Another interview having run way too long, I’ve rushed back to the car, recording Jill Greenberg using two iPhones facing each other, baking because I don’t want to lower the windows and let too much ambient noise in, afraid to drive anywhere and lose the already sketchy signal. But the shvitzing keeps my mind off the fact I’m talking to one of the best photographers I’ve ever interviewed, listening as she answers both deeply and openly. A great time with a great lady, but I definitely owe our transcriber a beer…or twelve.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
In which body of work?
The concepts are sort of things that I think about all the time, or things, for the Glass Ceiling series, I was doing a lot of sort of feminist art in school, and that was a long time ago, I just sort of started thinking about how there’s a very clear gender bias in the photo world. And so I sort of, you know, it was more like, I was doing a shoot, and one of the shots looked to me like, “wow, this should really be called ‘the glass ceiling.’ I think I’m going to do a series called Glass Ceiling!” So it just sort of…happened, in a certain way.
The painting, the more recent painting stuff was more premeditated. I had been working on it for a really long time, to figure out a way to incorporate paint into my photography. Because a lot of my Photoshopping, I mean, you can digitally paint things on the picture, but I was thinking of trying to incorporate actual physical paint. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t crack it. So I finally figured a way that looked good, a year ago.
Hmm. Umm, that’s a really hard question.
Haha. I think both. I really like…maybe the process? I don’t know. I like…it’s good to be making work, you know? I technically don’t need to keep making new images of a lot of the paintings, I have a lot of images that I can go back and look through the sessions, and, you know, tweak things that I didn’t catch, and make prints and things like that, but instead of doing that, I just want to keep making the paintings. So I guess that means I like the process more. But I mean, the process includes, you know, the editing, you have some things the process didn’t capture.
It’s all part of it, but it is fun to sort of get my hands dirty again.
I’m still very in the middle of doing that painting series, And honestly, I sort of feel like, it’s what I’m meant to be doing for a while.
Continuing to evolve, continuing to add things to it. Like I started adding colored light, or…I don’t know. Making it more technically nightmarish for myself.
I don’t know, if there are ways that I could maybe do it where I could shoot separate sections and attach it together, so I can make bigger prints. I already have an 80 megapixel back, but maybe I could, you know, shoot 4 separate exposures over 80 megapixels and splice them together and then have some ridiculously huge art piece. I don’t know, that’s just an example of what I could do.
I like the experimentation, I don’t know if I find joy in that…I mean, I do tend to make my life somewhat difficult, I don’t know why. You know, animals, babies, underwater scuba diving pictures, things like that. So it’s been nice that I can just, you know, hang out in my sweatpants and play and paint, and not even have an assistant and do it all by myself.
So that’s sort of fun. I just listen to music, fool around with paint and light, and you know, but I mean, I don’t know. I do think that it’s fun.
Sometimes it’s just really, yeah, it’s physically hard. It’s hard to see what I’m actually doing, like if I’m actually scuba diving and sitting at the bottom of a pool, you know, you sort of can see what you’re doing, but…it’s sort of, sort of hard, underwater photography.
Yeah, and all the animals and children were all shot on film, which, you know, I sort of knew what I was getting. It’s weird to think about it being pre-digital, and people would be like “how do you know that you got it?” We all knew how to take pictures before digital came around!
I still like doing it, feeling like I’ve accomplished something and made something. And when I was younger, I used to draw all the time, so I like the sort of feeling of accomplishment of just having a sketchbook and making a couple new drawings that I was sort of proud of for myself each day. I just felt like I had accomplished something.
And made something new and sort of for myself that I was happy with. A way of marking the time.
Umm, I don’t think that, so much, and now that I’m sort of doing this specific work with paint, I sort of started thinking “why do people keep meaning to take the same photo all the time?” I like to try the impossible or unrealistic aspects of an idea, I like to challenge myself. So no, I’m not jaded, or, what’s the word…I haven’t given up.
There are things that get me, you know, there are things that make me want to sometimes give up or whatever, but it’s not in terms of inspiration.
More in terms of other things, like, business stuff.
Well, I started in 1990? There were, like, five photographers.
I know I’m exaggerating, of course, I mean, obviously.
