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Interview: Jennifer Greenburg on Revising History


photo-eye Gallery Interview: Jennifer Greenburg on Revising History Gallery Associate Savannah Sakry interviews Jennifer Greenburg about her series Revising History.

photo-eye Gallery is delighted to have four works currently on view from Jennifer Greenburg's series Revising History above our flat files. These striking images have captivated Gallery visitors all summer with the questions – are these contemporary works, and how on earth does she place herself so seamlessly into a photograph which appears to have been taken decades ago? Gallery Associate Savannah Sakry asked Greenburg to share more on the provoking project and enlighten us on her process. Two new images are making their debut to the series and Greenburg notes her recent direction for the project is "images that are aesthetically beautiful, yet conceptually grotesque..." Works from Revising History are on display through September 9th, 2017.

Savannah Sakry:     When did you first fall in love with photography or decide on the medium?

Jennifer Greenburg:     I grew up around a lot of models, actors, and performers and therefore I grew up around a lot of photography.  I also experienced a lot of loss throughout my childhood due to various factors, including the AIDS crisis of the early 1980’s. I connected with photography because it was a way for me to hold on to those that I had lost.  Whenever I was sad, I would open up one of the many photo albums my mother had painstakingly compiled, and somehow I would feel a lot better after I looked at the photographs of those that I had lost. It was as though the person was there with me again.

I never really “decided” to be a photographer.  It was just something I knew I would do.  I never even talked about it with anyone until I began to apply to study photography in college. There was no choice, as far as I remember.

SS:     Your first project “The Rockabillies” is a thoughtfully composed series of portraits examining today’s rockabilly subculture. Shot in color, and with a 4 x 5 view camera, It’s my understanding the sittings were often a collaboration between you and the subjects, whom you are quite fond of. How did you arrive from “The Rockabillies” to “Revising History”? 

JG:     I began The Rockabillies early in 2001, right after September 11. I embarked on the project in order to discover contemporary methods for building communities that do not rely on birthrights, ethnicity, or station. It was a time when having a community was especially important as the nation forever changed that day and I wanted a way to make sense of a collective new reality.

At that time,  I believed in documentary photography as a method for conveying honest information. I spent ten years on that project, getting to know everyone I photographed in a deep and meaningful way. I collaborated with my subjects in an effort to be as fair and honest as possible. I thought the people and places I interacted with were remarkable. Everyone I photographed was open, honest and trusting.

Ultimately, however, my pictures were taken through the lens of my experience. I saw what I wanted to see. And I questioned if there was a difference between what I had done, and what FOX News does every day. Pictures convince us of truth more than words.

My affection for pre-war and mid-century America was, and is, rooted in clothing, design, and ephemera. The aesthetic rapture caused by the visual record of that time period easily allows us to forget the gender and racial inequality, the Anti-Semitism, and many other injustices. Noticing how easy it is to gloss over those realities when looking at old photographs allowed me to think of Revising History.

I wanted to meet a rich husband, so I modeled in auto shows, 2016 © Jennifer Greenburg | Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30", Edition of 5


SS:     Your current project is mainly in black and white and you work initially from a found vernacular negative. It’s apparent, (though not actually), you are utilizing a digital technique to its full potential. Was this process or path something you were already exploring or was it a result of the initial conception of “Revising History”?

JG:     I thought of the concept for the project a long time before I knew how to execute the final form. I had the skills to make it happen, but, the complexities of production of Revising History exceed any one skill set. My images go far beyond digital image making. There is a lot involved!

I spent over a year making complete failures before I was able to come up with an acceptable final image. I still make a lot of images that end up being unseen failures, but, I had no successes in that first year. Something Funny Happened in the Kitchen, 2011, was the first image that worked. I am depicted hysterically laughing, in the image, because I was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. I had been shooting for hours that day, and had shot every day that week. Everything had been garbage and I was at the end of my rope. I was laughing and crying from frustration and I was about to give up the entire endeavor. But I was laughing too hard to stop, and so I kept firing the trigger. Once I was able to review what I had done, I realized the image might work, and I persevered.

Something funny happened in the kitchen, 2011 © Jennifer Greenburg | Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 24", Edition of 4




































SS:     While you replace the central figure of the original negative with a photograph of yourself, these works are not autobiographical, correct?

None of my images are self-portraits, however, I choose images that depict a character experiencing something that I find identifiable.  I study each image very closely and I try to figure out who the subject was, and what she was experiencing the moment the image was taken. I transform into the woman who was there, and I become a translation of her. In that, the work is more a performance than any other categorization.

The insurance agent told me to have my father or my husband call him, 2017 © Jennifer Greenburg | Archival Pigment Print, 32 x 40", Edition of 3
SS:     Each image must be very time-consuming. Can you briefly walk me through your process from start to finish? What are the required “ingredients”?

JG:     Each image takes several hundred hours to make after I have done the initial preparation.  The initial preparation takes years.  I have an archive of vernacular images that takes up an entire room in my house and I have to study and consider every frame.  I like to receive images in a big, dirty, box, fresh from a basement or an attic. I do not like anything to have been sorted.  I go through every frame, and put each strip or image into an archival sleeve.  I look for an image that can serve as a punctum and a symbol:  an image that a viewer would find relatable in its narrative. 

