Controversy flared up again this month over Canadian photographer Jill Greenberg. This time it was her Time magazine cover shot of Fox News host Glenn Beck. Filling the frame, the television commentator scowls at the camera, pulling a face and sticking out his tongue. Beck looks mean and angry, and the accompanying article suggests he really is: it criticizes, in the words of the Time magazine reporter, his emotional, “political rant racket,” right-wing style of commentary.
The photo fits the content to a T, and yet Greenberg’s assignment raised a few eyebrows: some wondered why the TV host had let himself be photographed by the Montreal-born photographer. “Why are Republicans still letting Jill Greenberg take their pictures?” asked John Cook at gawker.com. Good question. It’s not Greenberg’s credentials that are in doubt—she’s renowned for her intense, highly stylized shots of celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gwen Stefani, Jon Stewart, Clint Eastwood. It’s more her opinions: Greenberg has strong ones and isn’t afraid to make her photographs deliver them.
During last year’s U.S. presidential election campaign, she photographed John McCain for the cover of The Atlantic. The presidential contender looked worn, wrinkly, battle-scarred and determined. Greenberg, who calls herself “the Manipulator,” Photoshops her pictures to get the look she wants. Some are created through compositing, whereby different photographs are blended together to produce an image. It wasn’t just the digital work that was done for the cover shot that caused offence, but also what appeared on Greenberg’s website, manipulator.com.
In one shot, the senator’s mouth is smeared with hot-pink lipstick, under the headline, “It was really fun to cheat on my car-injury-disabled first wife.” In another, McCain’s eyes are bloodshot and his skin is an angry red. His mouth is full of bloodstained, pointed shark teeth, and he’s hungrily licking his lips.
The backlash against the website photos was swift and harsh. The Atlantic issued an apology to the candidate, and Greenberg was suddenly no longer with her agency Vaughan Hannigan (she left of her own volition, according to a statement by the agency). Reached in Los Angeles where she lives, Greenberg said she felt the political situation had necessitated an exceptional response. “It was really at a very critical time in America,” she explained. The Republicans were “ruining everything.” Afterwards, she phoned back to say that “it was the one questionable thing that I did in my career.”
It wasn’t the first time the Canadian’s work had whipped up dissent. In another controversial exhibit in 2006, Greenberg snapped toddlers who had been made to cry. In an interview, she explained that parents had been part of the process, and she had requested their help in turning on the waterworks. Working together, they had triggered tears by doing things like giving the children candy and then taking it away. When that didn’t work, they made threats like, “I’m going to throw your Game Boy in the garbage.” The stunts worked so well some of the children became “hysterically upset,” she said, a feeling that reminded her of the “helplessness and anger I [felt] about our current political and social situation.”
The Los Angeles exhibit of the photos (called End Times, a reference to the problems of the George W. Bush presidency) and her subsequent interviews about it ignited a firestorm, with critics charging it was “child abuse.” One of the tamer comments was from Glenn Beck, who wrote ironically that nothing is “more beautiful than a child being terrorized.” Conservative commentator and author Michelle Malkin said Greenberg was a “deranged lunatic” who “manipulates” people. San Francisco-based photographer Thomas Hawk called the work “evil” and “sick” and charged that she had created “anger in a beautiful child for the sadistic purpose of making a name for herself as a pop artist.”
Despite the controversy over both her choice of subjects and the ethics of altering images, there’s clearly still a demand for Greenberg’s distinctive style and creative take: in the coming months her work will appear in LensCrafters and Target advertisements and in Wired magazine, for which she photographed actors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Animals too will soon get the Greenberg treatment: in November, she will release a book titled Bear Portraits. No calls from PETA as yet.