The Portrait’s The Thing

The Portrait’s The Thing By William Sawalich Digital Photo Pro Magazine November 2006 For an ambitious project spanning several years of the New York spectacle that’s Fashion Week, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders shed his 8×10 view camera in favor of small-format digital capture Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a master portrait photographer. Working with large-format film cameras for nearly 30 years, he has built a body of work that has earned him the reputation as one of the best at his craft. From artists to actors, presidents to porn stars, everybody who’s anybody has sat for him. Taking a studied approach to the creation of individual images, in addition to their organization within a cohesive body of work, Greenfield-Sanders has perfected his own portrait style. His projects usually center on the study of a particular subculture, such as the personalities of politics, the art world or adult films. His most recent book, Look: Portraits Backstage at Olympus Fashion Week, is a study of the faces on the bleeding edge of the fashion world. For the last three seasons, Greenfield-Sanders has taken his studio on location to a tent backstage at New York’s Olympus Fashion Week, the biannual event where designers showcase their spring and fall collections. Sponsored by Olympus’ Visionaries program, Greenfield-Sanders took the opportunity to face the inevitable and do something he had never done before. “It’s certainly the first digital project that I’ve ever done,” he explains. “I’ve shot snapshots for years because they’re fun to do and easy to e-mail-and kind of an inevitable turn for every photographer in the digital world. I don’t think it’s something I can control. My film that I used for 20 years, my 11×14 black-and-white film, is no longer made, and 8×10 is getting increasingly more difficult to get.” Fashion-Forward For the Fashion Week project, Greenfield-Sanders used digital cameras. While the experience itself was unique, the pluses of working digitally weren’t entirely unknown. “I’m totally into digital,” he says. “I would love to get a large-format back for my own camera. I’m much more known for large-format work, but I love computers and digital cameras and all this stuff. I shoot 8×10 transparency, scan it and then we work with all the materials digitally from then on. It’s all done on computers. I think it’s interesting and has a great use.” Greenfield-Sanders considers digital retouching a necessary part of his process. He doesn’t use it to repair poor workmanship, but rather sees it as another way to make the most of his time with his subjects. “I think retouching is just another tool,” he explains. “I look at it this way. If I wanted to make you look bad, I could light you in a very ugly way. So I choose to use lights in a certain way where you look good. And I can choose to change the image later on in Photoshop to make you look good just as easily, so I don’t think there’s much difference. Can it be overly used or used poorly by unartistic people? Sure. Just look around. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it’s a lot easier to take a picture and know that you’re going to retouch the way the skirt is falling later because to stop what you’re doing and fix it is so distracting and could ruin the mood of the moment. So you have to kind of decide as a photographer, ‘Am I going to be really specific right now or am I going to fix it later?’ And I think that’s a smarter way to shoot because it’s the moment that you have with the subject that’s so critical.” Greenfield-Sanders only had a moment to shoot many of his subjects during the Fashion Week sessions. Although the digital cameras would have enabled him to quickly shoot far more frames than usual, he chose not to throw all of his large-format discipline out the window and worked in the same deliberate fashion as he does in his New York studio. “I don’t take a lot of pictures when I work in large format, and I didn’t take a lot here,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “If you know what you’re doing and you know how to shoot, I think in 10 frames you can get a good picture. So I tried to think of each frame that I was clicking as an important image, that I wasn’t just shooting and hoping at the end that I’d have something. The more you shoot, the more work you have later on. So if you can be very disciplined, it’s worth it in the end. Imagine 200 people times X amount of shots-it’s unbearable.” Though the digital cameras are certainly fast, Greenfield-Sanders says that even when he’s working with a mammoth view camera he’s not a slow shooter. Speed helps keep things interesting for his subjects. “I’m very fast,” he says. “I shoot 8×10 like it’s 35mm-but only because I have two or three assistants and I know what I’m doing at this point. I’ve been doing it for so long that I can look at something upside down and see it very clearly. I feel posing for a photographer is dull, basically. So it’s up to me to make it feel quick and fun and easy; otherwise, it’s just boring. I posed for someone the other day, and I almost fell asleep I was so bored by it.” With more than 200 subjects eager to sit for Greenfield-Sanders during Fashion Week, time was of the essence. He found that his ability to work quickly, needing only a few exposures, was a great asset. “Anywhere from a great 30 seconds to an hour,” Greenfield-Sanders says of the time with them, “depending on how they enjoyed sitting back there with us and getting away from the paparazzi. Lindsey Lohan-I don’t think we had more than two minutes. I took, like, six frames. Literally, they said you’re only going to get 30 seconds with her. I said that’s all I need, and I stopped before they asked me to. And I got a good shot, I think. There were some people who were difficult, but in the end they seemed to like the pictures. Try to imagine how hard it is to be a designer whose work is about to be shown on the runway and you’re five minutes before that posing for a portrait and trying to be cool and collected. It’s not easy. It was a very hard place to shoot people, in that sense, but also it was an easy place because there were so many great people around.” Part of Greenfield-Sanders’ success as a portrait artist stems from this sense of empathy and devotion to his subjects. He’s able to concentrate on the psychological aspects of portraiture by keeping his lighting, though precise, quite simple. It’s almost always from a single source-the largest and softest source possible. He worries less about crafting elaborate lighting and more about putting subjects at ease. “I think that it shouldn’t be all about lighting,” he says. “I think that if you look at a picture and say, ‘Gee, how did he light that? What’s this lighting system?’