. Bears can be simple, sometimes savage animals, but they have as much right to survival on this planet as we do. They are magnificent creatures of immense power, emotion and beauty. My images seek to capture the awe that they inspire.
When I set out to create my series of crying children in 2005, I had no idea that it would cause such a stir in both the photography and cultural community at large, or that the images would be so widely appropriated for causes significantly at odds with my original intent.
Each image in the series, which I entitled “End Times”, was created by eliciting a child’s hyperbolic reaction to extremely minimal provocation. In many cases, the very young subjects (children ages 2 to 4) required no provocation at all, and were simply agitated by the act of being photographed. The reasons for their distress were common to those of any child: having something taken away. As any parent knows, rarely does a toddler sobbing convey any real pain or mental anguish. At that age, crying it is one of the main methods of communication, and in this particular instance, a short tantrum provoked by gentle manipulation. Indeed, I found the circular logic at play a striking paradox. The children’s worlds were not ending by having a lollipop taken away, but if only they had the capacity to understand what was happening to their world—to the environment—as a result of the backwards, conservative leadership in the White House in 2005, when the photographs were made, they would undoubtedly be distressed.
Before the exhibition in April, 2006, “End Times” was exhibited in a solo booth at the Scope art fair in New York. There, the work elicited no controversy. A few weeks later, a pseudonymous photo blogger—a banker by day—discovered the work online and wrote that I should be “arrested and charged with child abuse” for my techniques, an all-out polemic ensued. When American Photo magazine cited the blogger and called the work, “the most controversial photo series of the year” in their April 2006 print edition, the volume of online comments in response crashed their server. I was interviewed by BBC TV, Inside Edition, Good Morning America; was covered in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and El Pais in Spain among others. The London Sunday Times magazine ran a six-page cover story called “The Great Lollipop Debate,” referring to one of the methods for making the children cry (the childrens’ mothers or my photo assistants requesting the lollipops back.) While I had very much intended for my art to be provocative, I had no sense of the hornet’s nest into which I was poking a sharp stick.
Nevertheless the work itself garnered awards and was acquired by significant private collectors. “End Times” has been exhibited in solo shows in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Adelaide, Australia, and in group shows at such venues as Brown University, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, Boston University, and Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (curated by Paul Wombell).
Because of the influx of attention, the images have been widely distributed and have served as a sort of visual accompaniment to a host of causes, institutions and businesses wishing to play on the sympathy evoked by an image of a child in distress. I don’t license my fine art work for advertising, and very very rarely for editorial or web use, but the images became a sort of visual meme and were stolen and used rampantly without my or the models’ guardians’ consent. To date, the images have been used in anti-child abuse campaigns, political campaigns for the far right in Switzerland and the communist party in Estonia, and for advertisements for phone applications and life insurance, as well as for countless Facebook and Twitter avatars.
If asked, I would never have allowed for the images to be used for any intent and purpose other than that of my own. But I am seldom asked. Blogs dedicated to deconstructing “The Jill Greenberg effect”—my lighting and retouching techniques from the series—continue to pop up in such disparate languages as Arabic and German, and I’ve been told that photography students worldwide are being assigned to reproduce the images as part of their coursework.
The photographs have a life of their own now. I created them, and, like children, have ambivalently let them out into the world.
I began photographing monkeys and apes by accident. I had booked a small white capuchin named Katie for an advertising job. She was supposed to be having a tea party with two little girls in a pink room, standing on the table banging pots and wearing pink striped bloomers. For other assignments, I had shot penguins, lions and albino pythons, but this was the first time I had photographed a monkey. Since I had a bit of extra time and a nice client, I decided to do a portrait of Katie.
When I got the contact sheets back, the images startled and amused me. Katie’s expressions were so human and her intelligence seemed so obvious I realized I had discovered a new subject – one perfect for social commentary. Since this work happened to commence in October 2001, just after the tragic events of 9/11, I was discovering my own sociopolitical awareness of the world. These animals’ expressions allow an interpretation that can be perceived as passing judgment on the behavior of their genetic cousins. Ultimately, I ended up having to reshoot the ad with a toy poodle, since the client decided the monkey looked too menacing – not quite the effect they wanted to sell to moms in the Midwest.
I photographed more monkeys and apes whenever I had a chance or felt financially free enough to lay out the funds for these animal actors, with their attendant trainers and handlers. The project has taken about five years to complete and the subjects were photographed at my studios in New York and Los Angeles, as well as at Parrot Jungle in Miami. In all, I have photographed more than thirty different primates, about twenty different species: marmosets, mandrills, capuchins, macaques, orangutans and a chimpanzee, to name a few. They all have resonated with me in different ways. I love the wisdom in the face of Jake, the older orangutan. He is only five years old but looks like an old man. Another favorite is Josh, the Celebes macaque, who is on the cover. His black hair, amber-colored eyes, and long face make him look almost unreal, like a cartoon character.
What became apparent as I was making my selections after each shoot was that I was attracted to the images where the subjects appeared almost human, expressing emotions and using gestures I thought were reserved only for people. The formal studio portrait setting adds an air of both seriousness and humor. Some people have commented that the animals resemble friends or relatives. Sharon Stone remarked as I was shooting her, that she has “sat in studio meetings with guys like that,” referring to “Haughty”. Indeed, monkeys are not as high maintenance as many of the subjects I regularly photograph, albeit markedly more difficult to communicate with and give direction to. Of course, with primates, I don’t have to be concerned with making sure they look “beautiful” or retouching them to appear flawless. They are us and the opposite of us at the same time since they share non of our cultural constraints on behavior or appearance. They seem to be looking back at us, sometimes judging, sometimes in shock. Is it something we’ve done? Maybe it is just that some of us are trying to pretend we aren’t related. For anyone who doubts Darwin (ahem, Mr. President), look in the monkey mirror and think again.
Nominated by David Acton , Curator of Photography, Snite Museum of Art
Visit Jill’s website to see more of her work. jillgreenberg.com