Right! But I’m saying it’s sort of crazy bananas. And I think I found out because I’m doing like a mentor thing for SVA, and I’d never really done any teaching before, so, it’s sort of interesting. I think she said there’s one hundred and fifty graduating photography students in her class, and that’s just one school. Of course, photography is fun! Everybody wants to be a photographer. Yeah, so, it’s hard. You can’t really ever rest on your laurels. And then what’s funny is, sometimes I hear about people who work for other photographers who are like, really, sort of at the top of the field. And those people are like crazy maniacs, when you hear about it. I mean, you’d think that maybe I’m…I work too hard or whatever, but those people are like, crazy. Crazier than me, about their work! They refuse to have a down day. I actually turned down this one job, it was a Sunday and didn’t pay any money, it was cool but whatever. I don’t know. I just actually turned down a free editorial job, god forbid. And I just found out that, whatever. I’m not going to name names, but I found out this huge photographer did it instead of me, and I’m like “what? That’s crazy! Why would that person…why does he care that much?” I mean, the subject was cool, but it wasn’t like…
It was just like…weird. The business is bananas.
Umm, I like it, but it’s the same kind of thing about…you know, I mean, RISD came to visit me, I went to RISD, so I’m sort of on their radar, I have a little bit of a relationship with them, and the students came down, and I was like, “you guys all want to be photographers? You should find a different job.” Hahahahhahaha.
Because, you know, I’ve made somewhat of a name for myself, you know, I’ve been doing it for a while, and it’s still a fucking nightmare.
I wouldn’t really…you have to give up…you can never be in charge of your schedule, ever. You know, I have kids and a husband, it’s hard to have a life. The kids have spring break this week, and I’m not even sure if I’m going with them on our family vacation. I think I’m probably meeting them there, but it’s just like…hard, you know? Because the kids are getting older, they’re 9 and 11, and just thinking about all of the…how much I’ve worked during vacation, all that kind of stuff, you know?
I mean, it’s fine, you know, it’s all been total fun. But it’s something you have to…you sort of have to give that up.
I mean, I try. I try. Yeah…I’ve never officially turned down a job, but one time, there was like…last June there was a job that basically was a triple bid on an ad job, you know, and I didn’t want to be that flexible with my fee. I had a vacation planned with just me and my husband because my parents had the kids. So I was like, “this could be a perfect little vacation with my husband.” How often do my parents have my kids for a week? So, I was like, “no, I’m not going to lower my fee, because I truly want to go on this vacation.” If they pay me enough, then it’s worth it. If they don’t, I’m not going to put off my vacation. I don’t know if I would have gotten the job, I have no idea, but it was just sort of like…I don’t know, you know what I mean?
Because otherwise, you know, I’m 47, I still…like every photographer, I don’t ever want to miss out on anything. But, there has to be a little bit of a balance. And also, I would love to…right now I’m still, sort of the breadwinner of my family…I keep sort of saying to my husband, “when can I retire?” And he’s like, “you’re never going to want to retire!” The thing is, I like doing what I do, and I like doing popular culture stuff. I like meeting all the cool people from magazines. I like making pictures. What I don’t like is the getting tortured by clients, because that happens every so often. I like working with for nice clients, which is generally the case. So, you know, I like working.
I think that more and more our culture has become incredibly fear-based. And I’m not exactly sure why now, more than ever, it’s like that. I guess it’s always been like that. But I think because the market has taken serious dumps in the past 10–15 years, the people have become more gun-shy, more…more afraid to do anything, I don’t know…people have become more conservative. I think it’s a shame, I think it’s sort of pathetic, ahahahhaa.
I think that people have things to say, and it’s sort of sad that they’re too scared to say them. It’s interesting to sort of walk that line of trying to sort of have these corporate relationships. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot and have them be like, “well she’s too outspoken, so we can’t use her to endorse our products” because I’m trying to, you know, push that situation, I’m still working with that agency. I don’t know, I’ve always sort of been interested in shock-value art. I always…it’s just been like that forever.
Hahahhaha, I just have. Freshman year at RISD, I don’t even know how this happened, I actually had a mini-solo show half way through freshman year, because the photo teacher who, he’s not there anymore because he actually died, but he thought I was talented. He let me have a little solo show, just in the photo building. I was photographing erect male penises, tied to chicken bones, and I called it “Boner” and it was a really funny picture. I think I’ve actually Instagramed that picture…it’s out there, it’s a cyanotype of an erect penis tied to a chicken bone. I have other little random stuff, I just think it’s funny that I push people. I sort of do this to myself, really.
