Tuesday, September 16th, 2008
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.
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.