The Elegant Portraiture of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
The Elegant Portraiture of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Lynne Eodice, March, 2005 All Photos (c)Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Simple yet revealing, his portraits are direct and get right to the heart of the subject. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders prefers to strip away pretentiousness when portraying political figures, entertainers, artists, musicians and other intriguing personalities. His backdrops never distract from the subject, and he often uses a single light source to mimic natural light. His work has elevated him to one of the most acclaimed portrait photographers of our time. Learning from the Masters He started out with an interest in filmmaking, and majored in art history at New York’s Columbia University. He later moved to Los Angeles, to study at the American Film Institute. Renowned actors and directors, such as Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock (“the masters of the cinema”) often made appearances at the school to talk about their work. To document these occasions, AFI sought a volunteer to shoot these visiting celebrities’ portraits. On a whim, Greenfield-Sanders took the challenge and became the school’s photographer. With these luminaries available to him, Greenfield-Sanders snapped away, and learned much in the process. “Because of AFI, I got tips from celebrities as well as access to them,” he says. Hitchcock once remarked, “Young man, your lights are all wrong,” while Bette Davis criticized him harshly for “shooting from below.” (“She had some great swear words,” he laughs.) In addition to this once-in-a-lifetime experience, he took the opportunity to build an impressive portfolio of many of the biggest names in Hollywood. His access to these stars bolstered his reputation as a celebrity shooter and he soon got work taking portraits for Interview and People magazines. “I began loving portrait photography more than making films,” he comments. The Art World In 1978, his wife Karin finished law school, and Greenfield-Sanders earned a Master’s degree at AFI the year before. They moved back to New York to a converted church rectory, which became his studio as well as their home. Just before leaving Los Angeles, he bought an 11×14 view camera that became a conversation piece with his subjects. “It was a more-challenging and interesting camera to work with,” he says. His father-in-law is Joop Sanders, a founder of the abstract expressionist movement in New York, who introduced Greenfield-Sanders to a number of artists. Thus, painters like Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg posed for his camera. Over a 20-year span, he photographed hundreds of artists, dealers, collectors and critics. In 1999, 700 of these images were displayed at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, and he published an accompanying book, entitled Art World. In the beginning, Greenfield-Sanders’ editorial photos that he shot for clients like Barron’s and SoHo News helped to pay for this project. In 1979, poet Mark Strand came to Greenfield-Sanders’ studio to be photographed for Avenue magazine. After admiring the photographer’s style, Strand asked him where he was showing his work. Greenfield-Sanders replied, “I’m not showing anywhere,” so Strand promptly called Marcuse Pfeiffer, a prominent art dealer, who launched Greenfield-Sanders’ first New York gallery showings. Coming Full Circle Starting in 1986, he added fashion to his repertoire, shooting for Mirabella and other major magazines. “For many photographers, fashion is the ultimate,” he declares. “But I’m not a fashion photographer. I’m a portrait artist who shoots fashion.” In 1987, he also got an agent, Stockland Martel, who—over the years—got him advertising work with clients like Charles Schwab, Palm Pilot, Alcoa, Time-Warner, and Eileen Fisher. His editorial work developed his reputation as a photographer who created serious, direct, and elegant portraits. As his reputation grew, he became one of the elite group who are hired to photograph people in the public eye, such as John Malkovich, Alec Baldwin, Hillary Clinton, Nicole Kidman, and Colin Powell, among many others. In a sense, he had come full circle from his AFI days; “A natural progression for me,” he says. In the ’80s and ’90s, he continued shooting commercial, editorial, and high-end advertising work, “which pays you real money.” He used 11×14, 8×10 and medium-format cameras. In 1999, he photographed Monica Lewinsky for the cover of her book of memoirs, a portrait that also appeared on the cover of TIME. To this day, he says, they remain friends. “As a photographer, I get to meet so many great people,” he remarks. The rapport he develops with his subjects enables him to reveal the real person behind the famous face. Besides being a highly successful photographer, Greenfield-Sanders has also returned to his roots as a filmmaker. After photographing the legendary musician Lou Reed, the two became friends, which led to his making a