A Moving Portrait
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ rise as a portrait artist took time and an innate sensitivity towards his subjects. His works reside in museums around the world from The Museum of Modern Art in New York to The National Portrait Gallery in London. He’s taken his unique portrait style and parlayed it into a documentary film esthetic and won numerous awards including a Grammy Award for his documentary, “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart”. As Greenfield-Sanders prepares for his next project he invites AS IF Magazine into his New York City home giving us an insiders look at where the master works and gets inspired.
Decked in black and carrying his signature doctor’s bag, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders returns home and settles into his studio, after a very positive meeting. Positive meetings have been a staple in this portrait artist’s life for a while now. He busies himself with details for his next three documentary projects. After his hugely successful portrait and film series ‘The Black List’, which he conceived and directed for HBO he has been in the drivers seat. The Black List is a documentary and portrait series featuring leading African Americans in the U.S. and their experience growing up in a white dominated culture. Two major museums have exhibited the works thus far. His upcoming projects include one for HBO about super models from the 50’s to the 80’s and their views on beauty and aging in society, Latinos in America, and a film on the legal rights of Lesbians, Gays, and Transgenders in America.
What makes his documentaries compelling isn’t simply that he finds compelling people. Greenfield-Sanders has transformed his signature portrait style into moving images. Just like his portraiture, he has mastered the art of reducing everything to a simple question of facial expression. His subjects look into the camera and talk directly to the viewer. Just like his portrait work, there are no gimmicks. The result is candid, honest, and, at times, riveting. However, the title of filmmaker is only begrudgingly acknowledged. “I’m a photographer,” he states proudly. “Filmmaking is a hobby”.
Born in Miami, Florida in 1952, to a Harvard educated lawyer and a mother with a doctorate in music. “I was lucky to have very gifted parents, who were also supportive of my hopes and dreams. I was also very driven. I wanted to get out of Miami and move to New York.” In 1970 he did just that, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History from Columbia University.
Studying art history turned out to be the perfect preparation for portraiture. Many critics have compared his lighting style to Rembrandt’s soft sidelight, careful concentration on eyes, and elegance of pose. “Only a fool would ignore the past,” states Greenfield-Sanders. “The entire premise for my porn star series, ‘Thinking XXX’ was Goya’s marvelous clothed and nude Maya diptychs,” he explains. This was followed by a series of portraits of seriously disabled Iraq War veterans for the HBO film, “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq”. The film was first broadcast in 2006, and Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits were described by the New York Times as “the most shocking and convincing proof of the need to end a war
Soon after graduating from Columbia he met Karin and the two moved to Los Angeles. “During my studies at The American Film Institute I started taking portraits of visiting dignitaries, mostly because nobody else wanted to do it. We’d watch every film by Hitchcock, and then Hitchcock would sit down with us for a seminar. Then we’d screen every film by Ingmar Bergman, or Francois Truffaut etc. and then they would come and answer our questions. I’d shoot 35mm snapshots, on an old Nikormat, for the school’s archive. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Alfred Hitchcock said to me, “your light is in the wrong place, it should be over here. Why don’t you come to Universal tomorrow and I’ll have my lightening people give you lessons.” Bette Davis yelled at me, “What the fuck are you doing shooting me from below. You NEVER shoot from below!” That’s how I learned to take portraits – at the feet of Hollywood legends. By the time I earned my film degree, I was much more interested in portraiture.”
In 1978, Timothy and Karin moved back to New York where he started shooting in a giant, 11”x14”, antique, wooden, view camera. His portraits changed over-night.
With Hollywood behind him, Greenfield-Sanders turned his lens to the subject he knew and loved. Art. Through his father-in-law, Abstract Expressionist painter Joop Sanders, he had access to the likes of Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and all the other legends of the 50’s art scene. At the same time, he started shooting the up-and-coming artists of his generation, like Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Ross Bleckner. “It became my obsession; art critics, collectors, curators, museum directors. By 1999, I’d shot 700 art world people”.
How does Greenfield-Sanders choose his subjects? “Primarily, I’m interested in accomplishment. Part of what excites me in a portrait is who that person is,” he explains. “With my injured soldiers project, I was moved by their sacrifice as well as what they represented politically. But, these were tough images for me to take”.
By now, Greenfield-Sanders’ body of work defines America through its artists, actors, architects, writers, musicians, soldiers, porn stars and politicians. He admits that his favorite portrait experiences are photographing Presidents. “I’ve photographed Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Clinton, Bush 1 and 2 and had a few moments with Obama, pre-election.
AS IF Magazine posed the question: “AS IF you were to photograph and film eight influential people who shaped the path your life took who would they be? What would you name the project? Greenfield-Sanders answered: The Brady Bunch.
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