Unless

Jill Greenberg’s photograph, Unless (2005) is part of her best known works in the End Times series. This is an image of her own daughter, Violet. The title is a reference to The Lorax by Dr. Suess concerning environmental destruction. The work exploits the raw emotion of toddlers unable to use their words to express themselves. The series features photographs of young children from the age of 2 to 4 years agitated as children due to their caregiver asking for a toy or sweet to be handed back to them. “As any parent knows, rarely does a toddler sobbing convey any real pain or mental anguish. At that age, crying it is one of the main methods of communication, and in this particular instance, a short tantrum provoked by gentle manipulation.” The face of the child is wet with tears and hair splayed and messy in the stark lighting, creates an arresting image that draws one in. Crying children are a common occurance; the photographs of them with dramatic lighting, creates luminous skin and a halo of light along with the light painting, which adds drama. It is something shocking and triggers our own recollection of intense emotions and feelings of helplessness.

“The children’s worlds were not ending by having a lollipop asked for, but if only they had the capacity to understand what was happening to their world—to the environment—as a result of the backwards, conservative leadership in the White House in 2005, when the photographs were made, they would undoubtedly be distressed.” The work played with the irony that at the time where those in political power believed in ‘end times’ and wished for major disasters which would hasten the rapture. The esteemed photo critic and former head of the Photographer’s Gallery, Paul Wombell said that he had never found a series of images which linked to the future until these, since photography is typically a record of the past.

While the work caused no controversy during a solo exhibition at Scope Art Fair in New York in April 2006, during its debut in Los Angeles, an anonymous male blogger asserted unfounded sexist claims against Greenberg in regards to the abuse of children. Greenberg’s techniques were harmless to the children where their parents gently coaxed the subjects into their distressed states of emotions.

The series spawned legions of copycats in terms of the lighting retouching effect known as the ‘Jill Greenberg look’, which continues to be taught in art and photography schools around the world. The works have garnered awards and solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Adelaide, Australia, and group shows at Brown University, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, Boston University, and Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (curated by Paul Wombell).

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Unlessby Jill Greenberg

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