Jill Greenberg on Capturing the Horse as Supermodel
One might say there are two Jill Greenbergs. First, there is Jill Greenberg the commercial photographer: She’s done work for corporations like Disney and Coke; her editorial photos have appeared on the covers of Time, Fortune, New York, and others. But it’s Jill Greenberg the artist who gets people talking. From sinister shots of John McCain under the text “WARMONGER” to closeup portraits of children crying (after being offered candy and then having it snatched away), her images have been called “repulsive,” “grotesque,” and have elicited death threats. Her latest project, a book called Horse, is more, shall we say, tame.
You were harshly criticized for the McCain photos you took during the last election, under a strobe light, which made him look almost devil-like. It was an Atlantic assignment, but you doctored the outtakes as an art piece. Was it hard to find editorial work after that?
That incident’s backlash really surprised me, considering I delivered their cover image exactly to their specifications. I don’t really know, but I think the Atlantic was afraid that McCain might be elected and needed to cover themselves. Photographers own all their images when shooting for magazines. The contract actually said you will use all means within your reach to publicize the images and shoot, including your own website, which is where I posted my agit-prop political cartoons. The incident got them an unbelievable amount of traffic, right before they relaunched the magazine with a redesign.
But could you understand the journalistic shock?
What I did was an outside-the-box thing to do. But political cartoons are everywhere. It didn’t occur to me that I was not allowed to have a voice … I thought of the McCain thing as the artist Jill Greenberg appropriating the photographer Jill Greenberg’s work. Obviously some others did not agree.
Your latest project focuses on glossy portraits of horses. Why?
My obsession with horses began at the early age of six. I drew them, painted them, sculpted them, collected plastic models of them, read stories about them, and rode them. When I saw the same happening with my young daughter, I decided it was time to return to my primary muse. What is it that makes young girls project so much onto these gorgeous animals?
You’ve said you tried to capture the horses like supermodels. What exactly does that mean?
The horses were cast for their physiques, muscle tone, figures, and long flowing manes. The photographs focus on the animal’s body; on cut, striated muscles under shiny, cropped hair; on crimped manes and windswept forelocks; on the strong shoulders and hindquarters.
The images are incredibly detailed. How did the shooting process compare to other animals you’ve photographed?
It was a nightmare. Horses are much more dangerous than trained bears and young apes. Most of the horses were not trained to be photographed at all, unlike almost every single animal I had photographed previously. We all got covered in dirt and dust … the cameras and computers got quite dirty. The lights had to be fenced off to protect them from horses if they decided to bolt.
You’ve got another project at the moment — a gallery show called Legitimate Rape. That’s quite a title.
My husband actually thought up the name. I am one of six artists who are showing at the Katherine Cone Gallery in LA. I’m exhibiting a video piece I shot in April with the phantom camera, so it records very slow motion. I hired seven older white men and dressed them in suits. I wanted them to look like rich assholes and directed them to laugh directly into the camera with contempt and mockery. The work was projected onto a steakhouse during the RNC.
Does it ever bother you to be at the center of such controversy?
It’s quite stressful, yes, and it’s unpleasant to receive death threats, comments about your children, comparisons to Hitler and Michael Jackson.
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