Jennifer Greenburg is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Indiana University Northwest. She holds a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from The University of Chicago.
PetaPixel: First off, Jennifer, how did you get your start in photography?
Jennifer Greenburg: As a small child, I was fascinated by my father’s leather-bound Polaroid camera. It was such a luxurious object, and I loved being able to see the results instantly. I remember wandering around Disneyland, at age 6 or 7, taking polaroids of complete strangers.
My first formal photographic series happened when I convinced my 7th grade English teacher to let me do a photographic essay on King Arthur, in lieu of a formal book report. That shoot took place, gonzo style, on the steps of the (Bob) Guccione Mansion in Chicago, Illinois.
But if you are asking formally, I took my first photographic class my senior year of high school. I received a BFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), and an MFA in photography from the University of Chicago.
PP: Who are among you biggest photographic influences? Are there interests outside of photography that help to shape your work?
JG: I studied with Laura Letinsky at the University of Chicago. Before my studies with Letinsky, I knew how to use my camera; however, I did not know how to make a photograph. She taught me everything I know and therefore she is my greatest influence.
I look at everything I see and do as underpinnings to my work. I listen and look closely at the things happening around me. I eavesdrop. I stare. I remember vividly. Sometimes, I even make secret videos or record conversations.
I also think closely about the details and motivations behind what I see. I try to figure out what it might all mean in the grand scheme of things. Then I usually go to the gym and, while exercising, something I saw or thought about gets translated into an idea for a photograph. I am constantly thinking of my next photograph.
Additionally, I have been collecting and archiving vintage clothing and accessories for over 20 years. Through my collecting, I have also become an expert on fashion and trends from the 20th Century. This knowledge makes Revising History possible.
If the styling was off, or the wardrobe wasn’t as precise, the project wouldn’t work. I have become a stylist, a nail technician, a hairdresser and a seamstress as a result of my work. And I love to do all of those things and this project gives me permission to do them.
PP: Your Revising History project involves you inserting yourself into scenes from found photographs. What interests you in this idea of creating an alternate past?
JG: I do not exactly think of it as creating an alternate past. I began the project thinking it might be about that, but in the end I don’t think so. Through my research and cataloging, I have come to realize that all vernacular photos are essentially the same. The only thing that changes are the characters in the image.
Americans, for the most part, experience the same lives. We have wedding showers, play recreational sports, take care of children, go on vacations. And all of those things are quite mundane unless it was your wedding, or your child, or your vacation. In the end, these types of photographs are only special to those who connect to them as mementos.
And so my work does not create an alternative past. I too have the same past as everyone else. I have done all of the things that my photographs depict. I may not have done them in the moment that I show you with my photographs, but, what difference does that really make? None of the things happening in any of my photographs are unknown to me. True, I do not have any idea what it might be like to lay dead in a coffin, but I do know a lot about loss. I know what it’s like to be a bride. And I am a heck of a good bowler.
My depiction of these moments are counterfeits, yet, they are not that different from the real things I have experienced in my life.
PP: In your statement about this project you refer to these pictures as “counterfeit memories.” Explain a little what you mean by this.
JG: The photographs I make are not representatives of the actual moments that they depict. Rather, the images are my interpretation of what I think was happening in the actual decisive moment.
I would go on to say that this is true even in “real” moments that I actually photographed. The photograph is always just my interpretation. And my interpretation, whether I was present or not, could not possibly be accurate to anyone but me. After all, I look through the lens of my own experience. That means the end result is a counterfeit of the original. A forgery. And I believe this is true even in photographs that are not digital composites. All images are merely an interpretation.
PP: Where did you find the source images for this project? And what did you look for in terms of setting or story when you decided which ones to work with?
JG: I buy the negatives from a variety of sources. I have a network of people all over the country sell things to me. They call and I buy what they find. I do not get to pick and choose, which means I have to sift through thousands of exposures. I look through what I have and hope that something strikes me. It always does.
I look through the frames the same way any photographer would look through their own images. I look for good compositions, an interesting narrative, and, for the image to have been taken in focus.
