Interview with photographer Jill Greenberg

One of Jill Greenberg's monkey portraits on the cover or The New Republic

Ahead of her appearance at Semi-Permanent creative conference in Sydney this Saturday, i spoke to photographer Jill Greenberg over the phone for an article in The Brag.

It had to be edited down for print, so here’s the full transcript.

Jill Greenberg is a photographer from Los Angeles who straddles the fields of commercial, editorial and art photography. Practicing for 20 years she’s become known for her striking portraits of people and animals – from the Hollywood A-list, to a controversial series on crying children, to two books of portraits of monkeys and bears.

Her work is highly staged, perfectly lit, and unashamedly retouched to perfection.

Photographers are often told that they need to develop a personal style to set them apart. What would you say sets you apart?

I’m very interested in graphic design and a lot of different art mediums. It all combines in it’s own unique way. I’ve been working as a photographer for 20 years but i’ve been making pictures my whole life. Over time i’ve developed my own unique way of looking at things.

I like things that are funny and make you feel something. It all reflects some of my personality.

Often when i photograph people i like to have them make the same expression as me. I’ll say ‘Look at me like a cocky asshole’, just because it’s a funny expression to make.

From Jill Greenberg's series on bears, Ursine.

You work with a lot of animals, and you can’t really give them direction, but you seem to get great emotion from them. How do you do that?

It’s a lot of sitting and waiting. Waiting for them to make a face. Taking tons of shots, whether it’s film or digital, and picking one that looks like they’re saying something funny. There’s not really a way to get them to do anything that you want, it’s just luck.

From a new underwater series.

You’ve done two books, one on bears and another on monkeys – what next?

I may be doing a book on other animals but it’s early on. I have a million things i’m trying to do at the same time, which isn’t realistic.

I just finished building a house that took 4 years so that was eating up a lot of my creative energy. I have all these ideas that i want to do. One of them is a series of underwater swimmers. I’ve ended up with some shots i really like, and just this week i met up with someone in Los Angeles who does synchronised swimming and has a group of synchronised swimmers and we talked of organising a shoot for that.

And just yesterday i finally did a shoot that sort of follows up my crying children pictures, which is something i’ve wanted to do for about four years.

I wasn’t sure of a way to do it that wasn’t exploitative, but i finally figured out a way to do it. And i tested that out last night.

I’ll get the film back from that on Monday.

A crying child from Jill Greenberg's 'End Times' series

A crying child from Jill Greenberg's 'End Times' series

How is it different from the first series of crying children?

It’s similar format, it’s young children, the cropping is similar, the lighting is similar, but they’re covered in food – food that’s all made out of corn and chemicals. I want the series to be called ‘Corn Fed’.

Originally i thought i had to use fat children, but i couldn’t reconcile hiring fat children because that could be bad for them when they’re older and that’s just mean, but i realised i don’t need to photograph fat children.

So i shot my son and some friends kids with ketchup and sugar cereal. The thing in America is that there’s all these corn subsidies so everything’s made out of corn, which means everything’s made with high fructose corn syrup.

The pictures look sort of disgusting, in an interesting way. I’ll probably have something to show in a couple of weeks.

So you shot this project on film? I presumed it would all be digital these days. What result do get from film that you don’t from digital?

I still feel like film is better. I use digital for all my jobs. Yesterday i was doing a shoot for a magazine and they didn’t have much money. I could’ve just used my Canon 5D, but i’m so used to using my really high end digital back that i feel like i’d be missing out on something if i only used the Canon for the job. In case i ended up with some amazing picture i might regret it later that i’d only shot it on the Canon. So i actually shot Canon and medium format film for the job.

And seeing as we had all these lights already rented for the job i wanted to get some shots for myself [the 'Corn Fed' photos].

All the crying children and animals are all shot on film. I’ve gotten commissions for say, the Virigin Megastore in Paris and they want a child photographed in the same way as the crying children. And i shot it digitally but i feel like it’s somehow missing something.

Because i retouch my own images i feel like there’s more information to retouch in film, even compared to a digital that’s 180 megabytes. But when i scan my own work i’ll scan it at about 350 megabytes.

I just like film better.

So you do the retouching yourself? Do you get help?

I do have help, but i could do the picture from start to finish by myself if i wanted to but if it’s for a job and it’s compositing 6 people into a picture, that’s not really that fun. So i’ll have someone that helps me do that kind of stuff. I could do it if i wanted, but i already spend too much time in front of the computer.

I enjoy the retouching and playing with new techniques i make up myself.

