Jennifer Greenburg’s time travel photos, “Revising History” — a Q&A and 16 photos

jennifer greenburg revisin history something funny happened in the kitchen

jennifer greenburg

Jennifer, circa 2010

How did I first hear about Jennifer Greenburg? I don’t remember. But I’m so glad I did, because this photographer-teacher-super-woman always has a new, creative endeavor — one that richly explores the Retro — up her sleeve. Jennifer is assistant professor of photography and printmaking, Indiana University Northwest. Two years ago, we looked at her book, The Rockabillies, here and then, we interviewed her here. Now, she has a new series of works — Revising History — in which she takes old photo negatives collected over many years and puts herself into the image, replacing another person. Seen as a series… it’s Jennifer in a whole earlier life, another time, other places. But, it’s all so… seamless… you would never know these photos are… fantasies. But… maybe they always were?

Read on for my interview with Jennifer… and to see more of this fascinating series — all 16 photographs.

jennifer greenburg ping pongspring league openerthe league night i broke 200Pam: Your artistic Statement is so intriguing:

Revising History is a series of manufactured images that I have created by replacing the individuals in vintage found-negatives with images of myself. I commandeer source material from someone else’s life thus taking over their memories to call my own. There is something inherently false in a family snapshot. Every childhood appears, in images, as idyllic. Every family is depicted as loving and close knit. And often, when we look back at our own images, we co-opt the fantasy that the photograph has created for us. We replace our original memories with something photography has sold to us. It is with this in mind that I have created a body of counterfeit images that depict fictitious memories.

… Can you elaborate on how you even got to thinking about this whole subject, and how it led to the creation of this series of photographs?

Jennifer: I am a professor of photography and visual language.  I have been researching and thinking about imagery for my entire adult life.  I make imagery,  I teach others how to make imagery,  I look at imagery,  I breathe imagery;  It is a 24-hour, 365 day a year endeavor for me and has been for as long as I can remember.  And I am especially fascinated by looking at images depicting the lives of people I will never know.  I imagine the life the individual depicted in the image might live or have lived.  I am seduced by the fantasy that the depiction creates for me. So that is how it all started,  perhaps.

 gifts for the bridejennifer greenburg wedding

Pam: Your Statement sounds kind of ‘critical’ of the falseness of family photos. But… we love midcentury design and filling our houses with it, and I know you do, too! So, to what degree would you say we fans (short for ‘fanatics’) of midcentury culture and design are also experiencing something “inherently false”… a “co-opted fantasy”… recreating “counterfeit images that depict fictitious memories.” Not that I’m saying that’s a “bad” thing, but I’m always interested in probing the deeper reasons why certain people, myself included, are so fascinated in these old styles.

Jennifer: Would we really want to live in another time when life was actually much harder — especially for those of us who are women, minorities or both women and minorities?  Most definitely no!  My thought is that we are seduced by the fantasy presented by Hollywood movies, television and professional commercial photographs from the era.  We wistfully interpret the past and leave out facts and the harsh realities. And I believe strongly that there is nothing wrong with fantasy.  I can’t be transcended by a trip to a modern furniture store like Ethan Allen.  There is nothing magical happening in there to hold my interest.  I think many people feel the same way.  And I am also going to feel depressed about our current disposable culture that provides us with nothing that has any quality or staying power.  Mid Century Modern furniture demands respect.  It’s quality!

 our vacation to niagara fallsthat christmas

Pam: Where did you find these photos? Did you have them already, or did you collect them for this project? Why did you choose the ones you chose?

Jennifer: I have been collecting found negatives for years.  I look for ones that have a narrative I would like to address.  I also look for successful compositions.  That is the hardest part since most were not made by professionals. When I find one that is to my standards,  I look at it very carefully.  If a story emerges in my head,  then I use it.  But the narrative has to be there for me to craft an image.
our favorite restaurantjennifer greenburg family portrait day
Pam: How did you get yourself in the photos? Is that ALL YOU. Or your head on another body or… what? And is that your husband with you in some of the photos?

