Woman Perfectly Adds Herself to Other People’s Old Photos
At first glance, Jennifer Greenburg’s photos look like the type of thing you’d find in any family photo album. There she is at a wedding. Winning a pageant. Dancing at a party and diving into the lake. But things aren’t what they seem. Those aren’t her photos, and she doesn’t always know who’s photos they are. Greenburg digitally inserted herself into all of them.
Greenburg has been inserting herself into other people’s photos since 2009, doing so with such skill that you believe they’re real snapshots—until you realize there’s no way anyone could marry so many times in one year. “That becomes a clue that there is something broader going on within the work than just a series of portraits,” Greenburg says.
She drew inspiration for the project, so perfectly titled Revising History, from the role photography plays in people’s tendency to idealize the past. Personal images typically chronicle joyous or monumental events like birthdays and weddings, and people so often point to vintage photos of smiling teens and happy couples as evidence of a happier, simpler era. “I discovered that each of us revise our own memories in favor of something we think we see in our photographs. Boring parties are redrafted into amazing evenings, our youth reformed into carefree epochs,” Greenburg says. “Reality is replaced with a nostalgic appropriation.”
Our first joint task as a married couple, 2013
Greenburg, an associate professor at Indiana University Northwest, came upon her collection of vintage photographs almost entirely through serendipity. Being a photographer, friends often give her old photos from long-dead relatives and the like. Even though she rarely had any connection to them, throwing them away wasn’t an option. “I accepted the images, and became a guardian for the memories of strangers, without having a good reason, she says.
She draws from this archive for the project, choosing images that depict the moments, tropes and poses found in almost any family album. The candid shot at a party. The cake-cutting at a wedding. Even a funeral. While Greenburg makes her images appear easy, it’s almost impossible to overstate the time and skill that goes into every photo. Each image requires “hundreds of hours” of work finding the costumes, making the photo, and blending it so seamlessly into the original. Yet her performance as the model is the biggest challenge, and most important component. Greenburg must become someone else. “Becoming the embodiment of a person is no easy task,” she says. “Everything has to be just perfect or else I have to scrap it all and start again.”
Greenburg considered making more images with modern photographs, but current technology makes it tricky. No one prints photos anymore, and when someone dies, there’s little chance of a relative handing her an SD cards full of images. “I am just like everyone else—a pile full of disks and nothing like a tangible record to show,” she says. “And no matter how sad I think that is, and how much I like looking through my parent’s albums, I never change it in my own life.”
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