Monday, July 24, 2006

Taking more than candy?


Monday July 24, 2006

Taking more than candy?
* Jill Greenberg's photo technique has Internet bloggers up in arms.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

STEAL a toddler's lollipop and he's bound to start bawling, was photographer Jill Greenberg's thinking. So that's just what Greenberg did to illicit tears from the 27 or so 2- and 3-year-olds featured in her latest exhibition, "End Times," recently at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. The children's cherubic faces, illuminated against a blue-white studio backdrop, suggest abject betrayal far beyond the loss of a Tootsie Pop; sometimes tears spill onto naked shoulders and bellies.

The work depicts how children would feel if they knew the state of the world they're set to inherit, explained Greenberg, whose own daughter is featured in the show. "Our government is so corrupt, with all the cronyism and corporate lobbyists," she said. "I just feel that our world is being ruined. And the environment -- when I was pregnant, I kept thinking that I'd love to have a tuna fish sandwich, but I couldn't because we've ruined our oceans."

"End Times" debuted in Los Angeles in April (a portion was previously posted to the gallery site,, and soon thereafter an Internet brouhaha broke out that has continued to this day. Bloggers such as Andrew Peterson called Greenberg's lollipop technique abusive and exploitative, while Greenberg, her husband, Robert Green, and gallery owner Paul Kopeikin defended the work, the process and one another. The conversation, cycling between rational and hyperbolic, says as much about Net communication as about the art in question.

"Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse," Peterson wrote under his pseudonym Thomas Hawk at, a blog that focuses on new media and technology. For Peterson, Greenberg's technique was "evil."

"When the Michael Jackson trial was going on, people kept saying, 'What kind of parents would let their child spend the night alone in a room with Michael Jackson?' " wrote Peterson, an investment advisor from San Francisco. "It seemed absurd. And it seems absurd that any parent who loved their child would purposefully take their children to Greenberg's studio to then be tormented to the point of emotional outrage."

Green responded with an e-mail that Peterson appended to his blog: "I'm married to the artist in question. With that said, some facts: Jill did not 'abuse' the children.... The parents were there monitoring the whole time. This is the exact technique used in ads and movies and TV." Cordial at first, but later, on his own blog, AnotherGreenWorld, Green wrote of Peterson: "He has no morals, no ethics, nothing that would make me recognize him as a fellow human being."


'Much ado'

THE mixture of debate and invective spilled into the mass media -- the New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, Slate -- sidestepping the art world almost entirely. Few photographers or art experts, when questioned, seemed to take umbrage with Greenberg's technique.

"It's much ado about nothing," said CalArts professor of art and photography Jo Ann Callis. "Jill was trying to create a metaphor between a child crying, looking desperate, and the times. It's a perfectly logical thing to do. She should just have lied," Callis said with a laugh, "about how she did it."

But while the art academies slumbered, bloggers worked overtime, debating far and wide across the informal syndicate that is the blogosphere. Internet users without their own sites took up residency in the comments section of Peterson's and Green's blogs, often under the shroud of anonymity; some even found websites that Greenberg and Green had made for their children -- so that family could keep track of the kids' photos -- and wrote nasty comments in the guest books.

The anonymity of their opponents enraged Greenberg and Green. "What this has unleashed, this inchoate rage that's prevalent in the Internet atmosphere," Green said, "has a lot to do with anonymity and power, the ability to express sentiments online that you cannot express to someone's face." So Green did some Internet sleuthing using the "whois" database (accessible at to look up the registrant of the domain Thomas, thus unveiling Peterson as the man behind the pseudonym.

Green promptly posted Peterson's true identity on the relevant blogs, and then he took it further, noting that Peterson was writing blog posts during the workday and calling Peterson's employer to complain. Peterson reported the development on his blog, and super-blog picked up the battle cry. "Greenberg and her husband have threatened to sue [Peterson] for libel and called his employer," the post read. Peterson's "response is a good one: He argues that if they disagree with him, they should disagree with him, not attempt to silence him."

