By now probably all of you have heard about Ms. Greenberg’s alternative images of John McCain. I don’t want to start a big fight here but people are asking my opinion, so I’ll give it.

I think that, especially at the level of media savvy that should be expected of McCain’s handlers, Ms. Greenberg is entirely clean in this.

First, editorial rates are so lousy that if a photographer does NOT make her own image to get something more out of any project, that is just bad business.

Second, she made image(s) that were absolutely acceptable by the client. Remember, McCain was NOT her client in any way.

Third, if someone agrees to be interviewed and the interviewer asks a bunch of good questions and then asks, at the end, a couple that are embarrassing or uncomfortable, by agreeing to the interview, that is the risk you take. Agreeing to be photographed for a news magazine is analogous. You are getting publicity and you don’t get to control it. You take your chances.

Again, Ms. Greenberg more than fulfilled her obligations to her client. I don’t have a problem with her making her own art on the side. 

As for how she has handled the press herself, I really don’t think that matters too much. She will be, at most, a blip in this election.

However, I do want to make one comment about how the community is reacting. On the PDNPulse blog, the comments by those who think that what she has done was less than professional have been far too often ugly and hateful. There was even at least one that made an anti-semitic slur. This is heartbreaking. She is one of us and if we attack our own…well…it is just sad.

Disagree with what she has done if you choose to, but do so with the respect one of your colleagues deserves.


How she handled it after the fact is not what I am commenting on. She could have handed the press afterwards better, no question, but the act itself, I don’t think it’s half as bad as some think.

34 Replies to “Greenberg”

  1. I think people are misunderstanding what I am saying. I’m not saying she handled this well (after the fact). I am saying that no matter which side of this you are on, there is no reason to get nasty. Saying someone doesn’t deserve respect, for one mistake, seems harsh to me.

    Let’s say she completely screwed this up–just for argument, let’s say that. I still believe that she deserves to be treated with respect. Until someone has a track record of being an ass, then give them the benefit of the doubt. We ALL screw up.

    A little forgiveness is a good thing. We all deserve second chances.

  2. I don’t have a problem of not respecting her, I have a problem of her not respecting her client and her subject. See this quote from Ms. Greenberg:

    “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.

    Followed by this gem:

    “It’s definitely exciting to shoot someone who is in the limelight like that. I am a pretty hard core Democrat. Some of my artwork has been pretty anti-Bush, so maybe it was somewhat irresponsible for them [The Atlantic] to hire me.”

    That’s MY problem with Jill (who’s work I like usually). She “pulled one over” on not only her subject (“I guess they’re not very sophisticated”), but then she degrades her client by saying it was “somewhat irresponsible” for them to hire her. THAT is not being a professional.

    Did she allow Senator McCain or his people or the magazine representatives to see the back of her camera or the computer screen while she was shooting the second picture? If so, did she play it off as “Gosh, one of the lights isn’t firing”? Or was she honest that what they saw on the screen was what she intended?

    If this is her art, then fine. I don’t think she should be proud of it because she deceived her subject and then gloated about pulling a fast one on them.

    From her quote it sounds like she got the picture she wanted, but she wasn’t honest with her subject about what she was doing. The same could be said for Arnold Newman with his portrait of Alfried Krupp, but McCain is not a Nazi conspirator. He is not a criminal. She might not agree with his politics, and that’s fine. I personally find her use of her time with the Senator to be in bad taste, but that’s what she wanted to so let her to do it if they’re willing (You’re right about that Leslie, they agreed to the shoot and interview).

    But to afterward publicly say that the subject wasn’t “very sophisticated” or that your client is “irresponsible” for hiring you- THAT is in bad taste, and THAT is not professional in any way.

  3. Back in 1963 Arnold Newman(you all should remember him)photographed Alfred Krupp, I think for life magazine.
    He was photographing him as an industrialist but lit him like the Nazi war criminal he was. Had Arnold had photoshop who knows what he would have done.

  4. I don’t disagree with Lelsie’s assesment of Jill’s (and all editorial photographers) need to try and come away from each assignment with more than just the assigned image, nor do I condemn her for the slant she put on the secondary image via the “monster lighting” she chose to employ.

