“My work has always been about serial obsessions.” says portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. When he was in his “artist” period, he photographed more than 700 luminaries of the art world over a 20-year span. Then it was musicians – he photographed them by the hundreds. Later he turned his lens on more than 100 fashion designers, and then he fixated on stars of pornography. His latest image obsession is prominent African-Americans.
Greenfield-Sanders’ obsession extends to collecting as well. His impressive photography collection is dwarfed only by his collection of paintings. Yet more than anything else, Greenfield-Sanders collects people.
As much scientist as artist, he scrutinizes his subjects and records them on film, video and digital media, and catalogs the images in a vast archive, whole sections of which have been exhibited and published. For three decades, he has coaxed the most successful people in a variety of fields to pose before his 11×14 and 8×10 view cameras.
In essence, Greenfield-Sanders’ bare-bones approach to portraiture ropes off the subject museum-style for close, aesthetic observation. All subjects are treated equally—celebrities, politicians, even the porn stars. Each steps in front of a plain background illuminated by a single light to go one-on-one with that enormous camera. If you stand back and take a long view of his considerable body of work—thousands of color and black-and-white portraits ranging in size from large to very large—you’ll see a theme emerge: Common to the images is the subject’s unmasked, unflinching stare.
Greenfield-Sanders’ credits some of his finesse with people to his time in film school in the 1970s, where he picked up some acting techniques at the American Film Institute in L.A. “There are wonderful little ways to help people relax or be fresh in a scene,” he says.
For example, if a shot is “looking stale,” he has the subject walk away and return, even if it’s to the same spot. “It gives you a different feeling.”
He credits his huge camera as well. “The 8×10 camera is such an anachronism that people are amused by it, [it’s] almost like a circus prop. People are used to being photographed with a little 35mm camera with someone taking hundreds of images very quickly. I take a half-dozen very thought-out images in a space of 5 to 10 minutes, and the subject is collaborative. I stand next to the camera, not behind it, and I see every gesture. At the last second I say, ‘Look at the camera now, look into the lens,’ and boom I take the picture.”
Beyond technique is Greenfield-Sanders’ powerful persona—smooth, cool alpha male. He wears his self-confidence close as a wetsuit, repelling doubt in his dives beneath the surface of his subjects. “The best way to approach a portrait is to listen to your
subject and sense what it is that they’re afraid of,” he says. “I try to create a mood of trust in the studio. Sometimes I have to show
them that I’m trustworthy by sending signals, consciously and unconsciously. That’s what a good portrait photographer does. I usually
know something about a person beforehand, but mostly I intuit. I’m a lightening-quick study and I’m interested in what others have
to say. Portrait photographers get to meet interesting people all the time. At least, I do.”
Yes, Greenfield-Sanders has met many noteworthy people over the years. He makes friends easily and keeps in touch. So for his
2004 “XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits” book (Bullfinch), exhibition and HBO film, he called on friends Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Salman Rushdie, among others, to write essays. Some of his friendships with the rich and famous began in film school, but most have evolved through private, commercial and commissioned portraiture.
“I’ve stayed true to myself,” he says, noting that stylistically his commissioned portraits are no different from his personal work. “I
never felt I could do lots of different types of photography. I was interested in people. It was natural for me to become a portrait photographer because it’s a good way to meet people.”
Friendship helped forge a creative partnership in 2006 with film critic Elvis Mitchell, his East Village neighbor in Manhattan. The two are at work on their third HBO film, The Black List: Vol. 3, tentatively scheduled to air early in 2010. The series features prominent African-Americans talking about being black in America. The first film was also made into a book (Atria) featuring Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits and transcripts of the subjects’ responses to Mitchell’s probing questions.
Greenfield-Sanders wanted the Black List films (Black List: Vol. 3 is his fifth film) to be animated versions of his portraiture.
Subjects look straight into the camera and talk frankly about their experiences as African-Americans. “My idea was to take my unique style—the direct portrait—and bring it to life in film,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “In a way it’s radical filmmaking because there are no cutaways.” Just as he crafts portraits that engage without gimmick, in his films, he relies on beautifully lit people in unadorned settings speaking directly to the camera to make for compelling viewing.
