Jill Greenberg is an American photographer and artist. She is known for her portraits and fine art work that often features anthropomorphized animals that have been digitally manipulated with painterly effects. Greenberg was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Greenberg has been taking photographs since she was 9 years old. In a 1998 New York Times article on female gamers, Greenberg said that her affinity for technology came from her mother: "My mom was a math buff and a science major in college," she said. "In 1964, she became a COBOL programmer and helped support my father through med school. She used to write programs on keypunch cards for mainframes".
Greenberg said she has always taken pictures of animals, beginning with headshots of her dog, Plato, when she was young. Greenberg took classes at Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1984, Greenberg attended the Photography Summer Session held by Parsons School of Design in Paris. In 1985, Greenberg won a Traub Memorial Scholarship Travel Fund from Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 1988, Greenberg completed coursework on “Semiotics in Media” with Mary Ann Doane at Brown University. In 1989, she graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Photography.
In 1992, Greenberg applied to the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program, but didn’t get it that year. "Later that week, I got one of my first good jobs for Sassy magazine. I thought that I should just focus on doing the commercial thing until I could get to a point where I would have economic freedom and be able to afford to do the personal work. Doing photography is expensive, and I didn’t want to wait tables and be a starving artist. I’ve always liked doing portraits and seeing my work outdoors on billboards, but I’ve always had other ideas to explore".
Greenberg has worked successfully as a commercial photographer and has done a large number of celebrity portraits. She specializes in portraiture and uses painterly effects that are drawn using computer technology. On this success: "It’s hard because the serious art world can be an odd place for the people who have achieved commercial success first. I wasn’t born a commercial photographer, I was born an artist, and I’ve been doing art my whole life".
Greenberg says that the commercial photography has influenced and provided inspiration for her portrait work. Greenberg said: "I wouldn’t have had access to the monkey if I hadn’t been shooting him for a commercial project. I decided to do a portrait of the monkey, and that’s when I decided to do a series of them. For the Glass Ceiling series, I don’t think I would have necessarily set out to do an underwater photo series. That was definitely inspired by an assignment. I loved the way the U.S. Olympic synchronized swim team looked somewhat ridiculous wearing heels, but as it turns out, professional synchronized swimmers often wear heels underwater".
2011's Glass Ceiling series involved shooting under water, using scuba gear. She hired professional synchronized swimmers and photographed them in a pool in Culver City. The Glass Ceiling series was featured as a billboard installation in Los Angeles, on the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard at Fairfax (viewable while driving east).
In October 2012, Greenberg published a book of photographs called Horse that features images of horses. Writer A. M. Homes wrote the introduction. Greeenberg built photo studios within horse rings to take the photographs. Shooting took place in Los Angeles in an area called Walker’s Basin and also in Vancouver at Danny Virtue’s ranch, a man who supplies horses to the film industry.
Greenberg said that while researching horses, she found "this essay by a British academic, comparing the way that horses function in society to the way that women have been oppressed. He had included an illustration of a horse in a bridle with a woman wearing a 'scold's bridle,' which is a medieval punishment for mouthy women. At the time, I was also working on my Glass Ceiling series, so issues of feminism were at the forefront of my mind.... It felt right to compare horses to women".
In January 2014, Greenberg had an exhibition in Canada of images from "Horse". Greenberg said she has had a lifelong love of horses that began at the age of six. Greenberg wanted to explore the connection between how horses have been tamed and feminist theory. Greenberg states: "[T]hey have been made subservient, so their position in the world relates to the role women continue to occupy. Horses are both masculine and feminine, dominant and submissive, mastered and wild.
Greenberg is credited by some within the commercial photography industry as having produced several unique styles that have since been emulated by other photographers. Like LaChapelle and Avedon, Jill has pioneered a new style of photography, and her impact can be seen throughout the entertainment industry", the creative director of a Los Angeles creative agency told Brief magazine, with the publication itself characterizing her work as employing "distinctive ethereal backlighting. A president of NBC Entertainment Marketing who has employed Greenberg on a number of occasions due to what he terms her distinct and innovative aesthetic" observed that "many other photographers follow her lead.