    It is Greenberg’s now very public statements about the shoot, about her intentions, about McCain’s handlers that I take issue with. As the saying goes… “a picture is worth a thousand words…” . Capture the image(s) and STFU! Her unprofessional comments will have serious ramifications for celebrity shooters for years to come and have given the opposition unnecessary cannon fodder at a very critical time during this campaign cycle.

  5. I would first like to emphasize that the name of her web site is: “” – Greenberg is known for exploitative photographs (her crying babies series, for instance) and images that are manipulated digitally. It’s what she does.

    Yes, I think photographers should shoot for their book… but I’d rather call her an illustrator.

    I don’t condone Jill Greenberg’s actions at all. I think they are extremely unethical and unprofessional.

    I don’t think the consequences of her actions should pummel other photographers either. Maybe hiring her for that job was the equivalent of hiring a paparazzi to take a portrait of the presidential candidate. Or… an illustrator. It’s a risk the magazine took. Since the printing press was invented, editorial illustrators have often portrayed political candidates and others in a negative light. Comedians and so-called “news” channels do it daily.

    The assigning editor was likely already familiar with her work, and the fact that she does so much manipulation in post. Perhaps the magazine or McCain’s advisors should have outlined a small cause a photo release about the further “manipulation” of the images, a fair and simple way to manage his political image.

    I’ve encountered agreements that try to control my rights to the images, to protect a celebrity on an ad campaign. I didn’t shoot for them. I’ve also been on shoots with musicians, whose managers step in to control the creative process, to protect their clients’ image. In that particular case, I felt it hindered the creative process. It wasn’t an ethical issue, just how the setting reflected their music style.

    I shoot with a journalistic style and don’t manipulate my images in post. I portray realism. And I’m shooting a documentary about prostitution. HOWEVER, I also have an ethical foundation for what images I am willing to allow the client or the public to have access to and whether or not/how I retouch flaws.

    The Atlantic ran it. And they could have retouched anything they felt unflattering or contrary to their brand. And it seems they stand by the image they printed.

    This is unfortunate. But I think the responsibility falls on the three parties: Greenburg, McCain (only if a photo release was involved and that he signed it), and the person(s) who assigned the job.

    Isn’t this instead, an issue of defamation of character?

  6. Leslie:

    One of the requirements for forgiveness is atonement. Greenberg doesn’t think she did anything wrong. She didn’t make a mistake, she didn’t screw up. She deliberately set up that second lighting area with the premeditated purpose of taking that photograph *while she was being paid by a major media outlet* and while taking photographs of a subject *who never would have posed for her without that connection.* She then proceeded to tell the world she thought that her client, who got her the job and paid her what she agreed to take (at least until they stopped the check, which apparently they have done) was irresponsible, i.e. stupid, to hire her. (On that point I agree.)

    Applaud her chutzpah (or artistic integrity, as you like) if you think what she did was noble. But don’t try to turn this into some kind of statement about low editorial rates or any other tangential issue. She had a subject, she was shooting him for her client, and she deliberately tricked the subject and abused her client’s trust, then bragged about it. If saying that is “attacking one of our own,” then consider me a bloodthirsty warmongerer.


  7. MarcW wrote, “One of the requirements for forgiveness is atonement.One of the requirements for forgiveness is atonement.”

    Not in my book. Forgiveness is a gift. There is no need for “payment.”


  8. As photographers, this unfortunate situation doesn’t help us. If someone as trusted as Greenberg can add teeth and blood to a portrait, how can anyone be sure that I won’t? They can’t (but please be assured that isn’t my style).

    Integrity and objectivity go a long way.

    Leslie, you say: “…if someone agrees to be interviewed and the interviewer asks a bunch of good questions and then asks, at the end, a couple that are embarrassing or uncomfortable, by agreeing to the interview, that is the risk you take. Agreeing to be photographed for a news magazine is analogous. You are getting publicity and you don’t get to control it. You take your chances.”

    I respectfully disagree. Adding shark teeth and blood, behind the subject’s back, is the same as the writer of that news magazine making up quotes.

    If you photograph someone for your client and then spit on your client’s subject, do you expect your client to send you more subjects?

    I see this as an issue surrounding trust and the betrayal of that trust.

