The Straight Shot, Visionage Online

By Lisa Selin Davis Timothy Greenfield-Sanders doesn’t mean to be a name-dropper – he just can’t help it. The portrait photographer sees so many famous people each week that his casual conversation is peppered with reminiscences about movie stars, politicians and art world luminaries. “I know everyone,” he admits. “I could get up in the morning and Jasper Johns would be at the breakfast table, or John Malkovich would be here for lunch, or Karen Finley would have dinner here.” “Here” is a gloriously sunny kitchen inside the remodeled East Village rectory he has lived in with his wife, Karin, since 1978. Greenfield-Sanders is on the short side, with a ring of gray-tinged fair hair and blue eyes that crinkle up when he laughs. He wears a black t-shirt, black pants and black flip- flops, and seems younger than his 53 years as he sits at his kitchen table eating Starbucks coffee ice cream, looking back on a career that has been both successful and satisfying. By now, Greenfield-Sanders is quite famous himself, thanks in part to the success of his recent book, XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, and the fact that a Greenfield-Sanders portrait is a kind of rite of passage for celebrities: the soft lighting, the unobtrusive background, the famous face staring nakedly at the camera. “That look that you get when you look into a mirror and maybe adjust yourself and think, yeah, I look pretty good today: that’s what I’m aiming for,” he says. Greenfield-Sanders has also photographed thousands of non-famous people, and plenty who aren’t beautiful. What they look like doesn’t interest him; it’s what they’ve done that counts. “I like talented people,” he says. “I’m interested in people who push themselves, and that’s true with artists, that’s true with the politicians I’ve photographed, and it’s true with the adult entertainment stars who are pushing boundaries of what’s acceptable in society.” Appropriately, his own career started when he pushed himself to do something beyond his comfort zone. In the 1970s, he was studying at the American Film Institute when the school asked for someone to photograph the celebrities and film greats who were coming to speak to the class. Greenfield-Sanders volunteered – only he knew nothing about photography. “When I went to photograph Alfred Hitchcock, he said to me, ‘Why do you have your lights there? You have them in the wrong place.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know anything about lighting, I don’t know where to put the lights.’ And he said, ‘Well, come to the studio tomorrow and I’ll introduce you to [cinematographer] Sven Nykvist’ – or whoever it was.” Greenfield-Sanders grins. “He said, ‘I’ll teach you a few things.” He also learned a few tricks of the trade from none other than Bette Davis, who cursed him for shooting her from below – which often causes a subject to look a little fat or unfriendly. He became close to her, even chauffeuring her around Los Angeles for a couple of days. “We’d have Bloody Marys in 10:30 in the morning,” he remembers fondly. In fact, he became friends with many of his subjects – so much so that a reporter once told him he had a “golden rolodex” – and he quickly learned to be comfortable around famous people. By the time he moved back to New York in 1978 (he’d gone to Columbia as an undergraduate), Greenfield-Sanders had a portfolio bulging with pictures of his celebrity pals – “more great people than great pictures,” he admits – and he’d realized that he preferred the intimacy of portraiture to the chaotic film production world. He set about photographing the people in his East Village community: up-and-coming artists like Cindy Sherman and Julian Schnabel as well as abstract expressionists Willem DeKooning and Larry Rivers. He showed his portraits in galleries, and, by doing so, began to blur the line between the worlds of fine art and commercial photography. Some of the pictures he showed were commissioned by magazines, others were taken on his own time. But to Greenfield-Sanders, they were all art. “I’m really lucky because I can do whatever I want,” he says. “Being true to what I wanted to do has given me opportunities in the art world, but also in the worlds of advertising, film, editorial, fashion.” Earlier this year, portraiture and fashion came together at New York’s Fashion Week, when Greenfield-Sanders teamed up with Olympus to shoot portraits at a makeshift stage behind the scenes of the runway extravaganza. There, he shot portraits of everyone from designer Caroline Herrera to tennis star Venus Williams; People magazine printed many of the images. For Greenfield-Sanders, the experience proved very different from shooting in his studio. He was working with his digital Olympus E-1 instead of a large- format film camera, and he had only a few moments with each subject – whereas normally he takes a long time to get to know people before he shoots them. “It was a bit of a process for me to slow down that camera, which you can just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot,” he says. But he extols the immediacy of digital photography, even if its speed occasionally overwhelms him. “We uploaded [the portraits] right away, retouching them on the spot, picking out selects to send to People…That’s a revolution, to be able to take a picture and send it immediately.” Currently, says Greenfield-Sanders, he is “batting around a few film ideas around with Christopher Walken” (he made a documentary in 1998, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart) as well as working on a series of portraits of comedians. But photographing famous people has changed quite a bit since he began, he notes – not only because photography has changed, but because celebrities have. “Today you can have ten PR people keeping you from the subject, and by the time you finally meet them you’ve gotten so many weird interpretations of who they are,” he says. Taking portraits might not be quite as intimate as it once was, but Greenfield-Sanders still aims to produce work that’s open, direct and free of glitz. “It’s nicest when you get a moment with someone and there’s no one else around,” he says. “Then it’s just like the old days: just me and Bette Davis.”