PP: Talk about the process of photographing yourself to match the scenes you chose. It seems like it would be difficult to match the lighting and gestures in the original pictures…
JG: It’s really hard. I myself cannot believe I can manage it. Each image takes hundreds of hours to make and even more to conceptualize. My prints are roughly 24”x30” and there is absolutely no evidence of what I have done.
I do not want, however, to discuss the craft behind the making of the images. That would be like talking about cameras or f-stops. Boring. Also, I think that my pictures make people laugh and disturb people simultaneously. That uncomfortable feeling makes people want to run away from the concept. They run away by asking me about process.
PP: These images display distinct cues of “Americana.” Bowling, television, and the various hair styles we see throughout are all reminiscent of mid-century American culture. Does this work serve to comment on the idea of the American Dream?
JG: I believe it does. My previous series, The Rockabillies, which was published by the Center for American Places in 2009, was a ten-year documentary project about contemporary young people who live their lives like it is the 1950’s.
The Rockabillies do not want the realities of the post-war era, but rather, take a wistful interpretation of that time period. They take their cues, and create their culture, from what they saw in Life Magazine and from what they saw in Hollywood movies. It is rooted in the romantic fantasy of that time period. Ignored are the realities — racial apartheid, limited rights for women, and the Red Scare.
I mention The Rockabillies because I believe that we all do what The Rockabillies do — we revise our history by picking and choosing what we want to remember. I look at casual pictures that I have taken and I notice that the more I look at an image of an event, the more I begin to remember that event differently. Something happens to the memory. It becomes translated into something else — something better than it was in the moment. Suddenly, I remember having the time of my life! Even if, in reality, I had been quite bored at that moment.
With this in mind, I then wonder if the concept of the American Dream was simply crafted by photography: is it simply an ideology made by editing key moments together, releasing them into the culture, thus re-writing our cultural memory? I think so.
And that is my idea behind Revising History: I take over someone else’s moment to call my own, but, I also go on to comment that I am not sure that the original moment was any more real than my fabrication. I am also not sure if that original moment is really any different from any of my moments. Maybe, everything is all the same.
PP: I’ve seen a lot of this type of photo-composite work over the last few years. Can you talk about what interests you in making images through digital methodologies?
JG: As you might infer from what I have said in this interview, I have become disenchanted with the idea that there might be something new to photograph.
I am not sure there is anything left to say, photographically. I think we have seen it all already and I think it’s all been said. Yet we keep shooting, repeating that which we have already said, over and over again. So what I want to talk about now is what those images mean and how they change us, both our cultural memory and our cultural present. Digital compositing lets me get right to the center of this topic.
PP: Overall what interests you in working this way? Is it the fantasy of living another life? Is it to raise questions on personal memory? Perhaps to simply entertain?
JG: I want to raise questions on both personal memory and cultural memory — both of which I think are dictated by photography and images. I want to make my viewers laugh, but, at the same time, I want my viewers to be a little disturbed. I like that duality.
I believe that in 2014, we still think that what we see in a photograph is true, regardless of how many times we are given evidence to the contrary. And this belief in the photograph is a conversation I wish to engage in with my audience through Revising History.
PP: Finally, what are you looking forward to in 2014?
JG: I have an upcoming solo show at JDC Fine Art, San Diego, that will run March 7th-May 31st, 2014. The opening for that show will be Friday March 14th, from 6-8p.m.
Revising History will be part of a group show, Top 50 Exhibition through Photo Lucida and curated by Jessica Johnson of George Eastman House. The exhibition will be held at the Corden | Potts Gallery from March 6th-March 29th in San Francisco and then open at the Houston Center for Photography May 9th and will run through July 6th.
Two images from The Rockabillies are currently part of a group exhibition, Light my Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography, at the National Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). That exhibition will run through May 2014.
I also have work in another group show, Infinite Mirror: Images of American Identity. That exhibition will be at the Washakie Museum and Cultural Center, Worland, WY from February 6th-May 5th, 2014. It will also open at Foosaner Art Museum, Melbourne Florida, May 16th and will run through August 17th. And, finally, the same exhibition will open at The Richard E. Peeler Art Center, Depauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, on September 9th and run through November 25th.