-then it becomes about something technical and not about the person. So for me, it should feel like one light, daylight, very simple, unobtrusive. “In my studio, it’s kind of a dance,” he adds. “From the moment someone walks in, I’m trying to figure out what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re interested in-trying to find something we both have in common. Also, my studio is in my house, so people know who I am by my art, my furniture-it’s my setting.” Out of his home element, the relational challenges for Greenfield-Sanders were amplified. Putting an intense, tense, tired or wired subject at ease can be difficult under any circumstances. In the frenzied backstage world of fashion’s biggest week, it’s a near impossibility. “It was a challenge,” he says, “but that’s what I’m good at, I guess. I try and think about what that person has come from as they arrive into my space. I try to get into their shoes and that’s always very helpful. In general, and particularly here where they have just come off the runway themselves or they have been sitting in the front row and they have been attacked by all the press, my job is to sort of relax them and, say, ‘Oh, this is nothing, just a quick little shot. Sit here, here’s what it looks like, you look great.’ Little things like that make a big difference. “I think people tend to show you who they are if you let them,” he continues. “I try to create an atmosphere where they’re feeling comfortable enough to present themselves to me. I’m very open to people’s ideas. I’m not a photographer who feels threatened by people saying ‘Why don’t you try this?’ or ‘Do you think this would work?’ I like that. I got that from Warhol. Warhol was very open to everyone else around him.” Timeless Quality Greenfield-Sanders’ Warholian approach stems from his early days photographing the art world’s brightest stars. It was at this stage in his career that he earned the reputation as the artist’s photographer, as well as the respect of those who would ultimately deliver his fame. These days, he has one foot in each of the photographic worlds of art and commerce. “I do everything,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky that way. The art world came first. I started out as an art photographer showing in galleries and museums and became known as the person photographing the art world. So when I became known outside of that, I was already established as an artist. It’s very difficult to go the other way, where you have a reputation as a commercial photographer and you say, ‘Well, I’m really an artist and I want to show at Mary Boone.’ That’s a tough nut to crack.”? Whether it’s for fine art or commercial purposes, Greenfield-Sanders consistently crafts his portraits with the same finely tuned, timeless quality. This comes, he says, from knowing his limitations and doing only what he’s good at. “People come to me because they want what I do,” he says. “And I don’t do too much beyond what I think I’m good at. I’m not a still-life photographer, I don’t do landscapes, I don’t do lifestyle portraiture. That’s not who I am. So if you want a serious portrait, it’s almost always in a studio and it has a sort of depth to it, that’s what I do. Fortunately, that can also be used in a commercial way. I kind of go in and out of style, I guess.” With so many fashionistas approving of his work, Greenfield-Sanders must certainly be in style right now. After his all-digital experience, will the results keep him there? “My pictures looked great,” he says. “When you have very expensive lighting, it looks good. We had a really big setup. It was a little tight in there with an Elinchrom Octabank, which is like 72 or 80 inches. The larger the light source and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the light is going to be. If you’re doing a portrait, particularly, you should have it as close as possible because the light will be much softer. It should be right on top of them.” For now, Greenfield-Sanders is still a large-format film photographer utilizing traditional lighting and portraiture techniques. But since beginning this digital project, he admits that some of his tools have changed and will continue to evolve over time.”I’m starting to actually shoot certain things digitally,” he says, “just because if they aren’t going to require ever being blown up too big, if something is never going to be more than 11×14 or 16×20, then I think you can at this point adequately shoot digitally. And, of course, you save a lot of money. So in a project like this, where the ultimate goal is to have a book and have pictures that can be reproduced in magazines and things like that-even if we have a little exhibition of them, we can certainly blow them up big enough-I think it all works fine. If you’re planning to do 5×6-foot exhibition prints, then I don’t think you can shoot digitally yet adequately.” Ultimately, it’s the similarities between film and digital capture that intrigue Greenfield-Sanders the most, like the low-tech side effects that let him better bond with his subjects.”One of the things that I do when I’m shooting in large format is that I tend to shoot 8×10 with a big Polaroid back,” he says. “And I’m very accustomed to showing the picture to the subject because it creates a certain trust. So when I’m shooting in my studio with a big camera, I do a Polaroid, and 60 seconds later I just say, ‘Here’s what it looks like.’ It creates a wonderful relationship between the photographer and the subject. Obviously, with digital you can do that. It really is very helpful because it gives the subject a sense of ease and confidence that he or she is looking good and that the lighting is nice and all these things. I’m very eager to use that side of digital.”