I saw Jill Greenberg present a lecture on her work at the Annenberg Space for Photography last month. If you aren’t familiar with the name, Jill Greenberg’s photo of crying babies in the series “End of Days” served up a very large helping of controversy and criticism in 2006. But I’m not interested in the controversy or the criticism surrounding that series of photos. I am interested in her several series of animal photographs that she calls her personal work.
When you first see Greenberg’s work your impression can be prejudiced by the visual assault on your eyeballs. That is because Greenberg is a very talented photographer and an expert in Photoshop. She uses those talents to create visually jarring photographs. However, upon reflection if you look at her bears, primates, horses and crying babies you realize they all share the same qualities of high saturation, high contrast, heavy PS work and use the exact same lighting techniques. They’re plastic representations that bear only minimal resemblance to the natural subject. You could replace a crying child from her End of Days series with one of her monkeys and you’d have the same picture.
Greenberg describes these photographic series as her personal work and considers them to be fine art. I’m not qualified to say whether or not they are, in fact, fine art. But I am qualified to give my opinion.
Since I believe that Greenberg’s animal photographs are so similar that the subjects can be freely interchanged without changing the photo, I decided to select the particular photos above for this brief discussion.
When I look at Greenberg’s work, the novelty of the visual presentation wears off rather quickly. So then the question becomes do I really want to look at one of these photos for a long time? After all there is only a limited amount of interest one can find in a photograph of an orangutan having a bad hair day or a horse with hair extensions. Soon the photos become a cartoon caricature that robs the animals of their innate dignity and the viewer of any enduring emotional attachment to the subject.
Greenberg has transferred her commercial talents as a photographer to what she classifies as her personal work and calls it fine art. Compare the photo of the orangutan with the photo by Masao Yamamoto next to it or compare the horse photos and you will start to understand what it means to have created a work of fine art.
By Jim McKinniss