  9. She did not submit the shark teeth image (which, I thought, was something she mused about, not that she actually did anyway) to her client. That was her personal work. That makes a HUGE difference.

    Of course, if all she made were mean-spirited images, she would have absolutely violated the trust in hiring her. But she made the image(s) the client wanted. Anything else she did for herself.

    What she said afterwards, there is where the error may lie. But even there, calling it an error is a question of perspective. Getting worldwide publicity, as an artist, sometimes requires doing something totally off the charts.

    Btw, for those of you having fits at me, remember, I’m going to law school these days and one of the first things you learn is how to argue BOTH sides. 🙂

  10. Disregarding her media response and focusing only on what she did–mislead a subject to capture the image she intended–how is this episode any different than Richard Avedon telling Marilyn Monroe he was reloading his camera to get her to stop posing so he could capture his famous portrait of her? Misleading the subject seems like a pretty standard tool in the photographer’s bag, no?

  11. My big concern is the impact this will have on other celebrities who will now be much more wary while being photographed lest they run the risk of being “Greenberg-ed”. I also see magazine contract terms getting tightened up. In extreme cases I can envisage a minder demanding to have all original shots vetted before the shooter leaves the set.

    None of which makes other photographers’ jobs any easier…

    As for Madam Greenberg, she will get a ton of publicity and a stack of cash. She is an “artist” and thus has no such thing as a bad reputation….

  12. HI Leslie,

    I’m stunned at your response, especially being who you are and what you represent in the industry.

    What JG did was reprehensible. First of all, if she had any sense she would understand that she’s not doing Barack Obama and the Dem party any favors here. To me, that’s the biggest thing..she calls herself a “democrat”. She should have enough sense to understand that this is a very close election and that this is just the sort of thing that “her party” might be trying to avoid.

    For you to say that it’s justified because editorial rates are lousy?? That’s ludicrous and I am surprised that you said this…dismayed, actually.

    Jill calls this art? She’s an artist? She’s done some cool stuff, granted. This is just a low end cheap shot designed for attention…You could do this to just about anybody..we are all products of a certain circumstance. I’ll bet Jill has made a few bad or morally questionable moves in her life and career. I think she’s probably dippiing into the hypocrite jar here.

    Jill has also done serious damage to the battle for rights licensing in this’s been going the wrong way for a long time and this is going to add a big paragraph to the paperwork at every magazine out there. Please, you ought to know better.

  13. Again, let me say what i have been trying to get across in all of this:

    1) This is not a big deal, unless WE makes it a big deal. Annie L. pisses off the Queen, it blows over. This will blow over too.

    2) Ms. G. hasn’t damaged anything but herself.

    Look at the (recent) history of art: Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Basquiat….they all have been called craven and much worse and many do not see their art as art. I’m not even saying I think Ms. G.’s stuff is art–that is all a personal taste thing. I’m just saying that this happens, she’s using it to promote herself, and it isn’t worth the attention we are all giving it.

    There are arguments on both sides (note what I said earlier about learning that in school) and it does us all good to look at both sides, even when your position is one or the other.

    And respect is never a bad thing to give, even when you aren’t sure it is deserved.


  14. I respectfully disagree.

    if the editorial rates are too low, then don’t accept the job. it’s not acceptable in my book to use low editorial rates to justify pulling images from the outtakes and manipulating them with blood and teeth to make a political statement.

    and seriously – blood and teeth? that’s what everyone does on their first photoshop job, isn’t it? at least be somewhat creative, ms. greenberg!

    agreeing to publicity is always a risk, agreed. however, I would bet my creative fees for an entire year that the mccain did not believe that the outtakes would show up, manipulated on the photographer’s website.

    greenberg’s agreement may allow her to do this, but I think that just because something is allowed does not mean that it should be allowed, or that it is a professional thing to do.

    finally, greenberg burned her client, the atlantic. after giving her access to a high profile subject, she burns everyone to make the kind of image that is made in every photoshop 101 class in this country. her outtakes (both manipulated or not) aren’t clever or creative at all.

    not professional at all. she has made it just hard for all photographers now.