Jennifer: I put myself in through the magic of technology.  It is my body,  my arms,  my everything.  That is all me.  And yes, my husband is in the photos — his name is Casey Stockdon. That’s part of the project- that the photos are now about my life- so my husband has to be in there.  I wouldn’t want another husband.  : O  )

jennifer greenburg finishing schoolme modeling the latest fashions for russeks department store

Pam: Which two or three are you favorites, and why?

Jennifer: I really hate hierarchies!  I reserve the right to not pick favorites in all instances because I sure do like changing my mind a lot!  Hahah!  But if I had to pick favorites,  I would say the images where something that is just not part of my real experiences  is taking place,  like “Finishing School Graduation, 2011″  and “Me, modeling the latest fashions for Russek’s Department Store, 2012.”

when he was a babythe watermelons were huge that summer

Pam: Going through all these photos, I see a chronology — young woman at play, then married, then with children? Is it planned that way?

Jennifer: Not chronological necessarily. Just a fantasy life filled with normal things that are no longer normal. Who has the time for these things anymore? Who can afford them?

first haircut

Pam: What’s next for the photos?

Jennifer: I will be having a solo show of Revising History at The Print Center Museum in Philadelphia,  Pennsylvania January 11-March 16th, 2013.  The opening will be on January 17, 2013.    I will also have a solo exhibition in the Pingyao International Photographic Festival in Shanxi, China September 19-23rd, 2012.
This whole series is really wonderful, Jennifer. I spend so much of my time thinking about the same spaces that you are now magically a part of … so this can’t help but be touching. Yes, it seems like those were “so much simpler” times… although, we know the ugly complexities were there, too. Maybe we can work toward having the best of both??? Thank you for letting me share your photos and your ideas with so many others.
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  1. Chris says

    Wow — this is just fascinating! I’m hooked! I enjoyed looking and wondering and thinking! Thinking a lot about what you said about how we are seduced by the idea of a simpler time — when, in reality, we probably wouldn’t like it at all.

    I’d love to read more about how and why you do what you do.

    Too cool!

  2. Andi says

    Fascinating on every level, I love these! My crystal ball is showing me a trip to Philly early in 2013, to see these in person. Intriguing.

  3. says

    These are awesome, fascinating, intriguing. I love the idea of them. I’ve got a ton of old family photos, many with people I never knew, and I love imagining the stories in them.

    As for the question about loving mid-century and fantasy/falseness, I’d say it’s not that black-and-white (even though the photos are). I know all about the ways in which things were much harder then, especially for people in my family. But there were also some things about that time that were much sweeter, that we’ve lost. Those things aren’t any less true, and I miss them. That’s why I love old photos.

    • Ann-Marie Meyers says

      I have been giving a lot of thought to why I, personally have been trying to recreate a feeling of a time in my life when I was intensely unhappy, and had no direction, no friends, and thought I had no future. Especially now, at a time in my life when the same things are true again.
      The only idea I can come up with is, there was more color in my life then than now. I may have been just as unhappy, but my clothes were full of bright flowers, houses were decorated in sunny colors, as opposed to now, when despite OUR best efforts, those around us still want things to be greige.

  4. Dulcie says

    Wonderful pictures and a wonderful idea. I just saw Midnight in Paris for the first (and second) time this weekend, so I can totally relate to what you’re talking about with revising history in our minds, which was the plot of the movie. I tend to do that as well, until I remind myself how much I wouldn’t want to live without ibuprofen or a microwave.

  5. Laura says

    This is like David Copperfield gear, right here. You know it’s a magic trick, you know it isn’t real and yet you can’t take your eyes off of it and really want to know how it’s done (but not really because that would just ruin the whole thing). This is really neat, thanks!