The day Boing Boing ran its post, the Kopeikin Gallery website rocketed from its usual 1,000 hits to 14,000. Kopeikin was receiving enough angry e-mail to consider hiring extra security. At one point, Kopeikin posted a comment on Peterson's blog: "I sincerely thank you for the attention you have brought to the exhibition and my gallery," he wrote. "I have made several sales to people who you have introduced to the work and who understand and appreciate it."

In fact, that assertion was false, Kopeikin admits, but then Kopeikin views Peterson as a fount of untruth, from his pseudonym onward. "I was just sending him information to see if he'd print it," Kopeikin said. "Jill and I were like, 'Let's tell him we're thanking him, because we're selling tons of prints.' ... Which wasn't true.... He totally took it."

American Photo magazine dubbed "End Times" the most controversial photo exhibition of the year in its July-August issue, and the two-page spread received a greater response than any other article printed in the last five years, said David Schonauer, editor in chief. Most respondents have been shocked and angry. An online forum on the magazine's website dedicated to discussing Greenberg was shut down because of abusive posts, Schonauer said.

The media coverage has focused almost exclusively on reiterating the he-said, she-said blog battle, and few outside sources have been brought in to comment -- such as Ilene Knebel of Los Angeles, whose 3-year-old daughter, Elise, was among the children Greenberg featured.

"We got a call through Ford Models," Knebel recalled. "I believe the agent said something like, 'The children are going to be crying.' I said, 'She does that all day every day, so whatever.'.... To me, this is the same as if we go to a photographer who says your daughter's going to be in a swimsuit or a ballet outfit. Your daughter's going to be laughing. Your daughter's going to be crying."

Elise stood shirtless on a wooden box, her mom just feet away, Greenberg behind her lens. An assistant handed Elise a lollipop; Knebel took the candy away. The wailing and the shoot lasted 20 or 30 seconds, Knebel said. Elise "sniffled a little" afterward, but then she got multiple lollipops in trade for the stolen one. These days Elise doesn't remember it happening.

Peterson, who has four young children himself, bristles at the notion that parents or Greenberg can predict the long-term effects of the lollipop technique. "These very public photos will get put up in other contexts, will continue to torment these children," he said. "We don't know what kind of an impact it's going to have. You need to err on the side of caution." (Greenberg said that the children who attended the show's opening were delighted to see themselves on the gallery walls.)

Greenberg is primarily a commercial photographer and has done work for magazines, including Time, Rolling Stone and The Times' Sunday magazine, West. Her first exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery was 2004's "Monkey Portraits," in which monkeys posed similarly to the toddlers in "End Times," only dry-eyed. The controversy hasn't hurt her commercial career, Greenberg says; in fact, at one point Macy's inquired into buying the entire "End Times" series for use in its advertising. The 42-inch-by-50-inch prints, in editions of 10, start at $4,500 apiece.

Career aside, accusations of child abuse deeply offend Greenberg, who lives in Los Angeles. "I have a loving family, I come from a normal family, I've never done anything awful in my life," she said. "Pictures of crying children are upsetting, powerful. There is something instinctual that makes you want to protect them.... But people are taking the pictures literally, as if they are evidence of awful things happening to these kids."

It's true that things are not entirely as they seem; the images were enhanced during postproduction, Greenberg said, to make the children appear more upset than they really were. She used Photoshop to darken furrows in brows, shine tears until they glistened.

In the end, "This is more a story about blogging than about photography," said Stephen White, formerly a gallery owner and currently a private dealer and collector in Studio City. "It's about a generation that's so caught up in itself that everything it says it thinks is significant, even though it's not saying anything at all.

"People in the photography world, anyone who is sophisticated about photography, knows that this is not offensive," he said. "Taking away a lollipop is not child abuse. There's no irreparable harm. I'm just not sure there's any significance to the photographs, either."