  15. Ok,

    1. Greenberg has a very particular style that she’s developed over time and it’s that style that she got hired for. She delivered the shot exactly as her client, the magazine, expected. So from the business transaction point of view, she did the job, she should be paid.

    2. If she took extra time to make ‘personal’ images of the subject while he was on set, that’s fine. If she was deceptive or dishonest with the subject about what she was doing that’s of iffy ethics and worth debating.

    3. Calling the client an idiot for hiring you because of your political stripes is a sure fire way to not get hired again. Ethically, I don’t know, but it’s sure a bonehead move in my book.

    4. As for her making this harder for photographers in the future… Come on, this industry is already lousy with crappy ethics, lowballers, outright cheats and liars, and hacks, do you really thing this is going to make any difference. Trust is earned, and lost, by our conduct.

    5. Does this feed into the Republican party’s ‘Left wing media bias’ argument. Sure, but then again she’s a “Hollywood Photographer’ already so she’s worthless in their book. Media bias is a Rorschach test, if you look for bias, you see it.

    This is a tough business where we’re constantly told to do something outrageous and off the wall. Greenberg attempted to do that (whether she succeeded or not is an artistic question which can be debated elsewhere) and is getting slammed for it. That’s not fair. The comments she’s made afterward were kinda, um, stupid and she’s getting slammed for that. Right on.

    my 2 cents,

    ps. Leslie’s just expressing her opinion, if you don’t like it, turn off the computer and listen to Sean Hannity or watch West Wing reruns on Youtube, but quit giving her grief. Photographer’s jobs would be a whole lot easier if people would just tell you what they think up front.

  16. >>>>
    … I am saying that no matter which side of this you are on, there is no reason to get nasty. Saying someone doesn’t deserve respect, for one mistake, seems harsh to me.
    Let’s say she completely screwed this up–just for argument, let’s say that. I still believe that she deserves to be treated with respect. Until someone has a track record of being an ass, then give them the benefit of the doubt. We ALL screw up.
    With all do respect I strongly disagree with your opinion. Can I assume from your comment above that you believed she showed John McCain respect? The photo editor who hired her respect? The editor of Atlantic respect? Do you not see the problem with your argument?
    …First, editorial rates are so lousy that if a photographer does NOT make her own image to get something more out of any project, that is just bad business.

    I would not want to be the next photographer going through the door at the Atlantic. I can see the contract now: You can’t sell the images to anyone else without our approval, you can’t make ”art “ with any of the images without our approval, you can’t show the images to anyone else without our approval, you can’t… well I think you get the picture. And that may very well carry over to other publications as well.

    If someone of Jill Greenberg’s stature wants to behave this way that’s their prerogative, but I think you do young photographers, who might be reading your blog, a disservice by suggesting that this kind of behavior is ok. I can think of no quicker way to kill your reputation in the photo community.

    Marc Carter

  17. Marc:

    IMO, it does not matter whether Ms. Greenberg showed respect in order to call on people to treat her with respect. I believe that humans should forgive others their errors and treat them with respect, even when/if they do screw up. At least at first. At least until there is a full, repeated pattern of behavior.

    Also, I didn’t think anyone needed to be told that her behavior was risky at least. I give people, even young photographers, more credit for brains than that. I think what she did is analogous to what artists, especially modern ones, have done for years–pushing the boundaries of taste well past where most people are comfortable.

    Yes, she will never work with Atlantic Monthly again. And there will be plenty of clients who won’t touch her for a long time. But there are others, edgier ones, who will. They will be attracted by her boldness. Will it be good for her business in the long run? Hard call.

  18. >>>
    IMO, it does not matter whether Ms. Greenberg showed respect in order to call on people to treat her with respect…

    Well you can’t have it both ways. She deserves respect but doesn’t need to show the same to others. Get real

    Marc Carter

  19. Leslie:

    Looks like you managed to shove a stick in the hornet’s nest here as well. I’d be willing to bet that she planned to exploit this opportunity, probably as early the initial call telling her who she’d be shooting. Exploiting an opportunity just because editorial rate are low – Come’on – you think she accepts ‘standard’ editorial rates? And exploiting an opportunity to better your own business does not make one ‘clean’ (read: Enron) She made a calculated move as she has before, and she’s shown previously she’s OK with having some dirt on her reputation. “Clean”? I don’t think so. Maybe nit entirely unethical to some, but she sure doesn’t skate off into the sunset dressed as the vestal virgin either.

