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)