Words by Chris Mitchell
I loved Jill Greenberg from the moment I first laid eyes on her monkey portraits.
You can tell I’m sincere because I’ve never said that about anybody before. Jill Greenberg’s monkey portraits are transcendent. Any woman who can take a subject as creepy as a monkey and turn it into something you’d be honored to have at your next cocktail party is a woman who can turn my heart inside out.
Before you get all bent out of shape about the shallow criteria for my affections, let me say in my defense, it isn’t just the monkeys; it’s her other photos as well. Luminescent advertising spreads for Target, Smirnoff, Lens Crafters and Beefeater. Glowing masterpieces featuring Tara Reid, Snoop Dog, Jon Stewart and David Bowie. Pictures so savagely beautiful, they make me want to weep. The thing is: this woman has a way of taking any subject (even Larry David) and making it mind-crushingly beautiful.
I want to make a good impression at our first meeting. I buy a saucy new hat for the interview and wear it cocked over one eye, kind of coquettish but in a masculine way, the way I imagine a hit man might wear it. At stoplights I look in the rear view mirror and practice saying ‘hello.’ When I pull up to her agent’s loft, I’m ready for anything. I feel . . . Charming.
Jill floats down the stairs, looking exactly the way a warm plate of chocolate chip cookies smells. Her blond hair is pulled back into a ponytail and her brilliant blue eyes sparkle like a breaking wave. She extends a soft hand and smiles.
“I’m Jill,” she says, her voice like chords from a seraph’s harp. “You probably have a lot of questions about The End of Times show.”
I must look pretty ridiculous, standing with my mouth open, a mannequin in a coquettish, but masculine hat, because after a few seconds, she draws her eyebrows into a severe line and says, “You’re here to talk about the children’s portraits, right?”
I rack my brain. Had I seen children’s portraits on her website? Maybe it’s a new development. Surely, Jamie and the Lifelounge crew wouldn’t have left out a detail as important as the subject of the interview. I haven’t the faintest idea what she’s talking about, but if this gorgeous woman wants to talk about children’s portraits, then, by God, I’m ready to listen.
“Absolutely,” I smile my most winning smile. Her eyebrows relax.
She points me to a couch in the lobby, and drops down next to me. She is dressed entirely in black, from her elastic hair tie down to her flip-flops. Around her neck, an obsidian teardrop pendant.
“So,” she says. “My book is coming out this September.”
“That’s great!” I enthuse. “Your book of children’s portraits.”
Her eyebrows shoot up in alarm, then flatten again into that severe line. “No. My monkey book . . . What exactly is this interview about?”
If I had ever stood a chance of making a good impression on Jill Greenberg, I am well past it now. She has spotted me for what I am, a lovesick rube who knows less about journalism than deep sea demolition. I have to change gears fast to save my reputation. Since my jig is up as Charming Guy (in a coquettish yet masculine hat), I decide to play myself off as Wacky Guy (in an eccentric yet hopefully still somewhat attractive chapeau).
“This interview,” I say, “is about you.” Then I make a sound like a trumpet.
The eyebrows flatten out again, then wiggle themselves into curlicues. “OK. Where should I start?”
Jill Greenberg was born in July of 1967 in Montreal Canada and grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She graduated in 1989 from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Photography. Until that time, Jill was studying illustration, but a photography teacher pulled her aside and suggested a different career choice.
“He probably thought I was going to do art photography, not commercial, but I like to do both. I’ve never been a purist. I like to manipulate my images and retouch them. I don’t like straight photography.
“You have to have the best people working with you, get the best subject and the best stylist and hair and make up, and then you retouch it and make it even better.”
I recline on the sofa until I am practically sprawling in her lap. I close one eye and then the other, alternating viewpoints. Time for a wacky tactical change. “So,” I say. “You left art school to pursue a commercial career. You manipulate your work to make the subjects appear better than they are. Then, when you do an artistic series, you bind it into a book and sell it. You, Madam, are a sellout!”1
She politely considers my accusation. “Well then, all art is commercial. You do art – not just to make it – but to sell it in a gallery. There are fine artists who have books published. It doesn’t mean they’re sellouts. It’s just a different way of disseminating the pictures. I think being a sellout is more like, you know, if you work for clients that you don’t agree with, like Walmart or Big Tobacco . . . which I have.”
“You don’t agree with them?”
“Because they’re evil.”
If anything, this willful admission of guilt makes me love her even more.
“I did a Walmart shoot about a year ago,” she continues. “If they came to me again, I’d probably do it again too. I’d take their money. It’s not about making a political statement.”
Interestingly enough, the children’s portraits do make a political statement. “Grand Old Party,” “Shock And Awe,” “Deniability,” “Revelations.”2
These are modern American catchphrases, courtesy of an Imperialistic regime.
“The titles,” Jill says, “refer to the pathetic current administration that is being partially run by the right wing evangelical Christians. They believe in Armageddon and The Rapture, that the world is going to blow up basically and all the bad people are going to hell. Therefore they don’t care about the environment or the future at all. They think that things like Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami are good because that means the End is coming and we should all be excited.
“And George Bush behaves as if he thinks that too. He takes their money and he lets them tell him what to do. I mean, you know, I’ll take Walmart’s money, but I won’t let them tell me what to do. I won’t shop there.”
Jill uses her own daughter as a model in an image titled “Unless,” which is named after the word written on a rock in the final scene in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book describes a world where all the wonderful green trees are being cut down by machines. It’s a thinly-veiled allegory for what might happen to us unless we take precautions . . .
“It’s not just that pictures of crying kids are emotional and beautiful images in a certain way. They’re crying because the world is getting screwed up. You know, we have war and all this stupid stuff for no reason. It’s crazy.”
As the interview winds down, I tell her I would like to see more of her stuff, and she tells me she just worked out a trade with a collector who owns a bunch of billboards in LA. Her work is going up next week above Melrose.
I promise to check it out.
There is an awkward pause, and I wonder if maybe she’s considering giving me a hug goodbye. I imagine what her hair might smell like. Would she pull me in close or would it be one of those A-frame hugs?
She flashes a quick smile, and, in a flash, Jill Greenberg is gone.
The next day, I drive to the gallery where her portraits are being shown. There are a few people wandering around the room, commenting on the vivid beauty of the children’s faces. The young woman at the front desk turns when I approach.
“Have you met her?” I ask.
“I have,” she answers in a voice too husky for her slight frame.
I flip through a book of monkey portraits. Maybe it’s just willful anthropomorphism, but each monkey has personality and panache. I want to play bocce ball with these monkeys. I want to take them clubbing in Hollywood.
“I think I’m in love with the artist,” I tell the woman behind the desk.
She pulls a strand of hair away from her mouth. “I totally get that.”
Admittedly, this is a risky course to take. Few journalists would advise attacking the subject in the middle of an interview. My logic, however, went something like this: 1) I was nervous. 2) I wasn’t working with any logic whatsoever.
To get the cover girl to cry, Jill used one of the following techniques: giving the child a lollipop and then taking it away, taking her shirt off and/or asking the mother to leave the room. She doesn’t remember which. “I don’t like to make kids cry,” says Jill. But as a mother herself, she knows that crying is just part of the routine of being a child