When Portrait Artists Behave Badly

Nelson Shanks is a renowned portrait artist.  He’s painted everyone from Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher. So obviously, the guy knows his stuff.

When he was commissioned recently to paint Bill Clinton, he did something kind of underhanded; he put in the literal shadow of Monica Lewinsky.

If you look at the painting, you barely notice it. But he’s candid about putting it there.  Which is a problem for me.

Taking portraits is all about trust. Its difficult enough for me to get someone to step in front of my camera and not worry about me making them look bad, without someone undermining that by purposefully making someone look bad.  And let’s face it, we all have someone who doesn’t like us for who we are, or what we’ve done.
Just to be clear: I seriously don’t like Bill Clinton.  I think he’s beyond dishonest, and I was never exactly a fan of him as a politician.  But here’s the thing: when you agree to paint or photograph someone, you agree to put them in their best light.
If someone pays me to photograph Clinton, I’m going to try to make him look good.

I photographed him on Super Tuesday, before he was president

I photographed him with other photojournalists on Super Tuesday, before he was president

This reminded me of when Jill Greenberg was commissioned to take a photo of John McCain for The Atlantic.  Greenberg, it turns out, hates Republicans.  So it wasn’t the wisest move in the world for The Atlantic to have her shoot John McCain.  Apparently, The Atlantic hired her because she was a little known photographer who was building up a library of work by shooting pictures of crying babies.

Lest you think that Jill’s photos of crying babies were just a great fluke of timing, they weren’t. In order to make some kind of odd comment on the badness of the GOP, Jill decided that she would make babies cry, and then photograph them.  How do you make babies cry?
Oh… well that’s easy. You give them something nice… and then take it away from them.  Like candy.
Jill Greenberg literally took candy away from a baby.  For her photos.  For money and fame.
You might think that someone who does this would just stay quiet about it, and not prove themselves to be an asshole.  In that case, you don’t know Jill.  A quote is in order:

“Making children cry for a photographer can be considered mean. But I would say that making children laugh and show off their jeans for an apparel ad is just as exploitative and less natural. Toddlers’ natural state, like 30 percent of the time, is crying, and it doesn’t indicate pain or suffering,” Greenberg said.

I literally can’t think of a worst person in the art world right now.

Unfortunately, she became famous for it.  Because, you know, crying babies.

So when she was hired to shoot John McCain, she took the usual photos, and then had him get up close to the camera, and turned on a light that gave him an evil look.  Just picture holding a flashlight under your face.  Same thing.
Jill turned in the “normal” photo of McCain (which I still can’t believe she was paid for.  It appears as though Jill only learned one  lighting set-up), and then used the out-takes to create images of McCain as an evil villain.  And even created an image of a chimp pooping on his head. You can see some of the images here.

Putting aside that it was kinda like a 12 year old learning photoshop for the first time…
…If this seems like a breech of ethics? It was.
Photographers almost universally took a metaphorical poop on her head. Read through the comments.  They’re not nice.

The Atlantic, who was not exactly a fan of any Republican ever, found themselves having to chastise her for being a jerk.

So what happened to Greenberg?  After her lollipop-inducing crying on to kids, and after she screwed over a magazine by making their subject look bad?
Well, if you know anything about the art world… you know what happened.
She became famous. She’s been working ever since.

Which just proves that some people are beyond stupid.
And I find this infinitely depressing.