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End Times.

Jill Greenberg.
Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles, 2006. Unpaged, various color illustrations, 5½x7".

This is shaping up to be one of the most controversial bodies of work of the year, for perhaps different reasons than the photographer prepared for. Debates are raging from blogs to the pages of American Photo, with heated claims against what has been perceived as the photographer's psychological abuse of her young subjects, to allegations of harassment by the photographer and her husband against critics-all wrapped up in furtive statements about politics and freedom of expression from both sides. End Times is a harrowing suite of pictures of young children-boys and girls toddler age, naked from the waist up-each wearing urgent expressions of fear, agonized sorrow or fright. Packaged in a small paperback with rounded corners and faux leather texture, these 28 photos are shot in high-sheen style, used memorably in Greenberg's celebrity commercial work and her portraits of primates. The lighting and framing cast these subjects into a weirder zone yet: they are hyperreal and idealized at the same time, as if from a high-end car brochure. The sight of weeping, screaming, simpering children coupled with the title concept-catchphrases and buzzwords from the recent past such as "Four More Years," "Tribulations," "Intelligent Design," "Cover Up," "Misinformation," etc.-makes for a series that asks to be taken gravely on several levels. The intended political critique is super-seded by the unintended effects these photos produce in people, from clucking dismissal to furor; gauging most people's reactions to these anguished faces, there is obviously something significant going on here. For my taste, the titles play too simplistically, detracting from what could otherwise be disturbing yet enigmatic imagery. The best pronouncements against such overwhelming power have to employ more subtlety than their targets do. In using an explicitly political context for these anxious portraits, Greenberg may have inadvertently set the critique to round on her: if these children represent our helpless society in an oppressive environment, then some authoritarian fearmonger in either case is causing the distress. "Manipulator," meet "the Decider"; you may have found more in common than you wished. ALAN RAPP

This review was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of the photo-eye Booklist. To learn more about the Booklist click here.
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