A New Reading of Archival Imagery from Post-war America
In creating a new reading of found images by placing herself as the focal figure, Jennifer Greenburg brings into question the conventional ways we record personal memories, establish a collective historical narrative, and interpret the media today.
Revising History is a body of work made by replacing the entire central figure in found-vernacular photographs with an image of myself. I do this in order to call attention to the power photography has in creating cultural mythologies and in contributing to historical revisionism. A photograph allows us to remember selectively because it liberates a moment from context, erases vantage, and is inevitably susceptible to a co-opted or underwritten fantasy.
Using an elaborate, multi-disciplinary, and performative process, I transform into the subject of the photograph. I replace the original woman in the image with an image of my entire body. The work relies on stagecraft, costuming, and physical improvisation, rather than on digital manipulation. I select period-correct vintage attire from my fashion archive for each image, and I transmogrify my visual appearance using hair and makeup techniques that I learned from vintage beauty manuals. I become a characterisation of the person who was present the moment the image was captured. My end result appears as a record of time and place yet crafts its own reality, myth, and falsehood, not unlike a traditionally made photograph. I look for underlining narratives that quietly hide behind outward glamour. Images that depict anachronistic views of gender allow me to draw an analogy with contemporary problems still faced by women.
The captivating aesthetic present in post-war American photography encourages us to believe that it was a time of civility when it was actually a time of discrimination and gender inequality. A woman’s future, both personally and professionally, was usually determined by her beauty and her presentation, rather than her skills or qualifications. Yet, the visuals of the post-war era act as a mask–covering up and glossing over a past that is more convenient to forget using aesthetic appeal. I utilise those visuals to draw my audience into a conversation about the narrative we have scripted regarding the American past.
By presenting portraits that are transmuted from their original intention, I foster a conversation about how historical depictions of women are used to help us idealise our past. I intend the series to engage the audience in a conversation about the way we interpret the media, record personal memories, and establish a collective history.
Words and Pictures by Jennifer Greenburg.
Jennifer Greenburg is a contemporary artist who works with photographic imagery. Her work is part of the permanent collection of The Houston Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Museum of Photographic Arts, Light Work, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Ontario. Find her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.