Do you have a regular team that help you?

I have a full time digital assistant and archivist and a full time studio manager, and then regular photo assistants.

You cross art photography, commercial and editorial – is there one you enjoy most?

I enjoy most of the things i do. In an ideal world, in a fantasy world i would love to just be an artist. That said, it’s fun to shoot stuff for billboards or movie posters.

It’s fun to see your work on a magazine cover and meet all the different people you meet on an editorial job.

It’s hard because budgets keep getting squished and people want all this stuff but they don’t have any money to do it. It just gets hard to try and make things happen when there’s not enough money.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, photographed by Jill Greenberg for GQ

You shoot a lot of celebrity portraits, with their tightly controlled images, is it hard to get them to do something interesting?

It is hard, more and more publicists are the new art director, so between the publicist and the budget you end up shooting in the studio on seamless. Which is nice, i like doing simple graphic portraits of people which are pared down, but it’s also fun to do something with an elaborate set with a concept and people getting messy with a weird prop or animal – anything.

Is there anyone recently who you’ve photographed that’s particularly impressed or surprised you?

I recently shot James Cameron, he was really nice. Sometimes i’ll remember to bring my big photo portfolio to a shoot in Los Angeles. If i actually bring it it’s nice to show people my work and he really liked it and was asking about it. It’s nice to get someone at a super crazy high level actually interested in your work.

There was some controversy after you published some portraits of John McCain which cast him in a negative light. Did that have any long term effect on your career?

That was just crazy, it was just one person who put that on their blog. I don’t think it’s damaged my career.

Maybe there’s certain people that don’t want to hire me, but then there’s people that do.

That person said i was never going to work again.

I think it’s interesting how someone who has a photo website, and the guy who has that website is a friend of a friend…

Which website?

A Photo Editor. He’s the one who said i was never going to work again. And there was PDN online who was just talking nonsense. But he [A Photo Editor] was the one who specifically said i’d given up all my clients or whatever.

So i asked him, what was the point of all that? And he said ‘well i was camping with my kids over the weekend and i came back and all these people had been commenting so i just felt like i had to weigh in’.

And i was like, great, awesome for you that you needed some random editorial comment that didn’t sound that well thought out so you could weigh in. You realise i have two children to support? You’re just being an asshole.

Maybe people should think before announcing that i’m retiring or whatever. It was just totally irresponsible.

Glenn Beck crying

How did it feel shooting Fox TV’s pundit Glenn Beck crying? It must have felt good to reference your old work (crying children) and still get employed to shoot a Republican.

It was really great. When i got assigned to shoot him for GQ i was like, ‘Really?! He’s going to allow me to shoot him?’.

I kept waiting for them to call me and tell me he’d cancelled, but they never did.

Was it agreed beforehand that he’d cry for you?

We were going to do the two faces of comedy and drama – laughing maniacally and then crying.

The magazine had some different ideas, but i said wouldn’t it be awesome to shoot him crying, because he’s actually famous for crying on his show.

So we did it and Time Magazine picked it up for their cover which was pretty awesome.

And people figured out that he’d been talking nasty about me in the past. It was good though.

I get the impression that you’re quite politically minded. Not related to photography, but what’s the mood in America right now? Americans seem to have become quite disillusioned by Obama. What’s your take?

Yeah – people are disillusioned. I definitely wanted Obama to win the election over McCain, but i didn’t think that he was going to be our saviour. That he was going to bring a new regime of happiness. That said i’m pretty disappointed in him. I’m just frustrated with the way America and the world is just so corrupt. The news doesn’t actually talk about the news, it’s all paid lobbyists talking about the news.

My husband gets The Nation magazine which riles me up. My husband’s more political than i am.

It’s just really sad, i don’t know what to do about it.

Is there a nice antidote in shooting the animals? Them being completely oblivious to the worries of the world and still innocent.

They are, but a lot of them, tigers, polar bears… they’re still threatened by what’s going on.

I love shooting animals but i just like shooting pictures that have emotion and feeling, a personal connection.

I don’t think of the animals as much different to people. They’re just much harder to communicate with!

Jill Greenberg speaks at Semi-Permanent this Saturday at 3pm.

See a lot more of her work on her work on her website Manipulator.

All photos in this post copyright Jill Greenberg.

One thought

  1. Oh wow… I remember that ‘controversy’. I don’t read A Photo Editor much anymore, not because of that post but because it’s just slipped out of my relevance. In hindsight, it really seems like a storm in a tea cup.

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