BitDepth 647 - September 30

Jill Greenberg’s political differences with Republican candidate muddied some professional waters for photographers.
Images and manipulation

The Atlantic Monthly wasn't exactly hands off with the Republican candidate as that "Is Porn Adultery" ribbon on the McCain cover attests, but that's still some distance from the licence taken by Greenberg with these three images from her website's home page. Photographs by Jill Greenberg.

Photojournalism has taken some telling hits in the last ten years. It's easy for almost anyone with a computer to alter photographs and it now possible for amateurs to make substantial changes to photographs that are virtually undetectable.
That's been a godsend for the fashion and advertising industries, but it has made any photograph published as news open to suspicion.
So what then to make of the case of Jill Greenberg, who launched a very specific and aggressive smear job on one of her portrait subjects, American Presidential candidate John McCain.

On August 09, 2008, Jill Greenberg met with McCain and his public relations team in Las Vegas to make a series of photographs for the Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly leans to the left and Greenberg practically hangs over the side in that direction.
The photographer is famous for two major bodies of work, one a hyper-real, razor sharp series of photographs of wild life shot in a studio environment, the other series of crying children that she produced after the Bush administration returned to office called "End Times."

That collection raised some eyebrows, not just because the titles of several of the images explicitly made a connection with the Republican Party's return to power but also because Greenberg got her photos by provoking the children to fits of tears.

What happened
At the photo session, Greenberg did a series of photographs in her signature style, then invited McCain to stand near a wall, where she shot him with a single low strobe, creating low "horror movie" lighting of the politician.

Greenberg submitted her take, from which the Atlantic chose its cover photograph.
When the issue hit the newsstands, Greenberg then began posting to the home page of her website a series of photographs of McCain with venomous text on them and in some cases, extensive retouching. Several of the photos appear to be outtakes, strobe misfires or tests which were particularly appropriate to the text written for them.

On her website, she describes herself as "The Manipulator," and pro-Greenberg advocates point out that she has never hidden either her political leanings or her willingness to use photography to advance her causes.
The fierceness of the text on the images, many of which use language that cannot be reproduced in a family newspaper, led to some fierce debate about the issue.

Pros and cons
Crucial to the issue is Greenberg's straddling of the worlds of commercial photography and art, which intersected confusingly on the project.
The Atlantic's editor James Bennet appeared on Fox News to answer questions about the issue and that clip, an instruction in eating editorial crow with grace, has since been archived on YouTube.

Bennet insists that the published photographs are the only images from the shoot that the magazine stands behind.
The author of the story, Jeffrey Goldberg was not to equitable on the matter. In a blog posting he notes "These images are, to any reasonably decent person, simply political pornography. There's just no other way to parse them."
Supporters of Greenberg point out that her contractual arrangement with the Atlantic is not in conflict with her subsequent use of the images.

The photographer negotiated a two-week embargo on the images with the magazine before resale rights were returned to her.
What has really poisoned the editorial well is Greenberg's glee at having the opportunity to stick it to McCain.
In an interview with Photo District News' David Walker, she noted that she did not exercise her usual professional finishing on the image used by Atlantic "I left his eyes red and his skin looking bad," Greenberg told Walker.

While the public response to this issue is likely to die out quickly in the heat of the US elections, the resonance of it with clients and photographers is likely to be longer lasting.
At the core of the issue is one of trust and intent. Nothing that Greenberg did with the work she created was wrong under law, but much of it was executed shadily and in extraordinarily poor taste. The pieces that cannot be published are particularly crude.

What we are left with is an artist/photographer who chose to express her political beliefs on a commercial job, first by witholding the best quality of her work for the selects and then by making her art with the unused photography while the approved image was on the newsstands.
This isn't the first time that a photographer has knowingly done a hatchet job on a subject. Arnold Newman, asked to photograph Alfred Krupp, a German munitions manufacturer, created a startlingly unflattering image.

It also isn't the first time that art has resulted from a commercial project, but it may well be the first time that an act of political subversion has been so carefully choreographed by an artist to synchronise with a related commercial project.

Atlantic Editor
James Bennet's statement on Poynter
James Bennet
on YouTube
Atlantic writer
Jeffrey Goldberg on the issue
Mark Tucker's comment on the issue
PDN Pulse
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