He cites Andy Warhol, who sat for his camera, as an influence on his portrait and film styles. He’s captivated by Warhol’s minimalist black-and-white film series Screen Tests, made in the ’60s. The subjects simply stood in front of a tripod-mounted camera as he recorded them. “I like the fact that there was almost no direction, just a person being himself,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “I tried that early on in my portraiture. I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
FINE ART INSTRUCTION
No doubt Greenfield-Sanders’ DNA carries a double helix of filmmaking and photographic talent, which remarkably, he didn’t discover until graduate school. After high school in Miami, Greenfield-Sanders got his undergraduate degree in art history at Columbia University. “I wanted to be a filmmaker, but my guidance counselor wanted me to have a proper undergraduate education first. He was right,” he says. “As an artist, having an art history background is invaluable. My work is an homage to Rembrandt, and my porn series is a direct steal from Goya,” referring to his double portraits of porn stars, whom he photographed clothed and nude as did Goya in his legendary paintings “La Maja Vestida” and “La Maja Desnuda.” “My work has always been filled with historical art references.”
Greenfield-Sanders made small films while at Columbia, which helped him gain entrée to graduate school at the American
Film Institute. Once there, he volunteered to photograph the guest lecturers, using 35mm and medium-format cameras. He didn’t really know what he was doing, and his subjects forthrightly told him so, some of them harshly, especially Bette Davis. “Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis and Ingmar Bergman all corrected me,” he says. “By the end of my time making films, I had fallen in love with portraiture.”
The purchase of an 11×14 camera just before he left Los Angeles to live in New York changed his life, he says. “I went from shooting rolls of film to literally shooting one or two sheets of film, because I couldn’t afford it. Every frame had to count. I had a small studio and invited people I knew to sit for me.”The first people he photographed, friends of his famous father-in-law, Abstract Expressionist Joop Sanders, included Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. Next Greenfield-Sanders turned his lens on rising art stars of the ’80s, like Julian Schnabel and Robert Mapplethorpe. He acquired a reputation for his odd large camera and straightforward style. Soon commercial work paved the way to an agent, gallery and museum shows, and his first film, the 1999 Grammy Award winning Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart.
Then in 2004, the unthinkable happened. Kodak quit making black-and-white Ektapan film. “All those years of buying film, I never imagined that the tools I used to make my iconic images would one day be gone. Technology has changed my choices.” But the timing was right; he wanted to shoot the “XXX” series in color. He switched to an 8×10 Deardorff camera and, sources tell him, he’ll be able to get materials for it for another 10 years. “It’s the end of an era. But, you know, if I hadn’t been a large format photographer I would be shooting everything digitally now. There’s no reason not to shoot digital.”
Greenfield-Sanders also uses a Canon EOS D5 digital camera for fun and some work. “You can’t do with digital what I do on 8×10, but I don’t think it will be long until you will be able to shoot a digital file as large with as high quality. My look is not about the technology. It’s about my relationship to the person and the simplicity of my lighting. I’ve always used weird equipment, but I’m not locked into it. It’s just the way I do what I do.” When the time comes, he says, “I’ll figure out another way to do it.”
To see more work by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders,visit
Lorna Gentry is a freelance writer in Atlanta
IN THE STUDIO: TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS
• Two 8×10 Deardorff cameras, with
450mm lenses, one portable and one
mounted on a wooden stand in the studio.
• Polaroid 20×24 camera and 809
• Canon EOS 5D, with various lenses
Hasselblad film camera
• Elinchrom Octabank (large)
• Profoto strobes with dual heads
• Minolta color meter
• Minolta light meter
COMPUTERS & SOFTWARE
• Seven Apple G5 towers, iMacs
• Adobe Photoshop CS3
• FileMaker Pro
• Epson Expression 10000XL
• Epson Perfection V750 Pro
• Epson Stylus Pro 9800, wide-format
Prints of Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits
have been as large as 60×72 inches.
The Black List project was printed on a
44-inch wide Stylus Pro 9900 using
Hot Press Bright paper. Nash Editions
and Primary Photographic have printed
Greenfield-Sanders’ most recent shows.