Photographer Profile – Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Photography and filmmaking are related, certainly, but for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the two mediums are unusually and creatively entwined, and they have been so since the beginning of his career. He got his first lesson in shooting portraits, in fact, while he was in film school.

And it came from Alfred Hitchcock.

In the mid-1970s, Greenfield-Sanders was attending the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, planning to become a filmmaker, when the legendary director came to the school to speak at a seminar. A photo of Hitchcock was needed for AFI’s archive, and Greenfield-Sanders volunteered to take it. “The other students didn’t want to—photography was beneath them,” he says.

When Hitchcock arrived and Greenfield-Sanders began taking pictures, the Master of Suspense turned to him with disapproval. “He said, ‘Young man, your lights are in the wrong place.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m just starting out,’” recalls Greenfield-Sanders. Taking pity, Hitchcock later brought the novice to his studio and introduced him to his own lighting people, who offered some constructive insights.

Greenfield-Sanders thereafter volunteered to photograph other film luminaries who came to speak at AFI, from Bette Davis to a young Steven Spielberg. “I started to fall in love with portraiture and eventually bought an 11 x 14-inch Deardorff camera, and when I moved back to New York, I was a photographer and not a filmmaker,” he says.

Today Greenfield-Sanders is a legend in his own right, having used his Deardorff to photograph generations of artists, actors, writers, scientists and politicians in an identifiable visual style that is both intimate and iconic. Over the past 15 years, however, he has also returned to his first love, filmmaking, creating a number of acclaimed documentaries for PBS and HBO.

In 2008, after creating films about a rock star (Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart) and porn stars (Thinking XXX), Greenfield-Sanders directed The Black List, a documentary featuring interviews with African Americans like Chris Rock, Colin Powell, Toni Morrison and Serena Williams, who talked revealingly about their struggles and achievements as black people in America. That film was followed by two more Black List films, and then The Latino List (2011), The Out List(2013), and The Boomer List (2014).

Greenfield-Sanders’s latest documentary, The Women’s List, will air on PBS’s American Masters series on September 25. It features interviews with a diverse range of people, from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Spanx creator Sara Blakely, speaking about their lives. Like the other List films, the new documentary establishes a framework for discussing ideas about identity and accomplishment, as well as discrimination and marginalization of groups within American society.

And like his other films, it does so with a warmth and directness that, at least in part, comes from its distinctive look — one that Greenfield-Sanders developed in his still photography using a single diffused light source and a gray backdrop, with his subjects looking straight into his camera.

Interestingly, as more and more documentary films flood the market, and as photographers scramble to learn the skills of filmmaking in the digital age, Greenfield-Sanders has found success by essentially fusing still photography with filmmaking, creating a new genre, the living portrait.

“It’s the kind of thing that looks simple,” says Greenfield-Sanders, “but it’s not.”

The Distinctive Look

Greenfield-Sanders allows viewers to consider his films’ subjects as individuals within a larger context. “The making of the list is the fun part and the hard part of these films,” he says. “For instance, how do you pick 15 women to represent 150 million American women?”

To create the remarkable directness of his interviews, he has been relying on the same essential camera setup for all his List films — one that makes use of a teleprompter-like device. “The person being interviewed is looking directly into the camera lens, but what she or he is seeing is me. But I’m actually in another room asking questions,” he says. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris shoots interviews in a similar way — rather frighteningly, he calls his teleprompter device the “Interrotron” — and these days, says Greenfield-Sanders, you see the technique being used everywhere.

“All the TV commercials are being shot direct to camera,” he says. “The reason everyone is doing it is that it is very effective.” As the interview subject stares into the camera lens, a heightened affinity is established with the viewer, who shares the director’s perspective. But what truly sets Greenfield-Sanders’s films apart visually is his lighting.

“Shocking as it may be, after all these years as a photographer, I know how to light,” he says. “A lot of interviews you see are overlit. The worse thing you can do is overlight.”

For the new film, Greenfield-Sanders shot with a RED digital camera. (Previously, he used a pair of Panasonic HVX200 cameras ganged together, one for close-ups and one for medium shots.) In his still photography, he shoots on film with his big Deardorff. “While there is still film, I will be shooting film. I hope to shoot the last sheet of 8 x 10,” he says.

Accompanying the documentary is an exhibition of portraits of the women in the film, along with 35 other notable women Greenfield-Sanders has photographed over the years. The work will be on view in the lobby of the Hearst Building in New York City this fall.

“We do about an hour with the subjects on camera for the films, and then I get anywhere from three minutes to 15 minutes to shoot six to eight frames for the portraits,” he says. “There are some constrictions from working in large format, but at this point I can look at anyone and tell quickly what’s going to be a great picture.”

The Role of the Director

Greenfield-Sanders says that even when he is shooting stills, he thinks of himself as a director — using the same fundamental skill set he employes as a filmmaker, which is to make people comfortable.

“When people come to my studio to be interviewed, I’m keenly aware of how they’re feeling, and how to get them from the door to the set with the lights turned on and the camera running, feeling like they can trust us,” he says. “That’s why these films are strong. It’s a combination of many things. It’s not just beautiful lighting, and it’s not just getting someone comfortable, or the simple backdrop. It’s all of these things combined. One little mistake, and it all falls apart.”

There have been a couple of misfires. “In doing the films over the years, we’ve had one or two people who were bad choices,” Greenfield-Sanders says. “What’s hard sometimes is that a lot of people now are media trained, so you have to get past these stories they’ve told a million times and get to something that’s new and maybe revealing.”

Of all his subjects, he says, porn stars were the most fun to work with. “They’re exhibitionists, and for a photographer there’s nothing better than that,” he says. Shooting supermodels for his 2012 documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, which was also accompanied by a photo exhibition, was more difficult, he says.

“These are people who are very savvy about being photographed,” he says. “But with the models, they would walk in, and you could see the relief in their faces when they saw my lighting.”

They would probably have been surprised to learn they had Alfred Hitchcock to thank for that.

Lawrence Fishbourne
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