Since the mid-1980s, Greenberg "experimented constantly with such disparate techniques as rephotographing slide projections, reflections in mylar, cyanotypes." Greenberg "fell in love with the computer as a tool to create worlds that mirrored the drawing and painting techniques she saw in the Surrealists.
In 1995, Greenberg branded her first website the moniker “The Manipulator” after the 80s German photography magazine "as a playful reference to the post-production work was an important part of her creative process." Greenberg said that she likes “to manipulate my images and retouch them. I don’t usually like straight photography".
Greenberg herself has acknowledged having made particular use of digital post production, adapting the nickname "The Manipulator" early in her career due in part to her relatively early adoption of Photoshop, a product she has used since its release in 1990. Nonetheless, she told an interviewer in 2011 that some of what her fans believe to be post production is instead the result of close attention to lighting, merely supplemented with minor "flourishes" afterwards.
On her methodology: “I use a lot of masking, apply color curves, dodge and burn. It's all done by hand, like painting. My background being illustration, I still draw and paint because I enjoy it, so my digital manipulations are just a derivative of those techniques".
Greenberg's work and career has focused intermittently on feminist issues, starting with her senior thesis at RISD, "The Female Object", the premise of which concerned "The disciplinary project of femininity" and what Greenberg sees as the predetermined failure of all women who attempt to "succeed" at it. Greenberg's official bio cites the backlash resulting from the McCain/Atlantic incident as having prompted her to return to "the question of what is tolerated by women in our culture." Her more recent Glass Ceiling series stems from a commercial shoot in which Greenberg was asked to photograph members of the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swim Team swimming in high heels, an element that heightens sexuality while also hampering ability. According to a press release/bio released ahead of an exhibition and talk, "The result is a sadly relevant series of shots depicting women struggling to keep head above water in a context defined by the constraints pressed upon them by others.
Greenberg's End Times, a series of photographs featuring toddlers, was the subject of controversy in 2006. The work featured stylized hyper-real closeups of children's faces contorted by various emotional distresses. The pieces were titled to reflect Greenberg's frustration with both the Bush administration and Christian Fundamentalism in the United States. The method for getting the children to cry was, in some cases, offering the children candy then taking it away. The children were either professionally hired or were the children of friends (and included her daughter). All were accompanied by their parents, who assisted in getting the children to cry.
“The children I photographed were not harmed in any way. And, as a mother, I am quite aware of how easily toddlers can cry. Storms of grief sweep across their features without warning; a joyful smile can dissolve into a grimace of despair. The first little boy I shot, Liam, suddenly became hysterically upset. It reminded me of helplessness and anger I feel about our current political and social situation. The most dangerous fundamentalists aren’t just waging war in Iraq; they’re attacking evolution, blocking medical research and ignoring the environment. It’s as if they believe the apocalyptic End Time is near, therefore protecting the earth and future of our children is futile. As a parent I have to reckon with the knowledge that our children will suffer for the mistakes our government is making. Their pain is a precursor of what is to come.”
—Jill Greenberg, End Times: About, (2006)
The series resulted in active, often heatead online discussion and news coverage, and resulted in hate mail which continued for several years. The images, meanwhile, have been imitated and used without permission for unrelated campaigns.
In August 2008, The Atlantic asked her to photograph John McCain for the magazine's October 2008 cover. Greenberg said they didn't have enough money to pay her so she gave them license to use one of her photos for the cover (while she retained ownership of the photo) for free, for one time use. Greenberg decided to make some personal images of the pictures. I really didn't want there to be another Republican in the White House, so I decided to put my McCain pictures out on voting day." Saying she saw the work as political cartoons. "I thought it was the Artist Jill Greenberg appropriating the work of the Commercial Photographer Jill Greenberg.
Once the magazine hit the newsstands, Greenberg discussed in an article in a photo industry magazine that she had shot additional images, using lighting to depict McCain in stark shadow, so that she could create her own political art. Greenberg also posted to her website versions of photographs that she had created artwork from.