What I’ve Learned from this Greenberg/McCain fiasco
(Disclosure, up front: I have no axe to grind with Jill Greenberg. Actually, I love the Monkey images, I even love the children images. And her straight-up commercial work is very strong and viable; she has certainly carved out a niche in the commercial marketplace, which is hard for anyone to do. Another reason I’m writing this is to somehow connect with younger photographers who are just now starting out — sit up, read about this situation, and learn from it. And don’t repeat it!)
These are the important topics that I think should be learned from this situation:
1. First off, decide who you are. Are you an artist, or are you a commercial photographer? You need to know, because The Rules are really different. There are only a few I can think of that walk the line between the two successfully; maybe the illustrator Brad Holland, and the illustrator/photographer Matt Mahurin. If you stretch it, maybe Geof Kern, Frederick Broden. But for 99.9% of the people out there, you’re one or the other.
If you’re an artist, you work on your own dime. You get your imagery however you can. You do your work, and then you take it to galleries to sell, or you sell direct. You’re self-motivated, and self-financed. When you do a piece of work, it fails or succeeds solely on your own personal vision. For the most part, you never accept commissions from commercial clients. (Actually, you’d be embarrassed to; and your friends would laugh at you and call you a SellOut).
If you’re a commercial photographer, you’re paid by a client, like a Hired Gun. You get a Creative Fee from someone. You get your Expenses covered, (maybe). You’re working, at least in some way, as a team. You’re legally in bed with another party; in this case, The Atlantic magazine. Your reputation, and their reputation, is at stake here. Together. Intertwined, for as long as the job lasts.
In this Greenberg/McCain thing, unless there’s a whole other sub-story going on, I would imagine that The Atlantic was hiring Greenberg for her slick/commercial formula lighting. Simple as that. Look at her site — she has a proven track record. You’ve got the ringlight fill; you’ve got the two hot rims; you’ve got the kicker Key; you’ve got the desaturation; you’ve got the Photoshop adjustment Layers. It’s a formula; let’s not bullshit anybody — she’s just another commercial photographer in LA, with a studio, accepting commissions from Corporations. She’s no “living on the fourth floor in downtown LA, above Wolfy’s Diner, with no air conditioning, looking down on the homeless in cardboard boxes, doing her “personal work” and slaving away about her “personal view of the world that just HAS to get expressed”. Bullshit — let’s get real here.
So in this case, The Atlantic thought they were simply hiring a slick commercial photographer for a cover shoot, and hoped they’d get that slick lighting portrait that she does for everyone else. Nothing more, nothing less.
2. On a commission job, don’t screw the Subject, unless the Client is in on it. If it’s an Attack Piece, that’s fine, no problem. But make sure the magazine is in on it. When you’re working for a commission, I just can’t justify going off like that, and I’m talking about that awful bottom lit portrait; not even the horrid stuff that she did later, in Photoshop. McCain showed up, he stayed his alloted time, and he thought he wouldn’t be screwed.
3. Since Greenberg delivered the “safe solution”, with the formula lighting thing, she pretty much loses any right to claim “I’m an Artist”. because, really, she just “bent over for The Man” and did her formula lighting. Her “true artist statement” was either the bottom light screw job, or the stuff that she did later with the type added. If she was a “true artist” she’d not deliver the safe portrait, but ONLY deliver the Hatchet Job. So let’s be clear — she did not perform as an artist.
4. As far as the reduced embargo period, well, The Atlantic screwed themselves there, by agreeing to it. They’ve got no one but themselves to blame. Everyone, including myself, has tried to reduce the embargo period; sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.
5. You don’t pee in the pool. If you’re a commercial photographer, your actions can affect every other working photographer out there. Imagine the paranoia right now, if you were McCain or Obama, and you were walking into a cover shoot, as we get nearer to the election. Can you imagine the trepidation and doubt? And what about celebrities too — it’s hard enough to pull off a shoot like that. So when you go off and pull something like Greenberg did, if affects EVERYONE after you. The Ripple Factor is massive.
6. The thing that bugged me was her admission that she “left the eyes red, and the skin rough”. Please, if you’re going to take a commercial commission, at least do what’s in your commercial portfolio. Don’t shortchange someone, just because you disagree with their view of the world. Either that, or turn the job down.
7. The “cunt thing” and the “wife thing” and the “Roe V Wade thing” and the “shark teeth thing” — absolutely unbelievable. So bizarre, it’s almost like a cry for help or something. Again, if you’re gonna be an artist, then be an artist — go find a stock image of McCain, license it legally, or buy it out, and then go to town with Photoshop, and add all the shark teeth that you want. But DON’T take an image from a commercial session and do that, when there’s a client’s reputation at stake.
8. Don’t screw your Client either. Don’t drag your Client into your own Personal Hell. Your client paved the way for you to be there; your client is paying you some kind of fee plus expenses; your client is getting you ACCESS to this famous personality; your client is trusting that you’re going to deliver the style that’s in your book, (and not on your gallery’s wall). Your client has a pre-existing relationship with the subject; your client will need to continue to assign stories, long after your little End-Run-Shenanigans have been done.
9. Karma. You’ve just got to wonder about that concept here, and how it will come into play.
10. Who knows — maybe she’s brilliant. Maybe she’s the next Damien Hirst? Maybe this was some back-room plot, planned months in advance, to move her out of the doldrums of commercial photography, and into the glamorous world of Fine Art. Maybe this was the publicity fuel to launch her into the national spotlight. If so, I wish her the best. God knows you need scandal and drama to succeed in that world. Maybe she makes bank like no other commercial photographer. Time will tell. Maybe by week’s end, she plots a window-ledge dramatic fake-suicide scene, covered by news helicopters in LA, saying she’s collapsed from all the pressure. It’s covered live on local news, like the OJ chase. And she’s already arranged for a Reality TV crew to be there, having worked the deal months ago, and this is Episode One of her new Reality TV show, of which, of course, she’s Executive Producer. It’s called “What It’s Like To Be Inside The Body Of Jill Greenberg”. Months later, the ad campaign launches her new scent, called “Anger”, and women from the westside of LA flock to the Beverly Center to be first in line for purchase. Who knows — maybe we’ve all been hoodwinked. (I doubt it).