Parting Shots

Parting Shots Book of backstage portraits takes the focus off fashion and frames celebrity pop culture – Jennie Yabroff, Special to The Chronicle Sunday, September 10, 2006 (09-10) 04:00 PDT New York — Diddy gave him 45 seconds. Heidi Klum jumped into Michael Kors’ lap. Lou Reed didn’t take off his parka. Jenna Jameson kept her shirt on. For the past three seasons they’ve come, alone or in pairs, eagerly or with coaxing, to sit before Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ camera as he documented the theater of fabulousness backstage at Olympus Fashion Week in New York’s Bryant Park. This year’s festivities, with their customary mix of celebrity and fashion, started Friday and will run through Saturday. Many of the portraits are collected in “Look: Portraits Backstage at Olympus Fashion Week” ($39.95; powerHouse Books), which includes essays by Greenfield-Sanders, Katie Couric and Alec Baldwin, among other fashion enthusiasts and insiders. The subjects, too, are a mix of the generally obscure — who are well-known within the world of fashion, like Steven Kolb, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of In Style — and the famous, whose connection to fashion is more tenuous, like the singer Brandy, the tennis player James Blake and performance artist Karen Finley, pictured demurely with her daughter, Violet Overn. As Martha Nelson, editor of People Group magazines, says in one of the essays: “Designers are the real stars of Fashion Week, and their collections are the reason people flock to the tents at all hours, in all weather. But no one can deny that celebrities can make a runway sparkle.” “The show was once an industry event, and now it’s a worldwide-covered media event,” says Greenfield-Sanders, explaining why the shows draw such a diverse group of beautiful people. “The fashion tent has become such an important place that everyone understands it as a great way to get publicity and be seen in. If you look at Oscars, 90 percent of coverage is what people are wearing. It’s all about the clothing.” But the pictures in “Look,” he takes pains to point out, are not really about fashion, and very few of the models pictured wear the clothes they modeled on the runway. “The book is about the people who come to this crazy event,” the photographer says. “The real show is always going on backstage.” Greenfield-Sanders, a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair, has been photographing fashion, and stylemakers, on and off since 1986, but the Fashion Week project began two years ago, when Olympus took over as sponsor of the event. The company built a studio for him backstage in the tent and armed him with a digital camera. It was a fairly radical change of working style for the photographer, who usually shoots his subject with a large-format camera in the quiet, spacious studio that makes up the ground floor of his East Village home. “It was a great way to meet a lot of people very quickly,” Greenfield-Sanders says of the frenetic environment. His sessions lasted 10 minutes at most, with many subjects giving him less than a minute. “Some of them were jumping in on the way to their car — Diddy didn’t have a lot of time, so he said, ‘OK, you have three frames.’ I said, ‘Fine,’ I took three frames and said, ‘We’re done.’ “If you can focus and get them to focus, you don’t need a lot of time,” Greenfield-Sanders added. He usually knows what he wants before he even picks up his camera. “I have the picture in mind before the person sits down. I do it by meeting the person and watching him or her very unconsciously. I’ve been doing this so long I know how to do that dance of getting someone right.” It helped, too, that many of his subjects knew him from his most recent work, “XXX,” a series of portraits of porn stars, both clothed and nude, that also became an HBO documentary. “People (from the fashion world who were posing) came in and asked if I was going to have them take their clothes off,” the photographer said, laughing. He sees the leap from porn to fashion as a natural. “The influence of porn on fashion is enormous. The porn look, the skimpiness of clothing, has been commodified by (the) fashion industry over (the) past few years. The hip-hop stars bring porn stars into their videos, then the designers design stuff that looks like what you see in videos, so there’s a real mingling of both worlds.” As with “XXX,” the portraits in “Look” are surprisingly restrained, considering the flamboyance of the subjects. The veteran ’60s designer Betsey Johnson, whose picture is on the cover of the book, looks fiercely energetic in her trademark bright red lipstick and bleached bangs, but other sitters appear uncharacteristically demure. Bijou Phillips wears a modest pink dress and muted makeup, her hair soft and loose. Paris Hilton looks genuinely sweet as she cuddles her Chihuahua. In the book, Heatherette designers Richie Rich and Traver Rains describe an early close encounter with Hilton and model Naomi Campbell. “One of our most memorable backstage moments was from our Spring/Summer 2005 show,” they write. “Our big surprise at the end of the show was supposed to be Naomi Campbell walking for us as the grand finale. Naomi had to present onstage at Fashion Rocks the same night and no one was confident that she could make it in time. Paris Hilton had shown up right before show time (and) Paris wanted to walk, so we gave her two looks. Toward the end of the show, Naomi still hadn’t shown, so we figured she wasn’t making it. Naomi’s finale dress was made entirely out of mirrored plastic stars with a bikini underneath, so while our friend and muse Amanda Lepore walked the runway, we put Paris in Naomi’s dress for the finale. “While the models were prepping for the finale, Naomi burst into the backstage area and frantically started looking for her dress. We grabbed the dress and bikini off Paris and stuck it on Naomi, threw Paris’ second look back on her, and sent her out to stall some more while we got Naomi into the complicated dress. She didn’t have time to get the bikini top under the dress, so she threw it up in the air and slid out onto the catwalk to a standing ovation and cheers like we’ve never heard at a fashion show.” Of photographing Hilton, Greenfield-Sanders says, “I think Paris is a complicated person, and it’s very hard being Paris. I think she’s getting better at it.” Despite the hectic working environment, the photographer managed to create a moment of stillness within each portrait. “I do try to keep it very meditative, contemplative,” he says, joking that he brings out “the least in people.” He is particularly fond of the portrait of “Project Runway” stars Heidi Klum and the designer Michael Kors, which captures their genuine shared affection and underscores the importance of relationships in the fashion world. “It’s not typical of my work because it has so much energy that I tend to shy away from,” he says. “But I love this picture because it was a wonderful moment — his eyes are closed, and she’s kissing him, and clearly they’re dear friends. That’s what comes through, and that’s what’s important there, that there is a great bond between them.” As for his own sense of personal style, the photographer insists he wears a standard uniform of black T-shirt and black pants because “it’s so nondescript, so easy,” though he does own a Jil Sander suit he’s quite fond of. Fashion itself, he feels, is ultimately limited: “What you see on the runway hasn’t changed that much. You can reinvent the cowboy look or the military look, but there’s only so many things you can recycle. What’s changed is the obsession with fashion, and the power of fashion, and the understanding by celebrities that it’s important to their career. “Fashion Week has become this pop culture event that sort of crystallizes what’s in our society today.” Jennie Yabroff is a New York freelancer.