Jill Greenberg vs. John McCain (vs. The Atlantic)


General Photography, Politics

The story: Photographer Jill Greenberg is hired by the magazine The Atlantic to take a portrait of Republican presidential candidate John McCain for the magazine’s October issue. “After getting that shot, Greenberg asked McCain to ‘please come over here’ for one more set-up before the 15-minute shoot was over. There, she had a beauty dish with a modeling light set up. ‘That’s what he thought he was being lit by,’ Greenberg says. ‘But that wasn’t firing.’ What was firing was a strobe positioned below him, which cast the horror movie shadows across his face and on the wall right behind him. ‘He had no idea he was being lit from below,’ Greenberg says. And his handlers didn’t seem to notice it either. ‘I guess they’re not very sophisticated,’ she adds.” (source; let’s keep the “not very sophisticated” in mind!).

Needless to say, the results of that photo shoot are less than flattering for McCain (see the raw shot here). Greenberg then used her Photoshop skills to create imagery like this one, while “hoping to license that image to some other magazine” (ibid.).

It seems like there are quite a few issues here, and I don’t think I’ll manage to wrap my head around all of them. There’s an excellent discussion of some of the issues over at Mark Tucker’s blog, in the form of fourteen questions, plus links to various websites discussing Greenberg’s art work (note I’m extremely generous with the meaning of the term “art work” here).

When I first heard about this, my immediate reaction was to laugh about Greenberg’s comment that McCain’s “handlers” were “not very sophisticated”. Hearing someone who thinks it’s a valid political statement to create a Photoshop image with a monkey taking a dump on McCain’s head (no, I’m not making this up, see it here) describe other people as “not very sophisticated” is rich. But then, that’s the same photographer who thought that selling images of crying children in an art gallery was a meaningful statement about the re-election of Bush in 2004.

My second reaction was to simply be appalled, and most of what I thought has been neatly summed up by Jeffrey Goldberg (who wrote the article in the magazine in question): “Suffice it to say that her ‘art’ is juvenile, and on occasion repulsive. This is not the issue, of course; the issue is that she betrayed this magazine, and disgraced her profession.” Goldberg also quotes Atlantic editor James Bennet as saying “‘We feel totally blind-sided,’ he said. ‘Her behavior is outrageous. Incredibly unprofessional.’”

Needless to say, I think that every person (every photographer, every blogger, …) is entitled to her or his political opinion. But there’s quite a huge difference between asking John McCain for a portrait session, telling him the photos are going to be defaced, and taking those photographs under the cover of a photo session for a well respected magazine, not telling McCain some of the photos are going to be defaced. The former, of course, did not happen, whereas the latter did. Regardless of what you think about McCain and his campaign, Greenberg’s actions are simply incredibly disgraceful and unacceptable. And, yes, you can find them disgraceful and unacceptable even if you do not agree with a single thing McCain has said recently.

Frankly, I’m still baffled how Jill Greenberg could even think that her actions were in any sense a meaningful political statement that would be taken seriously. It’s mind-blowing. It degrades political discourse to levels that even the worst cases of political mud throwing thankfully only rarely reach (a recent example is provided by McCain’s ad about how his Democratic opponent Barack Obama supposedly wanted kindergarten kids to know about sex - whereas in fact the bill Obama supported was designed to protect those children from sexual predators).

Update (15 Sep 2008): The reaction from the Greenberg camp, via Robert Green, “Greenberg’s husband/spokesperson”, sadly enough is not surprising: “‘She delivered them the photo that they asked her to deliver. What she does with the rest of the photos is her business,’ he [Green] said. Still Greenberg is a tad apologetic. ‘She feels bad that the Atlantic has been dragged into this. Her beef is not with them. She’s an artist who is expressing herself through the medium she expresses herself through.’” (source) Looks like there’s a lot of expressing going on there (she’s certainly wearing more than 37 pieces of flair).

But seriously, it makes you wonder how Greenberg could possibly have thought the magazine would not get dragged into this, given she used a photo shoot for the magazine to take the photos, never telling McCain that these extra photos were not for the magazine. But the real nugget is still to come: “‘The reaction from the right is no surprise. ‘We’ve been through it before with the End Times piece,’ Green said, referencing a series of anti-Bush photos Greenberg did in 2004 that feature crying children. ‘There’s a strong predilection on the right to equate dissent with evil.’” Well, there’s a strong predilection over here at Conscientious (where we are quite far from the right) to equate both the “End Times” pieces and the latest “art work” with tasteless junk.

Update 2 (15 Sep 2008): I don’t really feel like debating this episode for days, but there’s one point that I’d like to make. Several people brought up Arnold Newman’s portrait of Alfried Krupp, implying that, as a matter of fact, what Greenberg has done isn’t all that bad.

Just a few thoughts. First, comparing Arnold Newman with a photographer who made a career out of taking heavily Photoshopped portraits of monkeys… I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right.

Second, Alfried Krupp was a convicted war criminal. In contrast, John McCain is his party’s candidate for the presidency. He’s not a war criminal. And whatever you might think of his positions (his support for the Iraq War, for example), that sets him very much apart from Alfried Krupp.

Third, even if we were to agree that both Newman and Greenberg loathed their subjects, I just cannot imagine Newman - had he had access to Photoshop back in the day - putting a photo of a monkey taking a dump on top of Krupp. It’s just a hunch, of course, in part backed up by my knowledge of his work.

Oh, and I refuse to ignore the worst of Greenberg’s photos - maybe arguing that the lighting from below isn’t all that bad - when, in fact her “work” simply has to be judged on the basis of every piece she did. Of course, maybe in the Arnold Newman archives there’s a contact print where Newman drew horns on Krupp. Maybe. I doubt it, though.

And for all of those Obama supporters who really want to see something more “fun” or a bit more “nasty”, maybe it’s time for you to go back to Obama’s speech in Denver and to re-read it. Remember the phrase “I think America is better than that”?

Update (16 Sep 2008): Some noteworthy new posts (there’s a lot of white noise out there right now…): Rob Haggart wins the award for the best headline with Jill Greenberg Is Not Afraid To Dump All Her Clients At Once (I don’t think all her clients will desert her, though. Magazines will, but musicians will flock to her, given that she is now “controversial”, and musicians love nothing more than a real “controversy” to further their otherwise mediocre output). And Mark Tucker adds another great post entitled What I’ve Learned from this Greenberg/McCain fiasco.

Update 2 (16 Sep 2008): Jill Greenberg Dropped by Photo Agency