There was totally a thrill. I mean, honestly, if I wasn’t married to my husband, I wouldn’t have…my husband is super political, super left-y, he’s on the board of The Nation, and he’s always promoting left-wing nonsense, my husband. So, I wasn’t…admittedly, I am not the most politically really nitty-gritty involved in world politics and things like that. I’m definitely into feminism and stuff, but not so much politics. So when I got the call to photograph McCain, my husband said, “we researched and found out that Jeffery Goldberg was writing the article,” and he said, “Ohmigod, Jeffery Goldberg is a horrible person,…he started the war in Iraq by talking about WMDs…” just gave me all this information, so I was like, “okay fine, I’m going to fuck with McCain then.” I was doing that shoot for free. I wouldn’t have done it if it had been like, a Conde Nast publication. And nobody, nobody knew about The Atlantic at that point. But yeah, I don’t know, I mean, in hindsight, I don’t know if I needed to do that for my career. Hahahhahaaha. Which is sad, because people just flipped out. And it was also, I think, that was…2008?
That was actually part of the, a little bit part of the inspiration for “Glass Ceiling”, because I really felt like, “gee, if a guy did that, I can’t imagine the response.” Maybe it would have been the same thing, what do I know, but…
I mean, Terry Richardson is still out there. And he’s still shooting covers of Rolling Stone.
So I don’t see why I had to be treated the way I was treated, being called bitch, cunt, whore, whatever the hell I was called, death threats. I mean, Republicans are a…we’re a very partisan society, and people get crazy. And it was in the middle of the fucking election. So, yeah.
You know, I didn’t really think it through. But at least I’m Canadian and I can run off to Canada.
It would have been disruptive, to move the whole family up to Canada…I mean, I just feel like the fact that people still bring it up – not interviewers, so much, but I feel like there might be magazines that won’t hire me. And I’m just like “okay, I don’t understand how Terry Richardson acts how he does, and still get hired.”
Because that is actually hurting people, whereas what I did was just psychological damage.
I made fun of someone, when that’s full of…there are political cartoons all over.
Exactly. And I had been assigned to make people look bad before. I’ve been assigned to make someone look like a murderer, by a Conde Nast publication.
Just three months previous.
Yeah! So, I don’t know.
That’s kind of what I was talking about at the beginning of the conversation, I had been trying to incorporate painting, physical painting, back into my work for a while, and I just couldn’t…I couldn’t crack it. I tried to put paint on my prints, it was just hard, doing Photoshop for twenty-five years, being spoiled, you don’t want to commit to putting paint on anything because you can’t fix it. So it was sort of the perfect…photographing the paint was sort of this perfect synthesis of mediums. I’m not Photoshopping it later, but, not to say that in the future I might not? Maybe I could take pictures of little brush strokes of paint and then composite the entire thing in Photoshop. I don’t know, I haven’t, that’s not what I’m doing, but maybe I’ll do that, I don’t know.
Right now, the only reason I’m sort of pulling attention to the fact that none of it’s done in Photoshop is, for some reason, people think that all that what I do is in Photoshop, which is not true. I don’t know if it’s because I called myself “The Manipulator” in the nineties? I have no idea. But a lot of what I do is in-camera. Most of what I do is in-camera. I’m super-picky about my lighting. So yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s been sort of misinterpretation or something about some of the work that I do, but basically the work looked a lot like that on the contact sheet. I mean I sort of, enhance things.
Yeah, that’s what I come from, exactly.
Yeah, I’ve never done an abstract body of work really.
Umm. I mean, I guess I had time I was experimenting, so I was experimenting by myself. And just doing the paint, I didn’t need anybody to help me, and because I was just, that’s what’s cool about drawing and painting is that you don’t need to have the subject there. When I…in the past when I draw and paint, I would do it from my head. So I don’t really need, I don’t need anybody else there. It was just a lot of experimentation that ended up coming together in this weird little way, I was just playing with paint under the skylights of my loft, that had these sort of beams across them so that the paint gets these crazy stripes on them from the daylight. It’s pretty cool, it starts to look like fractals, and it’s really cool.
