Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The missing link between Jill Greenberg and Richard Avedon

I had an odd experience recently while browsing through Monkey Portraits, a book by the photographer Jill Greenberg. Now, this is a book that normally wouldn’t appeal to me. You all know by now that I am an extremely serious guy who has little time for cuteness. I like my art serious and depressing. Give me the horrors of the world and psychological strain over kittens and sad eyed puppies any day. Art is meant to torture and I’m a masochist.

So when a copy of Monkey Portraits showed up on my doorstep, I was ready to write it off as a cute, commercially-minded venture that will have much success as a stocking stuffer around holiday time. That is when the odd experience happened.

I had seen these exact photos before, but then again, I had never seen these photos before. I had such a strong memory of these images (that I had never seen before), that I couldn’t shake it or figure out where this false memory originated.

It took me a while but I realized that this sense of deja-vu was because Richard Avedon had made these same images consistently throughout his long career. Not that Avedon photographed many monkeys and chimpanzees (elephants yes…but monkeys?), the connection was the expressions, especially what is being said through the eyes of the subject.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, I came across the image that sparked that recollection. In the image Persecuted, a celebese macaque named Josh, wears the same expression of fear that Avedon’s father expresses in Avedon’s series of him as he was aging and close to dying.

I then pulled my copy of Avedon Portraits off my shelf and started to rapidly make connections between these two bodies of work.

Robert Frank’s expression of bored impatience and sense of not really wanting to spur a lot of attention towards himself is felt in Greenberg’s image Monkey Suit.

Marilyn Monroe’s far away gaze of self-awareness or realization is also felt in Greenberg’s portrait called Distant.

The internal sense of madness expressed openly by Oscar Levant and the macaque Sally.

The wise, yet ever so slight sense of comedy that comes from Avedon’s portrait of Groucho Marx and the portrait of Kenuzy from Greenberg.

The slumped body language and expression of slight embarrassment from Avedon’s drifter is mirrored in Greenberg’s image entitled Yellow.

Beyond these comparisons I discovered, the game of how similar to humans these animals can seem is the note that this book hits repeatedly. And although they express a wide range of emotions, ultimately there really is nothing truly at stake for us while looking at these images. Their power is, in my opinion, robbed by the slick photographic style and presentation within this book. I know it is comparing apples to oranges but I much prefer the raw power of someone like Garry Winogrand. As far as animals emoting and seeming “human,” who can forget his intensely sad picture of one monkey urinating into the mouth of its cell-mate who accepts it cheerfully?

The book, published by Bulfinch in September 2006 has been recently issued in softcover. All of the portraits were done in what look like studio settings with plain nondescript backdrops of mostly grey seamless. Greenberg’s style favors tack sharp description and beautiful studio lighting. The descriptions are so sharp that they seem unreal; often coming across like airbrushed subjects that the Pixar animation studio would conjure.

The book is very design heavy and I find this type of approach typically annoying. The designer seems worried about keeping the reader’s interest through the design rather than just letting the images be and trusting them to carry the weight of the book. Greenberg does exhibit this work as large prints at the Paul Kopeikin gallery in Los Angeles and from the installation photo in the beginning of the book, it probably looks more interesting in person than this form can relate.

This book tries its best to lighten me up (it is entirely meant to be cheerful and fun obviously) but unfortunately, the old curmudgeon primate in me just continues to be a glutton for punishment.

Book Available Here (Monkey Portraits - Hardcover)

Book Available Here (Monkey Portraits - Softcover)


Anonymous said...

great observations! someone should ask the avedon trust to publish this... made my day!

Anonymous said...

I agree with deichman, well spotted, seems more interesting than just the book of monkeys, which I have no intention of buying.

Anonymous said...

Add appropriate selections from Philippe Halsman's The Frenchman and you'll have triptychs.

Anonymous said...


That is why I am assembling an editorial staff here at 5B4 so I can fulfill great connections like that one. That was a great but missed opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I love these juxtapositions, well spotted.

They remind me in a tenuous way of the comparisons that Tod Papageorge made in his book "Walker Evans & Robert Frank : An Essay on Influence."

Geoff said...

hi jeff,

i enjoy visiting your blog on a regular basis, and i find that this method of comparing pictures in books probably one of the best ways to yields very interesting revelations very quickly. really looking forward seeing what else is in store...

is there any chance that you'll be doing comparisons between photography and other genres, like painting and so on? or will this be a photography-book-only journal?

this is coming from someone who is just beginning to understand photography as a genre and knows even less about other forms of art, and maybe with your formal training you might be able to share some insights about how certain themes are naturally suited to cut across genres well...and others not so well. because one thing you've not really addressed so far here in this blog (at least explicitly anyway) is why the photobook medium holds so much power for you, and why you've chosen to write specifically about them. i assume it's simply more than trying to fill a niche in the blogging universe (which itself is good of course)!

comparison as a principle usually yields further insights and value for both things being compared...what do you think?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments.

