The Jill Greenberg Scandal
It was a pretty basic story, almost banal. The Atlantic hired Jill Greenberg to create a cover photo of Senator John McCain. The portrait is almost universally admired, with words like “heroic” bandied about.
And there the story would have remained, if Photo District News hadn’t run a short interview with her.
Before continuing, I should point out that Jill Greenberg is a renowned photographer (“first there’s the painful nowning process“) who is known not only for fine art work but also her advertising and editorial work. In other words, she’s not new to this. She is widely understood to be a liberal Democrat. She’s also understood to use Photoshop manipulation a good deal – she goes by the tagname The Manipulator.
Jill asked the Senator to pose for a second lighting setup, which is what the PDN interview discussed.
After getting that shot, Greenberg asked McCain to “please come over here” for one more set-up before the 15-minute shoot was over. There, she had a beauty dish with a modeling light set up. “That’s what he thought he was being lit by,” Greenberg says. “But that wasn’t firing.”
What was firing was a strobe positioned below him, which cast the horror movie shadows across his face and on the wall right behind him. “He had no idea he was being lit from below,” Greenberg says. And his handlers didn’t seem to notice it either. “I guess they’re not very sophisticated,” she adds.
The story mentions that one iteration of this latter photograph shows bloody shark teeth and refers to McCain as a warmonger. Either PDN did not know, or chose not to report, that there were also photographs that showed a monkey defecating on the Senator’s head, or others that contained equally disgusting (and disturbing) text.
Atlantic editor James Bennet spoke to the New York Post:
“We stand by the picture we are running on our cover,” said Atlantic editor James Bennet. “We feel it’s a respectful portrait. We hope we’ll be judged by that picture.”
But Bennet was appalled by Greenberg saying she tried to portray McCain in an unflattering way.
“We feel totally blind-sided,” he said. “Her behavior is outrageous. Incredibly unprofessional.”
The author of the Atlantic article, Jeffrey Goldberg, also weighed in:
Like others at the Atlantic, I was appalled to read about the actions of Jill Greenberg, the freelance photographer who took the cover portrait that illustrates my article about John McCain. […] Suffice it to say that her “art” is juvenile, and on occasion repulsive. This is not the issue, of course; the issue is that she betrayed this magazine, and disgraced her profession.
In fact, the reaction from the photographic blogosphere has been almost as overwhelming (and negative) as the predictable reactions of the conservative bloggers. One example is this post from Conscientious. (I personally feel that the contents of this post step over the line, but it was one of the mildest examples I could find.)
To my mind, Mark Tucker does the best job of looking at the issues raised by the controversy in a balanced way. He asks fourteen questions about what the fallout will mean for photographers, publishers, and politicians. His post also has a few links for more background on the scandal.
Chuck Kerr sees the issue from the perspective of a publisher:
By taking the gig and then purposefully shooting the subject with the express purpose of making them look (more) like a vampire, you’ve spit on the trust that the publication has placed in you. It’s not her politics (or her Photoshopping skills – which are pretty damn good) that I disagree with, it’s her disrespect for the magazine that she has wrapped up in controversy that really doesn’t have anything to do with them. […] She never really apologized either, only to say that it was Atlantic’s fault for hiring her in the first place, knowing what her personal feelings about Republicans were.
Yesterday, James Bennet spoke with Fox News:
The editor of The Atlantic Monthly said Monday he is sending a letter of apology to John McCain after a woman the magazine hired to photograph the Republican presidential nominee posted manipulated pictures from the photo shoot on her Web site.
Editor James Bennet said Greenberg behaved improperly and will not be paid for the session. He said the magazine is also considering a lawsuit.
“She has violated the terms of our agreement with her, of our contract with her so we’re taking steps. So we’re looking into what steps we can see to do something about that,” Bennet told FOX News, adding that he is “already drafting a letter of apology” to McCain.
My own opinion: Politically, Jill Greenberg has a right to make any statement she wants. As an artist, she has a right to make any art she wants. As a paid photographer working a job for a magazine who has arranged the photo shoot, she behaved inappropriately in taking advantage of the situation as she did. I also feel that the manipulated images are disrespectful to the office of a United States Senator and on those grounds I am personally offended by them.
I also think this is a controversy that probably isn’t going to go away and may have effects that last longer than any of us realize. For that, we will have Jill Greenberg and the disgustingly partisan environment of 2008 to thanks.