  20. Leslie, this really is fascinating issue. On the one hand, Greenberg provided the magazine their cover shot which they used. She then went on to get a little creative (or crazy) once she had the “insurance” shot in the can. Well, that is exactly how I approach an assignment – shoot it the way the client wants, and then shoot it the way I want.

    On the other hand, when I shoot for myself, I am trying to create some art or maybe a portfolio piece without having any real agenda. Greenberg clearly had planned this in advance. Had she grabbed a shot of McCain at an election rally, then it’s fair game and she can be the artist and activist she fancies herself to be. But she used the good offices of the Atlantic to get access for a portrait session she might not otherwise have gotten. She burned her client by making them look bad by using her ill-gotten access to promote her own personal agenda. She then crowed to all who would listen about her duplicitous accomplishment. These are not the actions of a person worthy of respect.

    On the subject of photographers’ reactions to bashing a colleague, it may be that many are just as angry as they would be if someone signed a WFH – it just serves to undermine our profession. I find it quite interesting that many of Jill’s defenders on the PDN site rationalize that because John McCain is such a monster of the war-mongering Republican gang, that any amount of professional misconduct is appropriate as long as it can villify him. Just imagine the right-wing Republican counterpart of Jill Greenberg photographing Obama.

  21. Kudos to Leslie for stickin to her guns….Listen, we all make mistakes and we should all forgive and be forgiven. As artists, we all have the right to create and we all have the right to freedom of expression. This is how most of us become who we are…because we have the gift of freedom and we all get to show the world our unique vision. Not all of us share the same vision. This is why we all create different imagery and art. As artists we have that right. If that right is taken away from us we no longer are free to create. Censorship is the next step. It would be unfortunate, God forbid, that we as photographers and artists live in a society where we are not allowed to display our art freely. Ethics and morals aside…that is HER website and she has the freedom to put whatever imagery she wants on public display. It is not against the law, unless there is a legal agreement or contract signed beforehand, she has done nothing illegal. She pushed the boundaries, but this is nothing new. She is a successful and accomplished photographer. She CHOSE to do this. She knows that there are consequences to her actions, but that is her CHOICE. She is very aware of her client base. She knows that there are clients she may or may not lose. She is ok with that. We all have freedom of speech. It doesn’t do any good to point the finger at her. Whether she is right or wrong, we have no right to judge her. She happens to be an artist that has strong political beliefs. She just happens to be one of the few that has chosen to voice them.

  22. Hmmmm.

    As a non-photographer I’d have to say there are a few simple solutions:

    1. The subject contracts the photographer, not the publication.

    2. The subject owns ALL results of the shoot, not the photographer.

    3. Don’t like it? Tough.

    *shrug* this is the logical result.

  23. Memomachine:
    Except that is not the way copyright and image ownership works. No matter who contracts with the photographer, the copyright and ownership of images belong to the photographer. The exceptions to that rule are only IF the photographer is an employee (as in gets taxes withheld, etc.) of someone else OR the photographer signs a contract (Work Made for Hire) prior to shooting OR executes a legal transfer of copyright (that has to be in writing) after creating the images.

  24. I concur with Darrell Eager’s comments about how Arnold Newman approached the task of photographing a Nazi war criminal. Artist’s are one group of citizens that shouldn’t cave into the whims of evil-doers.

    C’mon let’s call a spade a spade! or should I say let’s illustrate a spade like a spade.

    She did go the extra step and leave off the pointy little tail and horns.

  25. I have to chip in, I agree with Leslie and support Jill. PDN was clearly swarmed by the right wing machine, those commenters didn’t have a clue about photography, that scared me. I’m really shocked at the photo industry’s attitude to this, but it adds to my feelings that America is just a thoroughly right-wing country.

  26. Lame excuses for a lame action… She has discredited photographers from now on. It is shameful. If she was comissioned to photograph her subject as evil, no problem… But she wasn´t, she got a free ticket, paid for a publication, to make her “art” advance her political agenda. Shameful.

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