Um, no, I do it between jobs.
So, if I’m busy for a couple weeks working on various jobs, that’s one thing, but then often times, I’ll have a few weeks, have time between jobs where I can focus on my painting.
Yeah, it’s really great, it’s nice to have a physical element.
And just being able to show the handmade lines, you know, gestures or whatever, but you can’t really include, you can’t show your, the handmade mark in Photoshop, because it looks like a mistake.
You know, you can’t really make a big gesture on something, they’ll be like, “what, did you drop the mouse?” Hahahha. It’s nice to be able to bring that back in. And I’m probably going to start doing more and more figurative ones. Because pretty much all I draw are faces and bodies, things like that. I do abstract stuff, too, but my favorite things are the faces, people.
Sort of funny characters, animal-people combinations, things like that. Which makes sense, with all my personified animals!
I mean, I’m always looking to try new lighting styles. But I think I have a good handle on that. It’s more like there are opportunities that I would like to have. I’ve been trying to get into doing more beauty jobs. And so, just because I like the faces, they’re sort of one of my favorite things, it’s more like trying to get those kinds of jobs.
Right, because it’s just…you know, if I had unlimited time and money to play with a bunch of different lights, that would be fun, too. I have a bunch of go-to lighting set ups, and I mean, just even recent new things that I’ve been doing that I really like, trying to sort of talk clients into, sort of, “oh, you don’t want that old thing, you want this new thing that I’m doing!” And they’re like “okay, cool.” You know, that new CMOS chip, you can shoot at the highest ISO, so I’ve been shooting with hot lights more. A couple years ago I got a Nikon, so that I can shoot up to 4000 ISO with hot lights. And, just playing with that kind of freedom, it’s fun to play with different kinds of lighting, and the technology ends up changing what can be done, so I try to keep up with that.
I enjoy doing it. Because I’ll sort of…in the early 2000’s, when I got a Canon, and I started photographing my kids all the time, and I was like, I really love low light. I really love that really soft color, low-light situation. I was happy when the Nikon came out and it was bigger chips and I could shoot up to 4000 ISO, so I could do lighting that was not generic strobe studio lighting. It’s just another thing you can do. I don’t think it’s an obligation, I like playing with technology, and I always have. When Photoshop came out, I was excited. There were a lot of photographers that in the early nineties were like, “bah humbug, that’s stupid. I’m a purist, why would I change my photos?” I’m like, “you’re an idiot, obviously.” I don’t know, I think it’s actually funny, it’s a little like…my family has always been really early adopters of technology. My dad performed laser eye surgery in Canada, across the border before it was legal in America. He moved from Michigan to Canada because my mom was programming computers on punch cards to put my dad through medical school, we’re very…
Exactly! We’re progressive and technically adventurous. Technology to me is fun, which helps with photography.
Here’s a thing, that I think is funny, I was online chatting with boys in 1984.
Yeah. I was like, probably one of the first people to do online dating.
We had a dial-up modem, the suction cup thing, and my parents did not even know that I was chatting with boys and that I met the guy that I met online. In 1984.
Yeah, I do try to…you do sort of have to…I want to keep growing for myself, but I definitely try to, you know, not just do one thing anyway. It was hard, the crying babies thing, and still people think that that’s how I’m identified, that I only do that thing? It’s been sort of annoying…it sort of hurts business. I’ll have clients say, “well yeah, we’ll hire you when we need that look” and it’s like what, no, I don’t do only that. I didn’t only do that back then. I tried really consciously to, like I was doing daylight, black-and-white, and all these other things at that same time, but it didn’t even matter because people…it just became so attached to my name…
Right, but it’s weird because, I mean, I think in the beginning, I remember hearing that there was this woman who sort of copied me for this one ad campaign, and apparently people were all…this is what I’ve heard from my interns or whatever. Right when I started doing it, someone else sort of copied me, and she got yelled at by most of the people in the photo world. But now, everybody does it! So I just don’t understand at what point it became totally fine for everyone to copy me? I feel like after the McCain thing some folks said, “let’s just write Jill off, we’ll just copy her.” I don’t understand when it became okay.