Of course we all wanted to look like Peggy Castle at the Wagon West party, 2014
In her project Revising History, photographer Jennifer Greenburg replaced the central figure in found mid-century (1940’s –1960’s) vernacular photographs with an image of herself. The images are fun and the captions made me laugh out loud, but there’s a deeper meaning behind this project. I got a chance to speak to Greenburg about her process, purpose, and penchant for the past.
I have always preferred my own birthday, 2015
How did you come up with this idea for this project?
Jennifer Greenburg: I am a professor of photography and have been one for my entire career. My research and lecturing is about how photography affects culture, politics, and just about every aspect of American life. Photographs are not usually records of what was present in front of the camera, but rather an interpretation of the photographer. The photographer chooses what to include, and what to omit, yet we place incredible cultural importance on the final image. This leads us to do things like eat fast food that looks nothing like the advertisement, buy products that we do not need, and other counterproductive things that can be more detrimental. I wanted to make a project that addressed the idea of questioning the belief we have in photographs.
I made Revising History to begin a dialogue about the photograph as a simulacrum — the moment versus the referent. Vernacular images create cultural allegories that we tend to trust. We still believe what we see in a photograph no matter how many times we have been fooled. The danger in this is we seem to have forgotten that the picture liberates the moment from reality, erases vantage, and is inevitable susceptible to co-opted or underwritten fantasy.
My dreams came true the day I did hair for a fashion show, 2013
Where did you go to find the original photographs?
JG: I have been collecting found negatives for several decades and my sources have varied. I found a lot at the thrift store back when you could find interesting things at thrift stores. Other times, I would be somewhere, like a garage sale, and someone would find out I was a photographer. They would ask me if I wanted “dear aunt so- and-so’s” photographic archive. They would add, “We are going to throw them away if you don’t want them.” I could not stand the thought of throwing away a photographic record, and therefore I would agree to keep the images.
Once I started the project, friends, acquaintances and even colleagues got very involved. Many have given me photographic archives from their own families. I think most people don’t know what to do with old negatives, and figure if they give them to me, I will take care of them and put them to good use. Each negative is a treasure to me, even if the image is not usable for my purposes. I learn so much from looking at what is present in the image, and from thinking about what I think I see in the photograph.
It took a lot of courage for me to tell him he could not ride my horse, 2015
I loved the photographs in this series, but my favorite part was reading the captions. They were so funny! How did you come up with these captions and what were you hoping to add or achieve by including them?
JG: My grandmother used to write extensive and funny things on the back of her photographs. They included important details about time and place, but also sometimes went on to include unusual details about the emotions depicted in the image. When I asked her about it, she said it was “what everyone did in those days.” When I began collecting vernacular images, I found that she was correct. I try to write the captions in a style that is emblematic of that tradition, but, that also directs the viewer toward something I think is present in the image; something that speaks to an interpretation of the photographic narrative. The humor and sarcasm are small clues that perhaps the images are counterfeits.
For example, “My co-worker was always jealous of my blond hair, 2013,” is an image that depicts a woman giving another woman a dirty look for essentially no reason. “I have never been good at handling unwarranted attention, 2015,” portrays a young woman being pulled into a too-intimate kiss by a creepy man she barely knows at a party. My captions help transmogrify the moment into an iconic symbolization of a type of moment.
I loved demonstrating aerials, 2013
You seem to have an interest in created art that focuses on the past. What inspired that interest?
JG: As an artist, I have always responded to finely made and expertly designed things and to glamour. Unfortunately, hardly anything that I could/can afford made in the past 20 years fits that description. Every morning when I wake up, I use a toaster made in the 1940’s. It is a simple toaster that was probably sold to a middle-class consumer base and is not fancy at all. It makes my toast in about 20-30 seconds. I have used it every morning for nearly 10 years. I have not had to repair it or do anything to it in the time I have owned it. It also was designed, aesthetically and structurally, in a beautiful yet unassuming way. Most of my clothing was handmade by an expert seamstress in the 1940’s or 1950’s. I have a dress that has two giant hand-beaded peacock’s running down the sides. That dress probably took a master-craftsperson a month to make. I paid $60 for it a few years ago, which is less than half of what a mass-produced dress would cost at any store I could afford to shop.
The glamour of the objects left from past era’s led me to be interested in the past. However, ephemera, like vernacular photographs, sell us dangerous ideas that do not include the entire truth. The clothing was glamorous and the cars and appliances were well made, but racial apartheid and gross inequality for woman was a very real thing during those time periods. The ephemera and the photographs gloss over those truths and divert our attention. This is true of so many things in our current culture. The same tactics are now being purposefully employed to divert us from reality. I have looked to the past in my work with hopes of creating a dialogue that helps my viewers navigate the future. I use the past to foreshadow and warn about the future. I worry, now more than ever, that we are destined to repeat our cultural mistakes because we have forgotten exactly what those mistake were.
I have never been good at handling unwarranted attention, 2015
Diving off the shores of Lake Michigan, 2012
I was not the thinnest, nor the prettiest, but I was the winner! 2015
Something funny happened in the kitchen, 2010
My funeral, 2012
My coworker was always jealous of my blonde hair, 2013
Our first joint task as a married couple, 2013
Sadie Cohen was very upset that I got to model in the Hadassah fashion show. She didn’t speak to me for weeks!, 2015
Jennifer Greenburg is an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Indiana University Northwest. Her work from Revising History is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at 40. This exhibition will run through April 10, 2016. She also has an upcoming solo show at jdc Fine Art that opens March 19, 2016 in San Diego. Greenburg will be speaking at the National Society of Photographic Educators Conference on March 11, 2016. To learn more about Jennifer Greenburg and her work, visit her website: http://www.jennifergreenburg.com.
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