The image I choose dictates what happens next.  I could not walk you through my process because I have no process; every single image I have made presents new challenges and requires new solutions. Every time I think I know how to make something, or go in with a shred of self-confidence,  I either fail or the process takes longer than ever before. My newest image officially took longer than any previous image. I am very happy with the results, but I am not sure I would do it again if I had known what I was up against. 

SS:     When you are not in your studio or teaching, you are actively pursuing you first passion - vintage jewelry and clothing. Is it true your extensive collection began at the age of 4?

JG:     Yes, I was 4. My first purchase was made during a neighborhood indoor-yard sale on Astor street in Chicago. The famed Wrigley Mansion had rooms full of toys, but, I was only interested in a pair of 1940’s chandelier earrings, and an oversized rhinestone cocktail ring presented in a red-velvet celluloid box.  My parents asked me multiple times if I really wanted the jewelry, instead of a toy. Then they asked where I was going to wear the jewelry. I don’t remember my answer, but, apparently it was satisfactory because I still have both items.

SS:     In light of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram account recently going public (I see we are mutual followers) is her work inspirational to you? Either conceptually or for performative reasons?

JG:     Absolutely. Every photographer born in the latter half of the 20th century, or after,  should be inspired by Cindy Sherman. I remember, vividly, seeing her work for the first time when I was 17.  It was the first project that allowed me to understand what was involved in a contemporary body of work made with a camera.

SS:     Who are your largest influences and inspirations?

JG:     It’s hard for me to make lists and I hate putting things in hierarchies.  How can I choose between Diane Arbus and James Van Der Zee? Measure the personal impact Carrie Mae Weems has had on my work? Nan Goldin? Larry Sultan?  It’s impossible – I love it all.  And it’s all deeply important to me.

I was lucky enough to be friends with Greer Lankton in the last few years of her life, and her work and legacy has been a constant influence. 

I am also influenced by performance artists, writers, and comedians.  I am always trying to sculpt a humorous yet dark narrative in my work, and it is easier to find inspiration in arenas like comedy and performance. I utilize a lot of camp in my work to achieve that balance.  I am a lifelong fan of John Waters, RuPaul, Mae West, Divine, Angelyne, Orlan, Yoko Ono, Cher, Liberace… I could go on forever. 

SS:     Can you touch on your clever titles, and themes you wish to address? As a woman, your work resonates with me on several levels, and is one of the many reasons I fell in love with the project.

Portrait of Greenburg's Grandmother
JG:     My grandmother (pictured left) used to write funny things on the back of photographs.   She and I used to look through her photos together and she would editorialize the images and tell me all about the people and the places in the images.  She was born in 1905-ish and her entire life, in photographs, was one glamourous outfit after another, which is why I was, and still am,  deeply engrossed in looking at her pictures. 

We would come across “defaced” people in her photographs– images that had faces scratched right off the print!  I would ask my grandmother why she had done this and she would usually launch into an interesting story of betrayal and intrigue. I was fascinated that my grandma, who had only ever shown me unequivocal love, had been involved in this type of strive. I was also amused that she had no sense of sanctity for the original image. I am sure there is an obvious connection between her “defacement projects” and Revising History.

I got the initial captioning, and perhaps the underpinnings of the project from her tradition. 

However,  the captioning has evolved as I have grown more bold in my making of Revising History. During the first part of my career, I made joyous images. I did not want to be reminded of horrible things and therefore I only made images that were ebullient. But I was avoiding my reality.

My lifelong study of photography has lead me to conclude that photographs are the primary catalyst in allowing us to rewriting our history. All it takes is that glamourous outfit and a good hair-do to make us say, “Things used to be better!” I spent my childhood thinking that my grandmother had lived in better times.  The truth is that my grandmother had no college education because women, in her day, were not educated.  She experienced painful Anti-Semitism when in non-Jewish environments, and lost most of her cousins in the Holocaust. But she looked good through all of these hardships! And therefore we are duped by her remaining legacy: her photographs. 

My titles serve to peel back the artifice of my pictures. 

I have never been good at handling unwarranted attention, 2015 © Jennifer Greenburg | Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30", Edition of 3

SS:     Of the four pieces currently on display, which is your favorite image and why?

JG:     I have a hard time picking favorites in any context, as I mentioned before. However, I would probably choose, I have never been good at handling unwarranted attention, 2015. Why? Because I have had a very hard time handling unwarranted attention over the course of my life, beginning when I was a small child. The image is probably the most autobiographical image in the series. I know every woman, and many men,  can relate to the uncomfortable moment depicted in the image. The image is aesthetically beautiful, yet conceptually grotesque. I like that tension and am creating all of my new works under that guise. 

SS:     Would you say this project is nearing an end or is there more history to be revised by Jennifer Greenburg?

JG:     I feel as though I haven’t even gotten started. The new work is more bold, and much darker. I am becoming less apprehensive to discuss challenging cultural realities. Stay tuned!

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Installation of Jennifer Greenburg's Revising History at photo-eye Gallery - On view through Sept. 9th, 2017

For more information or to purchase prints, please contact the Gallery Staff at 505.988.5152 x202 or gallery@photoeye.com. 




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