Jill Greenberg's photography has been copied, criticized, celebrated, and adored for being ingeniously controversial and painfully honest. She's photographed everything from magazine covers and billboards for your favorite TV shows to crying children and monkeys. However, if you pay close attention, her work is layered with meaning beyond the surface of anything she does commercially.
Her photographing of animals (pigs, monkeys, cats, dogs, and bears) continues in her latest book, Horses, which comes out tomorrow, October 2, through Rizzoli. Featuring an introduction by A.M. Homes and an essay by Greenberg, the book is a closer look at the history and symbolism of horses in ways that deserve your undivided attention.
Horses are prey animals. If you work with prey, they think that you’re going to kill them at any moment.
Where did the idea for the book come from, and when did you start working on it? You mentioned the deal with Rizzoli during your June 2011 talk at the Annenberg Space for Photography, so it seems like it’s been in the works for a while.
Photo book projects usually take a couple of years to complete, but the time-frame for this one was really compressed. Production was pretty crazy given that I had to create 120 images. It definitely pushed the limits of what I could actually do. Early in March 2011, we got the official green light from Rizzoli that the book was going to happen, so I had to shoot, retouch, edit, and sequence the entire book in one year.
For the textual component of Horses, how did you decide to choose A.M. Homes, and how did you decide to angle your own writing in the book?
I think A.M. Homes has a unique perspective and biting sense of humor, similar to mine. She is a rabble-rousing woman, too.
For me, it was really a return to my original muse, since as a young girl I was obsessed with drawing, painting, and photographing horses. I started spending time at stables with my daughter, while she was riding. I was reminded of my love for the form and different aspects of the horse. Then I thought about the bit, halter, and bridle in terms of how we harness and ride this animal. There were a lot of interesting elements to explore. I would spend hours researching online, and I ended up finding this essay by a British academic, comparing the way that horses function in society to the way that women have been oppressed. He had included an illustration of a horse in a bridle with a woman wearing a "scold's bridle," which is a medieval punishment for mouthy women. At the time, I was also working on my Glass Ceiling series, so issues of feminism were at the forefront of my mind.
So you were working on both Glass Ceiling and Horses at the same time?
Yes, I was. I ended up showing the work together in New York and published an exhibition catalogue to go with it. A photograph from Glass Ceiling was on the cover, with images from that series in the first pages, and then a cast-glass shoe and a horse bit join the series in the middle. The book continues with horse pictures.
It felt right to compare horses to women. Actually, I spoke at my Alma Mater last year, The Rhode Island School of Design, during Women’s Focus Week, and I finagled a meeting with Deborah Bright, who is the Head of the Fine Arts department, since I wanted to ask her about her own work with horses. I said to her, "I don’t know what to do, because horses seem masculine to me, but they also seem feminine,” and she responded, “Well why can’t they be both?” I realized she was right. You know, you want to label things and make an easy categorization, but then it turns out that you don't have to. So that was really helpful, having that quick art crit. I do miss that.