Photograpy and politics merge

The well known photographer Jill Greenberg was asked to do a portrait of Senator John McCain for the cover of The Atlantic. She did the job and gave them the image they wanted. Jill has a distinctive style that is unmistakable: heavily processed images with harsh lighting making them look airbrushed.

Some background on Jill and her work: Jill Greenberg, The Manipulator, Jill Greenberg’s images through google search, and Jill Greenberg on youTube.

Understand that had Jill given The Atlantic the image they wanted and left it at that, none of this would have happened. The Atlantic is happy with the image and no matter what Jill’s political leanings (she’s a Democrat with on the record hatred of The Bush Administration), this uproar is not about the Atlantic cover, it’s about Jill’s comments to PDN.

In an interview that Jill gave to Photo District News she commented in a way that let it be known that she had not gone out of her way to make Senator McCain look good. Read her comments here: How Jill Greenberg Really Feels About John McCain. Take some time and read the comment thread that follows, fascinating stuff.

What’s interesting is that it seems Jill was discussing an image that was not used by The Atlantic. You can see it in the collection here.

Jill’s comments and the entire situation have been discussed in various places: Fourteen Questions about the Greenberg/McCain mess, Photo Change We Can Believe In (?), Vincent LaForet: Jill Greenberg & McCain, About that McCain Photo (Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, Out-Takes: Behind The Atlantic’s McCain Cover, and UPDATE: Atlantic Magazine has Responded to Greenberg/McCain Ambush (the guy to track in this thread is “kirkinaustin,” he’s brilliant).

I think the Atlantic cover is exactly what they wanted and John McCain and his aids knew what they were getting into (or should have) being asked to be on the cover of The Atlantic. The bigger issue is how a professional photographer allows politics to creep into their work, even political work. Or, even if it doesn’t creep into the actual work, the fact that Jill voiced an opinion publicly makes people question her work. This is fascinating stuff and no doubt will be the topic of conversations for months to come.

Few question the fact that Irving Penn didn’t always make his subjects look the way they wanted. Many famous portrait photographers have attempted to channel what they (the photographers) saw as the essence of the subject and that essence might be less than flattering.

I’m not defending Jill Greenberg here, just attempting to put this entire situation in a larger context.

There is no generic portrait of John McCain, Barack Obama, or anyone else. A photographer like Jill Greenberg was given some direction by the art department of The Atlantic and no doubt was told about the type of writing that was going to be in the issue. They no doubt asked her for a certain look that might accompany the article. Or, they knew her lighting techniques would produce that look.

This is a fascinating issue and my guess is it will be discussed long after this election is over. Maybe Jill did us all a favor by forcing us to think clearly about how we take jobs and what baggage we bring or don’t bring to them.


  1. She did a total dis-service to all photographers. The best quote I heard all day yesterday was “saying she shot political pornography is an insult to pornographers”, that about sums it up.

  2. Scott: I’m not so sure it’s that cut and dry.

    Jill has a style. The Atlantic chose her for that style. The shot on the cover is in that style. The Atlantic is happy with that image. So, the job was done correctly. Whether or not you or I like her style (I don’t but that’s not the point here) she’s well known for it. The Atlantic no doubt knew what they were getting into using her for the cover.

    What this is about is the outtakes, what she did with them and what she said about them.

    I think it’s important to sort those two things out.

    That said, this brings up a much more nuanced issue which is this: Do you think Fox chooses the most flattering images of Obama when they show his face on a story? Do you think MSNBC shows the most flattering pictures of McCain to illustrate their stories? It’s a slippery slope and it’s not as cut and dried as we’d like it to be.

    I’m not defending what Jill did here, I’m saying that there are subtler issues that are part of the politics of portraying political figures.

    On a totally different tach, do you think it’s pornographic when McCain approves an ad that lies about Obama’s record? The last batch of ads he ran seemed over the top to me. This has nothing to do with what Jill did, it’s just another issue where someone went over a line.

    It’s done. Doesn’t make what Jill did right, but it’s done.

    And, do you think Richard Avadon or Irving Penn always show their models in the best light? I think not. They have and had political baggage as well.

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