Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Let Us Not Judge Jill Greenberg

Jill Greenberg is one of the few photographers whose work I can usually recognize on sight, because of the distinctive way she lights her subjects. She is a popular and well respected portrait, editorial and advertising photographer. A few covers that I looked at and thought "I bet Jill Greenberg shot that" include this one:

And this one:

Also, this one:

I love you Paul Rudd!

Anyway, I have always admired her work. However, her name is also synonymous with the controversy that surrounded a 2006 series of portraits called "End Days." The portraits, which I think are supposed to express Greenberg's frustration at the Bush Administration, are of crying babies. Maybe it doesn't sound that transgressive, but these babies are really crying, faces red, snotty, contorted and streaked with tears, and the direct, angelic lighting makes for some pretty arresting portraits.

I first saw these portraits up close and personal at Photo LA some years back. They were up on a wall larger than life, and I thought they looked amazing. However, I was with my mother, and she could not handle them. She was deeply disturbed by the children, saying that they looked like they were in anguish and she wanted to comfort them. I reminded her that kids cry because they don't like your face, or Sesame Street is over, but she was actually very affected by the portraits and had to leave the room they were in.

Apparently my Mom was not the only person who had a problem with this work, because there was a huge outcry against Greenberg's use of children in these photos. People basically accused her of child abuse, saying that it was unethical to knowingly make children cry for the purposes of photography. The blog post that sounded the trumpet on this wave of protest was call "Jill Greenberg Is A Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse."

Let's take a look at these images together, shall we?

Now, I will be the first to admit that these kids look super duper miserable. There is something very visceral about a crying child, and these pictures definitely hit that human nerve. Greenberg has explained that her method of eliciting tears was to give the kids a lollipop and then take it away for 30 seconds, a time-honored tradition employed by Hollywood and television crews for ages. In fact, when she had gotten the shot, she would give the lollipop back. The parents of the children were always present during shooting. That's better than Richard Avedon's reported technique of telling his young subjects that their dog had just died, then shooting away.

Personally, I don't think Greenberg hurt these children. I think she created a momentarily frustrating situation, then captured it in a way that highlighted the emotional response of her subjects. I think that the public's vocal outcry and condemnation speaks to the power of her concept. Even my Mom, who has raised two kids and knows that they burst into tears when the wind blows, felt the pain that these portraits communicate, and in my mind, that speaks to their success.

People will have their own feelings about whether or not this is OK, but I think the whole episode says a lot about our sometimes conflicting attitudes toward children, and our mistrust of artist's intentions and methods.

The Manipulator - Jill Greenberg's Website


Irene said...

Hey, great post! I always hate for people to see me cry, yet it always happens, sooner or later. I doubt I look this good, though! This woman did it beautifully with these kids; I'd let her take my photo mid-cry any day. Now, if I can just muster one up...

Sandra Suzanne said...

I don't have a problem with the babies crying, kids need to learn that sometimes lollipops get taken away.

Also, Paul Rudd. It's like he's getting hotter and hotter.

Scott Hutchinson said...

She should have kept the camera on Villaraigosa after the art director slapped the headline down.