Grammy award-winning documentary film for PBS’ American Masters’ Series called Lou Reed: Rock n’ Roll Heart. Produced and directed by Greenfield-Sanders, this film comprises interviews, photos and music, and explores Lou Reed’s life from childhood to his involvement with the Velvet Underground and his solo career. Diverse Camera Gear “Despite the fact that I shoot with a large-format camera,” he points out, “I started playing with digital imaging a long time ago.” He enjoys using the computer to send movies and music to people, and for working with his images, he says. Digitally, Greenfield-Sanders is currently using the Olympus E-1 SLR system. He likes it because it’s lightweight, and “from the ground up, it’s all digital.” On occasion, he shoots with the Olympus C-8080. Greenfield-Sanders is also one of the Olympus Visionaries, a group of professional photographers who work closely with Olympus in giving feedback to develop products. He’s known for his 11×14 work, but Greenfield-Sanders is shooting more often these days in an 8×10 format, as 11×14 film is being phased out. “I still shoot assignment and personal work on film,” he says, but does a lot of “fun work at openings of films and other events digitally.” AOL has asked him to contribute to a digital photography page on the Internet. Original Portrayals His latest book, entitled XXX 30 Porn-Star Portraits, was initially inspired by the ’97 movie, Boogie Nights. “After seeing this,” he says, “I thought it might be interesting to take pictures of people from the porn industry.” He photographed one male porn actor clothed, then the actor suggested that he also have his pictures taken nude. “I just posed him the same way as he was when he had his clothes on,” says Greenfield-Sanders. The result was interesting, but he put the project aside for a while. Later, the legendary star of Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace, died and Greenfield-Sanders says he regretted not having the opportunity to photograph her. He began working on his book “on my own nickel.” Eventually he teamed up with Bulfinch Press and produced the XXX book, which portrays 30 top stars of porn films in side-by-side portraits; one clothed, one nude. As Greenfield-Sanders knows a lot of writers, many of the most notable people in the literary and entertainment world have contributed essays to this book: Gore Vidal, Karen Finley, John Waters, Lou Reed, and John Malkovich among them. Additionally, each of the porn stars has written a brief biography. The book has become a huge success. With its unique double portraits of each actor, this book is a very original, artistic portrayal of today’s adult film stars. Greenfield-Sanders says, “It’s more than a book, it’s a CD, DVD and documentary.” He made the documentary on XXX for HBO. Not surprisingly, XXX has also garnered much attention from the press, “From Hustler to Artforum.” Upcoming projects include plans for a book of comedians’ portraits, which, according to Greenfield-Sanders, will have a similar treatment to XXX. He continues to do advertising work for clients like Alcoa, as well as being a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair, Index, and a myriad of other publications. He’s also recently photographed Bill Murray for the cover of Cigar Aficionado. Whatever direction he chooses to take, Greenfield-Sanders has earned the right to take some artistic chances with his portraiture. And without a doubt, his work will continue to be critically acclaimed. Advice from a Portrait Artist For those who want to learn about portrait photography-beyond the technical aspects-Greenfield-Sanders offers a few words of wisdom. 1. “One of the greatest things you can do is sit for a portrait yourself,” he asserts. When you pose for another photographer, you can see what he/she does wrong, and learn from those mistakes. “Always go back to being in the subject’s shoes.” 2. How does he relax his subjects? “Let people express themselves. It will put them at ease,” he replies. He doesn’t often have a lot of time to work with his subjects, but he knows how to make them feel relaxed. He says it’s difficult to explain exactly what to say to your subjects, but it’s important to know what he/she wants. In the years that he’s been photographing people, he says, he developed sensitivity in approaching them. “It’s always about the person,” he says. 3. “I don’t ask people to smile for a portrait sitting unless it’s really necessary,” says Greenfield-Sanders. He says this expression can appear superficial. Also, as he points out, when you look at a person grinning in a portrait, the teeth are usually the brightest part of the picture. In his portraits, he would prefer that the viewer’s eye be drawn to the subject’s eyes, not the mouth. He feels that a subject will assume a natural pose in front of the lens if you allow the person to be him/herself and is not carefully posed. What about the smiling face of Hillary Clinton in profile? “It’s an unusual portrait for me,” he notes. To see more of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ work, log onto