  6. Elizabeth says

    These are absolutely fantastic! Love the concept, and your execution is flawless!

    I have to say (and please don’t take this the wrong way!) one of the things I really love about these photos is how your bleach-blonde hair makes you appear kind of tarty next to the period people in the pix. So few women dyed their hair back then, and certainly not the blonde-blonde hue you chose. Your blondeness contrasts with the other people pictured and adds a surreal quality, as if the viewer knows you’re not supposed to be in the picture, and yet… there you are. The question then follows: Are you supposed to be there? Are you authentically in that photo?

    These are just terrific! I can’t stop looking at them! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Kate says

    I think there are two reasons why I love retro as much as I do. One has to do with the overall design of pretty much everything back then. My artistic eye is drawn the the shapes and colors of retro decor — and I so enjoy seeing everyone in old photos all “dressed up” by today’s standards.

    The second reason is — though I wasn’t born until the 1980s, seeing photos from these times and living in a house full of things from the 50s and 60s is my way of having my grandparents (3 of 4 are no longer with us) in my life now. So many times I walk around my 1962 ranch and a certain smell (of the plywood cabinets) or sound (of the screen porch door) or sitting in the furniture that was in my Nana’s house takes me back to my childhood, where I was safe and happy and oblivious to the problems of the world — spending time with my beloved grandparents.

    • Laura in PA says

      Kate, I couldn’t agree more. That hungry nostalgia is the reason I feed my family around my Grandma Brown’s battered Heywood Wakefield colonial style table. She was an army wife, and the table has been around the world several times; Alaska before it was a state, Bavaria, Panama, Omaha, Arlington and everywhere in between. The table is scarred and leans so sharply southward that cheerios and tomatoes and occasional drinks roll off. But when mothering is hard, when the snow is too deep to dig out, we’re out of milk, the baby has a fever, my husband is on the road – I think of her in her cotton dress, four small children in a foreign country. I think about her at that table, cooking familiar food, drying tears, quite literally making a home. These old houses and the treasures we fill them with have stories. The stories remind us of who we were, remind us of who we are. Jennifer’s pictures have a similarly powerful narrative magic – they connect her, connect us all. Few things are as magical as grandmothers. Maybe unicorns.

      • hannah says

        I love everything you just said, and though my grandmothers items didn’t travel the world, I can surely relate. I could not have said it better, how owning the past via decor and furniture fills my world with a certain form of comfort that can’t be got, anywhere else, or by any other means.

  8. Diane in CO says

    I L-O-V-E these!!! Takes Forrest Gump or Flashman to a new level! Simply fascinating.

    The Rib Pit shot with the mink stole is wonderful. I love the minks that had the mink head on them with the mouth that clipped the stole together! Should have had one of those lol!

    Brilliant series.

    • gsciencechick says

      The Rib Pit one is also my favorite. It looks like a fabulous date night.

      They’re all wonderful, Jennifer, and as a fellow academic, I really appreciate your hard work!

  9. says

    I love these pictures, especially since in the picture “Napping with Floyd” there is a gun on the coffee table. I love old pictures and have a weakness when I see them for sale. It’s not the fantasy of a better time, but a curiosity of who those people were, what they did, and where they are now. What made that event special that a picture was taken? What does the rest of their world look like. I’m the type of person who loves looking in peoples windows when I drive down the street at night. I just have a huge curiosity for the way people live and have lived. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Sherry says

    These are great! I find myself wishing I could see the original photo before the inclusion. Just to see, by contrast, what you did exactly. It actually is tricky to know what has been added and what is original in the picture. Is it only yourself you added, or other things and furnishings?

    Do you have “before and afters” at all?

  11. KDA says

    Wow, these photos are intriguing. Looking at them gave me sense of homesickness–as if I’m missing something or someone but don’t know what or whom.

    • pam kueber says

      yowza. that’s it. “as if I’m missing something or someone but don’t know what or whom.” especially since i “know” Jennifer is an “intruder”.

