October is photography month at Filter Photo Festival. Next weekend, the photo community gets together to hear lectures, participate in workshops and listen to nightly programs from artists in this creative community. I am thrilled that gallery artist Jennifer Greenburg is part of this month of photography in her hometown.
Jennifer’s Revising History is showing at Martha Schneider Gallery this month. If you are in Chicago tomorrow night, Jennifer’s Artist Reception is happening from 5 to 7.30pm. Next week, Thursday the 26th, be part of Filter’s festivities and come listen to Jennifer discuss her creative process, and the complexities of crafting such an involved narrative and performance style works. Her talk starts at 5.30, and continues until 6.30pm.
Sarah Hadley, Founder and Director of Filter, sat down with Jennifer after her opening at wall space gallery this summer, and they talked about her work, her influences and processes. This is their conversation.
To see more of Jennifer’s great work, we have all of the Revising History images on the gallery’s website. Or stop into the gallery in Santa Barbara for a closer look at the portfolio of prints.
Revising History is, in Greenburg’s own words, “a series of manufactured images created by replacing individuals in vintage found-negatives with images of myself.” Through her intensive styling, and her ability to recreate the lighting and emotion of the scene, she has seamlessly slipped herself (sometimes accompanied by her husband Casey Stockdon) into the frame and appropriated someone else’s snapshot.
Sarah Hadley: So tell me what was the first impetus for Revising History and how the project came about.
Jennifer Greenburg: I’ve always loved old photographs and have looked at them my whole life. And so when I started collecting these images it came to me right away. To me photographs are a fantasy, no matter what. They are either much more negative than what was actually in front of the camera, or much more positive. The photographer’s hand is always in the end result. I think when we look back at our family photos, our memory is replaced by with what we think see in the photograph, and sometimes our memory is completely wiped out, especially if a lot of time has passed. I think every party looks more fun and every relationship looks amazing, and it’s all sort of a lie no matter what. I wanted to comment on that idea and that became the premise for the whole project. Taking people out and putting myself in to make this new narrative seemed to be the way to do it.
SH: How long did it take for you to complete the first image in the series?
JG: Months and weeks of failure! Just absolute failure
SH: And did that first image make it into the series?
JG: The final one that made it in was not the first one I worked on. And I still throw away a lot. I have a terrible success rate.
SH: Has your success rate gotten better?
JG: No. I think I throw away just as many as I always have. I work on more at a time now because that helps with my sanity. So moving on to a new image helps, but I still have crushing defeats and feel like I throw a lot away. But that’s how it is. Even the most famous artist you know throws away a lot of stuff and I think that it’s important to be self-critical.
SH: What do you think you have learned about yourself other than where your moles and freckles are? Do you feel like you have learned something deeper about yourself?
JG: I guess I have learned to relax about a few things. Certainly, I am not the thinnest or the youngest or the most perfect, and I see all my flaws, but I guess I always have. I think the photo makes me look better than I really do because I feel the photograph glamorizes everything. I actually look at the pictures and I think I am OK with what I see and that has been good for me psychologically.
SH: Can you lead us through the process of making an image and how you create the look you achieve?
JG: I have volumes of old pictures and I look through them for good photographs: ones that have good composition, that are in focus, are well exposed and that have dynamic characters. I call them characters because I don’t know them. And I’m looking for ones that have an emotional connection between the characters. I pick those and then I look through them again and again and I print Xeroxes and post them on the wall and look at them more, trying to decide which image would work. And then in terms of the clothing, I have been collecting since forever. My first vintage accessory purchase was when I was 5. I call it the Jennifer Greenburg Fashion Archive. When I find a picture to work on, I look for the right clothing to wear in the photograph. I almost always find something in my archive.
SH: How did you decide to put Casey (your husband) in the photos?
JG: I want Casey in this fantasy I’ve created. I would love to have a photographer documenting our life, but this way I’m sort of making these false memories myself– I am creating a fantasy and, frankly, he is both my fantasy and my reality. Maybe it’s self-indulgent… maybe it’s flawed. But, it’s true.
SH: Your photographs are not of extraordinary moments, which is normally what we document. I don’t see birthdays or Christmas photos. Have you deliberately edited those photos out?
JG: I think for some people these moments are extraordinary in someone’s life. Like His first haircut is a BIG day. But, it is how the photo speaks to me. I think the problem with graduation and wedding photos is that they are very cookie-cutter and they are not necessarily good photos.
SH: Tell me about the funeral photo? You are dead and in a casket. How did you pick that one?
JG: This idea of me making counterfeit memories: I think, of course, there would have to be a death picture. I named it My Funeral as if I took the photo of me in the casket. People do arrange their own funerals in real life. People have these definite ideas about what they want to transpire at their funerals. And so in making this image I felt it would really drive home this idea that these are fake.
SH: What are you working on now?
JG: More Revising History. I still have more to do and there will be new images at Schneider Gallery in the fall.
SH: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you want people to know about your work, that you feel it is important for people to understand?
JG: The real premise for the project is that I think photography sells us something that was never there and doesn’t exist. After spending ten years as a documentarian (creating The Rockabillies project), I didn’t feel that what you get at the end of the day is what was really there. It has something to do with me and the person and how we interacted and how I felt and how they felt. After a decade of that work, my real impetus was to push this idea that photography is false, so I created this body of work of false photographs. I think it is a tough thing to accept – no matter how authentic the image appears, it’s false. I get lots of questions like, “How did you do this?” because people can’t actually handle what I’m doing. It’s a very unsettling idea that you could just take someone out of a photo and put someone else in. And some people think the images are funny, and I want them to be both funny and unsettling because that is a great place for art to exist. It is so easy to make someone sad, and it’s easy to make someone outraged, but it’s hard to make people laugh and to make them uncomfortable at the same time.
SH: Congratulations and we are looking forward to hearing you speak this fall during Filter.