Jill Greenberg is very smart. She is a hugely successful photographer who has managed to find notoriety in both the commercial side of photography and the fine art side. She has softened the boundary between art that makes you a living and art that make out of passion. She has made an extremely specific name for herself in the world of photography as her name rings up images of very clean, glossy, and bright photos: they are Jill Greenberg.
Jill has lived in Los Angeles for a little over a decade. She’s come a long way to get here, too. “My family’s Canadian,” she says. “I was born in Montreal and a lot of my family still lives in Canada except my immediate family who moved to Michigan, where I grew up.”
“Ever since I was young, I was making art: I was doing photography and sculpture and drawing and even attended Cranbrook, which has a fairly serious art program. I was in the darkroom by third grade! We were doing stop motion animation and the school even has an art museum on campus.”
“I’ve been making art since I was very little,” she says with a nod.
“I went to RISD for illustration for pre-college, between junior and senior year of high school. Between senior year and college, I went to Parsons’ in Paris to study photography. I ended up going to RISD for college and I had planned on being an illustration major but I ended up in photography. I was really interested in drawing and painting everything back then.”
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff that I learned,” she says, speaking to the process she developed in her education. “Because I’m making pictures all day every day, I’m always practicing my craft. The main thing I learned at RISD was to be visually literate, to deconstruct images so you can communicate what you want to communicate.”
This deconstruction of imagery was well suited for how she expresses herself and it still very much is the framework she is working within. Upon finishing college, she spent time in New York and started working immediately. “I wanted to do both art and commercial work when I graduated. I was doing very early digital work in 1990 that involved scanning in body parts and images from men’s porn magazines, which were used and I realize is really disgusting now.”
She laughs, acknowledging the absurdity in using used pornographic materials. That’s Jill, though: she has a sense of humor in her work that comes from a need to manipulate and play with things. Her point of view isn’t to represent but to make you question representation, to wonder what is real and what isn’t. She has been playing in this pen for years–even before she pursued higher education.
“That’s why I thought it was fun to call myself ‘The Manipulator’ in the mid-nineties,” she explains. “In photography, people do so much digital imaging. My stuff, maybe in the beginning, I was shooting and putting people in the background. But now, my work is relatively straight: I shoot all of those bears and animals on those backgrounds. I’m not switching heads or changing things that much. I do tend to paint over things, like with the pig in the Commentary And Dissent show a few months ago. If you take off the photo layer in that image you can see how many layers of painting there are. It’s almost a painting unto itself.”
“I’ve been drawing and painting on my images for years, too. I used to manually do this, taking acrylic paints to my photos. It’s interesting because some of these themes in my practice that I was doing in high school and art school are still the themes that I’m interested in. Coming up with ideas isn’t a problem of mine; however, I’ll think up things and realize they are things that I’ve touched on in my younger years.”
This claim is entirely true. While visiting her at her home, she took out a stack of art journals that she kept in high school and at RISD. The pages are filled with detailed and incredible drawings of elaborate fantasies and often dark subjects. Another tie from her past to present is her recent making of Teddyman, a six foot four giant teddybear she’s been drawing and redrawing for decades, this creature that represents female loneliness and the comfort of a giant creature. She created a parody of a man. It’s an absurdist fantasy realized–in plush.
“Once it dawned on me how the world works and how it seemed very unequal to women, I began to make fun of men and male rage and male culture. It led to drawing photos of rape and really ridiculous themes to entertain myself. There was a while where I showed my old drawings because I like them so much. I still like my old drawings. I feel like they are very close to me, and represent my artistic roots.”
“Sometimes I feel that I’m not taken seriously because I do so much commercial work. It’s always important to show that I’ve been sick and twisted–since I was a child!”
She laughs. “Nothing is out of the blue or as if I have all of a sudden lost my mind. It’s a consistent point of view. Sure, I’ll do some ads for someone else’s company. It’s cool, that’s someone else’s concept and I’m very happy to be able to make a living as a photographer.”
Of course, she didn’t just become a commercial photographer overnight. She has been working for 22 years on it. In the beginning, she actually was attempting to do both, or maybe take a fine art path, when an opportunity presented itself. “I almost got into the Whitney Independent Study program. The day I found out I didn’t get it was the same day that I got my first job at Sassy magazine. It was good. Making all art is expensive and photography is one of the more expensive forms. So I decided to establish myself and have financial security before I started fully making personal work.”
Jill had a lot of commercial success in New York while still keeping a parallel track in fine art work, but it did take the back burner. She did a few select projects since she admits its hard to go full on in both realms. She eventually moved to Los Angeles after realizing New York wasn’t the only city for photographers like her. “I lived in New York for almost twelve years. I used to come to LA for jobs all the time and, whenever you visit Los Angeles, you always wonder why you don’t live out here because it’s so much nicer. Something eventually snapped and I realized I didn’t want to live in New York anymore. I felt the only other place I could move was Los Angeles. Of course, there are photographers all over the United States, but I was already concerned about leaving New York as it is the center of magazine publishing and advertising. I do a lot of celebrity and entertainment work already so it made sense to move out West for work.”
Moving to Los Angeles has been good for Jill and–in a way–has clarified her work. Personally, she met her now husband about 6 months after moving out West and they started a family. The couple now have two children and literally built their dream home from the ground up in the Hollywood Hills. The house is a work of modern architectural art.
For more on Jill, be sure to check out her website, Like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. You can catch her work at Katherine Cone this Wednesday through for a week as a part of their Legitimate Rape show. Jill’s book Horses was just released by Rizzoli and will include a solo show at New York’s ClampArt October 18 through November 26, one at Amerstdam’s Jaski Art Gallery from December 1 through 16, and a Katherine Cone show in February 2013. There will also be a New York book launch on October 19, too.