      • hannah says

        It’s ‘every-man’ and ‘every-woman’ from our past being presented through these photographs. Anyone you knew ‘back then’. Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, parents…siblings. It’s all there. Moments in our lives.

        When my family moved from Redondo Beach, CA to Gardena, CA (a mere 15 minute drive away) in 1969, the ONLY thing that didn’t make it off the moving van was our box of family photos – holding memories from the 1920s-30s, to the 1950s and late 60s. Gone. *poof* My mother and I never got over it – baby books of mine and my brothers. Just gone. Thank goodness, some of us had shoe boxes with enough to help fill the void. But it’s something I really try not to think about.

  12. Chris says

    This article got me thinking… have any of you seen the magazine “Reminisce?” It is a periodical that’s pretty much nothing but photos and slides sent in by readers. Many of the readers are elderly, so the photos and stories are really fascinating — really touching — really funny — and really REAL!
    I love looking through it to see interiors and clothing. My husband enjoys all the old vehicles.
    I bought their hardback Christmas book last year and just love it.

    If you haven’t seen it, I have a feeling that all-a-y’all retro type folks would really enjoy it! :)

      • nina462 says

        Our family has suscribed to Reminisce for many years now- we just love it.
        I also found that my local library has a lot of old pictures on file (actually on a file anyone can look at online). They are fab & tell the story of my surburban life.

  13. Michael says

    So fabulous! Does she take custom orders? I’d love to get in that time machine myself. I’m thinking Christmas cards…

  14. Nancy says

    Absolutely brilliant! I was just having a discussion with my teenager about art, what is art, and how do we define it. This is a fabulous addition to that. Thanks for sharing!

  15. tammyCA says

    Guess I’m drawn to the past for several reasons…I’ve always been drawn backwards. Yes, we can draw on the positives and forget the negatives now…I miss the freedom of not locking our doors and taking walks at night without fear…so, even with all the cool objects, colors, and styles of the past…what I really want to recapture, but never ever will is that sense of security & age of innocence.

  16. René Mowry says

    It’s your blonde hair that makes these even more wonderful for me (and even your uh, full… figure.) I was born in 1948, and my mother died when she was just 34, in 1962. She was a hair dresser and was always changing her hair colors and styles. I have so many boxes of pictures just like these black & whites, and you could be she or vice-versa. She had that same sassiness and great smile. She was the center of any photo – you never forgot her, either. You are so very talented. Thank you for sharing your love for this genre. (Is it OK to term it a “genre” now?)

  17. Joe Felice says

    Look how happy everybody was! Makes me feel sorry for us! Post WWII were the best of times for our country. I believe that’s why we honor it by trying to re-create, and certainly NEVER forget it!

  18. Trouble says

    Trying to contemplate my life in the early – mid ’50s is difficult, bc it WOULD be a different life. It’s like trying to imagine what’s beyond the universe. That’s why I focus on restoration and bring things back as closely as I can, with little to no modern influence (which drives people crazy, but….thaaaat’s restoration!)
    You can tell the people are authentic, bc, for some reason, people then don’t look like people now. Her husband is pretty damn close, tho’. As much as I wish I had “the look”….I look out of place.
    Take a look at a yearbook from the 1940s. then the late ’80s. Regardless of the styles of hair, glasses, clothes….people from that time just look…..different. Young, but older at the same time.
    Wish I had the true look…..

    • Trouble says

      By that, I mean the people from the ’40s. They look different, and your average people of today, even in vintage clothes, can’t get that authenticity.

      • George says

        These are indeed remarkable. Never seen anything like them. That being said, and without being critical, something is missing as “Trouble” mentioned. It’s in the eyes, or perhaps it’s a spiritual thing. A noble effort, yet you can’t photoshop the grit which endured the Great Depression and saved the free world from World War II’s dangers.

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