What happens when one of the world’s foremost portrait photographers decides to turn to photograph still life paintings instead of people? There are no two ways about it - Jill Greenberg is fascinating. Her new work is beautiful, but there is also a clear artistic statement behind it. In this exclusive, we get to understand her direction and motivations behind "Paintings", her latest body of work.
Know Your History
Greenberg has paid her dues. She has spent decades as a successful portrait and commercial photographer, and pioneered the use of Photoshop and digital manipulation when Photoshop first launched.
But she’s had enough.
Frustrated with the appropriation of her work and technique, her new body of work is not just a beautifully abstract, visual collection of still life images, but has clear meaning behind it, aimed at those who think copying, or using the photographic work others have produced, is ok.
Most photographers will produce something that links their previous body of work with their new one. A small breed are able to go off into a totally different direction, yet still capture the essence of their visual aesthetic and vision in what they are doing, even if the genre changes completely. Irving Penn's still life, fashion and portraiture, spring to mind. There aren't many who can do it, but it is interesting when photographers decide to jump off in a (seemingly) unrelated direction and how it connects their previous bodies of work together.
A smaller number still will wrap that new work around a statement, commentary or belief of what is important to them. Greenberg managed to do all of this (at least in my opinion) in her new work, “Paintings”.
A Clear Message
As a photographer, Greenberg is a name many associate from her fascinating (and often controversial) series “End Times” of babies crying, meshed with her distinct light and post production style.
If you look around online, you’ll see and read of her work has been used without a license agreement, and her techniques copied. ‘Paintings’ is a rebellion against this and sends a clear message – you can’t copy what I own, what I create or the way in which I do it.
In the ‘current era’ of free, shared and readily available learning, behind the scenes videos detailing how photo shoots are deconstructed, and creatives willing to share whatever they can, this is an interesting and topical statement.
“People don’t feel like photographs are worth anything”
Greenberg has even gone to what some might consider extreme by patenting the process behind her new work as a way to avoid unlicensed appropriation of the work or process behind it. But she is adamant she is trying to get people to take photography (at least as an art form) more seriously – and her ownership over her work in particular.
I have always come to image making with more or less the same goals - I like making striking images, they are not always about the subject, but more my interpretation of the subject and the surface
To emphasize both the importance of her technique, and the importance of photography as an artistic medium, once she has taken her photographs of her painting, the painting itself is destroyed and all that is left is the photographic print of the painting.
All of this is quite a position to take, but one that is very interesting, given how many people (and businesses) seem to think taking photographs produced by others and using them as they like is ok.
While her work may have a ‘painterly’ quality to it, 'Paintings' definitely represents a line-in-the-sand approach, her way of addressing issues she is not happy about.
its interesting in that my large format prints have always been mistaken for paintings since I do layers of Photoshop painting to enhance highlights and shadows-- I wanted to continue that discussion, and comment on other ideas I had about photography's lack of respect in the art world and commercial world
There has always been a long standing relationship between photography and painting but photography is seen as almost disposable by comparison, and it’s no wonder – photography equipment, and digital manipulation, once the domain of ‘experts’ are now open to anyone of us, with a consumer body, a few lenses and a subscription to Adobe CC.
The Creative Process
But why the change in direction from portraits to still life? From lots of creative retouching and complex lighting set ups to much more simple arrangements, getting it 'done' mainly in-camera?
Ultimately photography became too limiting with regards to showing my hand, my mark-making and really just working with color and emotion
Greenberg appears to be coming full circle, back to her early roots of wanting to inject some form of ‘artistic brush stroke’ into her work. The new work and process was discovered almost purely by chance, when Greenberg found herself back in New York City from LA, where she had been living for more than a decade.
Almost by accident, the lighting style for her new work was created, much as a result of the change in environment as she discovered the lighting from her sky lights:
The skylights created striated reflections in the paint which I discovered quite accidentally. I had been working with photographing wet paint alone and on my prints since 2011 in LA and had not "cracked" that problem. I began to see the reflections in the convex blobs of the buildings out the window and then moved to a spot just below the skylights in my loft and when I covered a print completely in black paint I was just amazed with the results. the reflections appeared like fractals, and so I began to experiment more and more with pigments and surfaces and techniques to get the best results.
It began with experimentation and continues to be very experimental due to the fact that I shoot as I go
Greenberg has always combined in-camera and pioneering post production work, so much so that people often mistake her ‘Animals’ body of work as paintings.
Applying and combining a variety of paints on a 18x24” glass support, she used both natural (the skylights mentioned) and artificial light. I experimented with stencils on my soft boxes with words like "copy", "found", "f**k you"," Greenberg", "dick prince", but ultimately "hah" won out.
Related note - for those interested, 'Dick Prince' mentioned above, refers to Richard Prince, who has a long history of appropriating the works of photographers for his artistic endeavours, taking photos of their photos to create his own artistic 'base'. His final work fetches very tidy sums at auction.
Lights, Camera (And A Little Photoshop) Action
Greenberg shoots with an 80 megapixel Phase One digital back, allowing her to capture the highest possible detail in her ‘Paintings’ photographs”. She then Capture One software to enhance the hue and contrast and final files can be huge and are printed as huge murals for walls.
She explained more of the process and her motivation to move her current lighting set up, vastly pared back over what she would tend to do for her portraiture or commercial work:
I capture 200- 400 images a sitting but only a handful are good, what's amazing is that I have the freedom to continue to play once I know I have something good, "in the bag" and push to try to make it better, or different since I am shooting as I go - unlike a traditional painting where one might be petrified to make an additional mark when the painting is already great.
Many will doubtless be familiar with Greenberg who has been working in these areas since Photoshop launched. Her background explains the reasoning behind some of her relationship with retouching and digital art:
There are many kinds of photography, I come from a pictorial tradition over a documentary. so in that way it is related. When I was a child I used to draw all the time, more regularly than shoot. in retouching my own work I had the opportunity to draw and color grade but I ultimately wanted to show my hand made marks - I really missed that part. I tried to show some of my marks but in Photoshop it ends up looking like a mistake. I really wanted to bring back mark-making into my practice as well as the tactility of pigment and medium - I feel that its a new medium! the synthesis of physically manipulated pigment and reflected light recorded with the highest resolution digital back.
While not using anywhere near as much Photoshop or retouching post production as she would normally on her work, she does talk about the importance of her more scaled back approach to both lighting and software:
I have learned Capture [One] software and do the shoot alone with my Profoto strobes and have become much more independent with my gear. Still life shooting is so much simpler than hiring a horse and setting up at horse stables with generators.
She clearly has a particular view though on the use of Photoshop and the importance of getting it right in camera:
It's always crucial to get as much in camera as possible. I kind of hate photoshopped composites now.
Whatever you might think of Greenberg's latest work, the message behind it is clear. For so many of us, having out work used either without rights given, or for free, or techniques copied, is the double edged sword to being able to become known for something, and being able to turn that recognition into a cachet, vision, brand or indeed, an income.
In my view, her work is not only beautiful in it's abstract way, but the message she is injecting in is also compelling - whether that's the use of stencils on softbox panels to project letters into her work, or destroying the very painting itself, only leaving digital files and prints of the original work.
Whichever way you cut it, this is a refreshing stand point to take in an era where we see more and more copying, appropriation of technique and idea and less experimentation. If we steal or appropriate anything from her new work, it should be to make sure our work stands for something unique to us, and make that message as crystal clear as we can. After all, it's what sets us apart, and what sets you apart will only help to continue to propel you forward.
Jill Greenberg’s new solo is on display at Clamp Art in New York City through to March 28th 2015
Special Thanks: Jill Greenberg