Well...all I can say is that I will try. I am always interested in expanding the way I think about things (and I do look at all arts and buy non photo books too) so I will when the moment hits me.

Photography is the medium that I am most familiar with, then film, then the curve drops quickly after that. I talk about photobooks simply because in my mind the book form is the best and most interesting way to look at photographs. As opposed to the other arts which do better (mostly) seen and experienced in person. I started this blog not to fill a niche (I actually didn't even pay attention and read any blogs 5 months ago) I thought actually that there must be many forums out there for this same kind of information. So imagine how surprised I have been at the response to 5B4 and finding out there was such a drought and thirst for this kind of thing.

As for your (a bit inflated I think) image of my "formal education", I did the undergraduate program at the School of Visual Arts in the late 1980's and I can honestly say that with four years of education, there were probably only 6 classes that actually I came away that the time and money were well spent. None of which were art history of theory etc or examinations of other mediums...besides I was 20 at the time and as they say, "not the sharpest tool in the shed." The bad aspect of my education is that the school used to be literally divided into different buildings for different mediums and fields of study. I assume it is the same today but I went years without being in the same room as a painter. Unlike the model of Cooper Union which is multidisciplinary.

So...that is the long winded explanation of me saying basically..I will try but I don't often feel capable. I have tested the waters with my readers by talking about film in relation to books and photography. I wasn't sure people would be receptive to those dips into different territories. You all seem to be receptive so I'll do my best.

A great book that does a bit of the cross examination is from MoMA called Walker Evans and Company. (look under my post about walker evans at work)

Anonymous said...

jeff...brilliant, really a wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

If the monkeys are straight out of Avedon's b+w portraits, the studio set up seems to have been left over from one of his sucky Versace ads.

What I don't understand is why this book, books like this, are commercial. Do they really sell? Who to? WHY?

Anonymous said...


That's funny and spot on.

I cannot imagine that this book hasn't done very well. It was released a second time in softcover. These books appeal like many books of dogs and cats and funny animals. My parents probably wouldn't touch a book of my favorite photographers but they might pick this up. Like I would be like a good stocking stuffer for most people. A depressing thought is that this probably did better than many of the printings of Frank's The Americans COMBINED!

A very successful artist that I have had the pleasure of working for the past decade said to me, as advice, "you want to publish a book? Do a book on cats. Take whatever money you get from that...and put it towards your real art book."

Think about how many books of cats there are. They are successful, that is why they keep getting printed. Like cookbooks too.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Jeff. I'll never look at those apes the same way again. Now I'm afraid to go back and look at Jill Greenberg's crying children.

Unknown said...

Wait until you see the ones of the liger, zonkey, and zorse she did for Outside. I don't understand the appeal of these things. What really surprised me were her liger etc pictures in Outside. I thought they were a somewhat serious magazine.

Anonymous said...


At first I thought you either had a lisp or couldn't spell...but I see what you mean. Hybrid animals...zebra+donkey=zonkey. I have to say...for commercial stuff it has its appeal. Unfortunately it all looks the same. As opposed to someone like Taryn Simon who has a look to her lighting but makes individual interesting pictures from each situation. For Greenberg, it is the dull bore-me-to-tears backdrops that I can't understand.

Anonymous said...

the hardback went into multiple printings before being issued in pb. that's how popular it was.

One Way Street said...

Although I have looked through Jill Greenberg's book as evidence at least of my attention to it I cannot recall any double-portraits - in this I am thinking of a potential pairing of monkeys w/ Avedon's portrait of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. (a little bit of wish-fulfillment on my part - following your lead). Alas.

Actually this very satirical pairing of monkeys & Avedon subjects brings to mind how thoroughly fragile is an understanding of "expression" in photography - whether through the anthropomorphization of animals, or the fantasies projected on portrait subjects - it's all an imaginary of character, experience, & a coherent sense of reality actually being visible in a countenance. That the visible is linked to that which is ultimately a process of intellect & language in understanding(& not visual).

Also the choice of Avedon is very succinct - talk about a master of illusion! Not to diminish his talents, but the realities of his subjects are the realities of publicity & entertainment - they are stock-characters, puppets, of magazines & now TV & the internet - a parallel world of stars & images.

Anonymous said...

ah, good old anthropomorphism.

remember the chimps that were shot into space on the early rockets? Well they published pictures of them apparently 'smiling' to show how they were enjoying themselves, and we could all sleep assured that poor old Bobo was having a great time, until a primate zoologist pointed out that this is how apes show fright/fear...

The best intentional work in this regard is Keith Arnatt's 'Walking The Dog' - excellent, dry, humorous but profound images of people walking their canines in South Wales, UK. a great book.

Anonymous said...

anyone know or read that Greenberg was thinking about Avedon's portraits when she made hers?

Anonymous said...

I would doubt that she was although influence comes in odd ways.

Chus said...

This is what I think: Jill Greenberg