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culture

CONTACT 2012: Off With Her Head

Strip away a woman's clothes in a photograph and often you're left with an object for men to ogle. "Glass Ceiling" explores the unfortunate world in which we live.

The CONTACT Photography Festival runs from May 1 to May 31. We’ll be profiling selected artists and shows throughout the month.

Photo by Jill Greenberg.

Glass Ceiling
O’Born Contemporary (131 Ossington Avenue)
Runs to June 2; Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

It’s telling that in Jill Greenberg’s latest exhibition, “Glass Ceiling,” none of the faces of the women are visible. In fact, these almost-naked women are barely keeping their heads above the water. The world of art—photography, painting, and all—is (let’s face it) still largely a man’s world. Since graduating with a senior thesis entitled The Female Object, Greenberg has explored this state of affairs and broader feminist questions in her work, remarking on the difficulties women face when competing against men.

In 2008 Greenberg came under fire when she, tasked with photographing Republican presidential candidate John McCain for the Atlantic, decided to create political art for her own website and so cast him in a sinister light. She has since noted the incident in her bio as such: “The violent backlash from her political art has informed this return to the question of what is tolerated by women in our culture.”

We recently had a chance to speak with Greenberg (who is currently on a shoot in Brazil) about feminism, shooting underwater, and whether or not the term “glass ceiling” is still an appropriate metaphor for female oppression.

Torontoist: What difficulties did you find shooting underwater?

Jill Greenberg: The medium-format studio-portrait camera with the underwater housing, with two underwater flashes on folding arms, is very, very awkward. I am wearing full scuba gear, weights, and an air tank, sitting at the bottom of a 13-foot-deep outdoor swimming pool in L.A.

I tend to make my personal shoots very difficult: wild horses, grizzly bears, toddlers. Somehow it works out.

The women in your photographs could be seen as decapitated, dead, drowned, or disposed of, to name a few—but in the centre of it all (in the photographs and physical gallery space) are the high heels/glass slipper. Which do you think our society is more obsessed with: the beauty or the violence?

I think we are all obsessed with beauty; only some of the population enjoys violence (men!).

Photo by Jill Greenberg.

There’s a particular photo that stands out mainly because it flips the water/ceiling to the ground so the woman is now on top. Was there a different message you were trying to send with this one?

Perhaps it reminds me of Narcissus. She is peacocking and her reflection is quite visible. We know how that went. My idea has always been about the impossibility of the perfection we women are told to aspire to. The fact that they wear heels underwater seems absurd, but these swimmers are dressed for work. Heels are part of the costume/kit they wear when performing.

These photographs could be interpreted as women coming up for air after being suffocated by patriarchy. But the women could easily be seen here as fish, and the surface of the water (that is, the glass ceiling) is actually keeping them alive by being above them. Thinking now to the backlash you faced for the McCain photograph, it does seems that women get cut up and chewed out if they manage to pass this ceiling and one-up men. It’s disturbing to think that there may be a metaphor worse than the “glass ceiling” to describe the oppression of women. What are your thoughts on this?

I could go on about the sad state of affairs for women in the world. North America is better than the Middle East or Africa, of course, but it’s misleading to think the playing field is flat. The rules are different for men and women. It didn’t really sink in for me until I was into my 40s.

As a photographer who goes by the name “The Manipulator” and does intense work in post-production, where do you feel the line should be drawn in terms of altering an image (referring to art versus objectification of women, for example)?

I have actually dropped that name, since when I first used it for my website, in 1995, I was one of very few photographers using digital imaging software. Now, of course, “Photoshop” is a verb, an adjective. And much of my work is captured in camera, with lighting. I don’t think there should be rules about images, unless it’s specifically photojournalism. I think everyone needs to be aware that all pictures lie, even if they are not Photoshopped, since slicing a 500th of a second out of a scene, in some cases a staged scene, is not going to tell a truthful story.

Is it possible to critique the objectification of women without incidentally turning the woman into an object in the critique?

No, it is not. It’s a conundrum, but I have reconciled myself to it. Image making and photography, specifically, objectify the subject. There is a power dynamic at play between the viewer and the viewed. This is one of the times that the gender of the artist is significant to the interpretation of the work.

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