Blog / 2008 / When a Presidential Candidate Is Like a Baby with Candy.

September 18, 2008

What happened:

Artist Jill Greenberg took some candid shots of Presidential hopeful John McCain while photographing him for the cover of this month’s Atlantic. She then manipulated some of those images and inserted captions into the compositions. For example, in one image, McCain is lit from below and his mouth replaced by a pointy-toothed bloody orifice. The phrase “I am a bloodthirsty warmonger” appears in red type above his head.

How people are reacting:

Some congratulate Greenberg because she did not compromise herself as an artist while doing commercial work for the Atlantic.

“Although I admit if the tables were turned I’d be apoplectic, as it is I am just delighted. After a week of being ground into the dirt, figuratively, by Hellbitch Palin, it’s refreshing and cheering to have a win, no matter how below-the-belt, from our team. Greenberg is my hero.”

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Others feel like Greenberg compromised herself by reneging on her contract.

“Is it right that Greenberg would take a job with the vision being her formula ‘ringlight-fill-with-hotter-keylight-with-two-sidelight-hotter-rims,’ but then consciously make the choice to ‘leave his eyes red, and his skin rough’?”

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And a good number lament that these images might have the exact opposite effect of what the artist intended.

“If anything, you end up sympathizing with McCain.”

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Jill Greenberg’s photo of McCain for the Atlantic
cover of the Atlantic with the photo that Jill Greenberg was hired to take

The fact is that Greenberg’s manipulated images (or something very like them) could just as easily have been made with stock images of the candidate. The artist’s works are simply of a higher quality than what many anti-McCain artists have already made. She used her access to the candidate to make some more exciting lighting choices than what’s available in public photos of McCain, and her images are higher resolution than the photos that can be ripped from magazines. But, the works are not particularly imaginative, and they certainly don’t allow room for thought—making them more propaganda than art.

What I’m saying is that the images themselves are really quite disappointing. (One of Greenberg’s manipulated shots shows a monkey defecating on McCain’s head. Now, if she’d actually convinced the candidate to pose for that photo, that would have been something extraordinary.)

The inventiveness and the art lie in Greenberg’s gesture, in what it means for an artist to completely disregard the implicit trust that her subject placed in her. That is Greenberg’s most powerful statement.

Maybe McCain or his people or the publication were stupid to have trusted this artist, but the fact remains that they did and that she broke that trust. That is the powerful intention behind some rather so-so images, and that is what will survive long after we’ve forgotten the manipulated pictures.

In the end, this was an amazing marketing move for the artist and for McCain as well. The controversy will doubtless help Greenberg’s career, and the buzz is exactly what the candidate’s camp is desperate for in the media competition that is a Presidential election. It seems like a win-win situation for all involved—except, of course, for us. These images helped zero intelligent conversations to happen about politics, and they made artists seem untrustworthy.


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