by Kris Wilton
Published: November 25, 2008
Film led Timothy Greenfield-Sanders to portrait photography; now he’s bringing his photography to film.
As a student at the elite American Film Institute in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Greenfield-Sanders took an odd job photographing the filmmakers who gave talks there for the school archives. No one else wanted the job — his fellow students found it beneath them, he says — but it gave him direct access to masters such as Alfred Hitchcock (who told him he didn’t know how to light), and it wasn’t long before the aspiring director found the new work more interesting than film. “Filmmaking is so collaborative, so dependent on other people,” he says. Photography “was mine.”
After AFI, Greenfield-Sanders moved with his wife, Karin, to New York’s East Village and began applying his portrait-taking skills to the art world, to which he had special access first via his father-in-law, the Abstract Expressionist Joop Sanders, and later through the burgeoning East Village scene. In 1999, he showed 20 years’ worth of those images at Mary Boone: a total of 700 portraits, including 450 of artists.
Though he’s moved on to such diverse subjects as musicians, politicians, porn stars, and Iraq War veterans, the look of his work has changed little. His images are direct, clean, warm, and honest. Whether depicting First Lady Hillary Clinton or porn star Jenna Jameson, it’s clear that the image is a Greenfield-Sanders.
And while he’s made documentary films before — on Lou Reed (1998) and Karen Finley(2004) — none has so directly employed his trademark aesthetic as his latest, a collaboration with the critic and African and African-American studies professor Elvis Mitchell that essentially amounts to “an extension of my portraiture.” In The Black List, subjects ranging fromColin Powell to Al Sharpton to Serena Williams to Slash sit for penetrating interviews about “race, struggle, and achievement” that look like Greenfield-Sanders portraits come to life, and that present “black experiences” as diverse as the subjects themselves.
The 90-minute film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January and on HBO in August, is screening as part of the exhibition “The Black List Project: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell,” which also includes 25 large-scale portraits of the film’s subjects, on view at the Brooklyn Museum from November 21 to March 29, 2009.
ARTINFO sat down with Greenfield-Sanders in his stunning rectory-turned-home-and-studio last week. We talked about The Black List, what elevates a photo to art, and doing what you’re good at.
Timothy, how did The Black List project come about?
I was sitting at this table with Toni Morrison about three years ago, and we were shooting portraits for her opera Margaret Garner. Toni thought we should do a book on black divas, which sounded pretty fabulous, though opera’s not something I’m in love with.
But it got me thinking about the black experience, and I thought, maybe that’s an interesting portrait show, or a book. So I called my neighbor Elvis Mitchell, a good friend for 10 years, and said let’s have lunch. By the end of lunch we had 150, 175 names on napkins and thought it could be a book, a movie, a portrait series — it was all these fantasies.
How did you envision the collaboration with Elvis Mitchell?
Elvis is a great interviewer, so obviously he would do that, and I saw the look of the film as an extension of my portraits — it would be very clean, very simple. I had also fortuitously become aware of this camera called the Inquisitor that allows a subject to look directly into the camera and talk to the interviewer.
How does it work?
It’s kind of like a Teleprompter, but as a subject you actually see Elvis’s face there from a video feed. So you look into this camera and it gives you that straight-into-camera look very naturally. And that, of course, is an extension of my portraiture — which is right to camera, very direct, very simple, one light, clean background — all the stuff that makes up a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders portrait.
It’s also sort of a throwback to the Warhol screen tests, which are looking right at the camera, and which a lot of my work is based on: that feeling of putting someone in front of a camera and not telling him or her too much of what to do, but just letting the person be himself, herself.
How did you get started?
We got a little bit of money and tested it with Toni Morrison and Thelma Golden. Lucas Hauser, who worked on my previous material, edited it down, and it was just obvious that what we had was great. You could look at that five-minute section of Toni Morrison and know that this was the way to do it: no cutaways, maybe a photo here and there, Elvis never on camera.
How long did the interviews run?
From 35 minutes with Colin Powell to an hour and a quarter with Toni Morrison.
It must have been really difficult to edit them down.
Very difficult. They’re all short films with their own little arc, and you’re looking for the perfect ending and the perfect opening. It’s a very complex structure, despite the fact that it seems very simple.
In the beginning of the film you say it’s “an assembly of short stories on race, struggle, and achievement.” What were you hoping to achieve with it?
If you went to a studio and said, I’m going to do 22 short films with the person looking straight at the camera, and they’re just talking, and the whole thing’s going to be 90 minutes long, they would just throw you out, because it’s against every rule of cinema. But I knew it would work, because the people are so interesting, and I thought if you could go to a gallery and just stand there looking at a photograph for a few minutes, then you could certainly look at a film where someone’s saying something interesting.
It’s like adding a time element to your portraits.
How did you get everyone so comfortable in front of the camera? Some of the subjects, like Sean Combs, for example, seem unusually forthcoming and vulnerable.
I’ve been doing that for 30 years as a photographer, and I think Elvis does it too. I’m very adept at understanding where people are coming from, reading the signals, understanding how nervous they are, doing all the little things that you do to make somebody feel good in front of lights and a camera. I think that’s why the film works so well, because the people feel very relaxed, very open.
Aren’t a lot of these people used to that kind of attention?
Some of them are professionals who are media-trained, but not all of them. And I think even the ones who are gave us stuff that you don’t ordinarily see. You’ve never seen Colin Powell this way. And he’s a pro.
Al Sharpton says in his segment, “No matter how eloquently someone says we’re beyond race, we’re not. Just look at the facts.” Do you think the project is going to have a different reception post-election?
I think the film has really become the film of the moment, because it’s about 22 highly achieving people — Obama would be just another one in there.
Did you ask Obama to be in it?
We’d been trying to get him, but then we worried that if he were in it and it were showing before the election it could look like a political film, and I didn’t want that. Now we could have him, because now he’s just the president of the United States.
One blog post I read about the film suggested there could be a sequel about mixed race.
Well, Slash is in there.
I had no idea he’s black! I was surprised to see him there.
I’d say 80 percent of people don’t have any idea. I’ve overheard people at film festivals turning to each other and saying, “I thought this was about black people” when Slash comes on.
But I think The Black List template is ideal for anything. You could do Hispanics, women, any group you want, and have them talk about that experience.
Let’s talk about your other work a bit. You’ve obviously had a great deal of commercial success — where do you see the line between commercial photography and art photography?
Back in the ’80s, I started a campaign for Comme des Garçons — when no one knew the brand or who Rei Kawakubo was — of artists wearing her clothes. That was the ideal commercial job for me because they came to me and said we like what you do, we saw it in a museum in Japan, can you shoot artists for us wearing these clothes? That was the first commercial work I’d ever done.
I’ve been very lucky as a photographer, because people in the commercial world come to me to do what I do as an artist. I’m not hired to shoot landscapes or still lifes; I don’t know how to do them.
What do you think elevates a photo from commercial to art?
Oh gosh. That’s a hard question. I don’t necessarily think the commercial things I do are art. A portrait I take of Rauschenberg, is that art because I took it here for myself and not art because I took it for Comme des Garçons? I don’t know how to answer that.
I guess if you can see that it’s distinctly a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders portrait, then I guess — I hope — it’s art.
As different as your subjects are, your photos always look like your photos.
I’ve been true to that. It’s all I know how to do.
I think the life of a portrait photographer is quite interesting, really, because you meet amazing people all the time.
You’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of subjects — artists, musicians, porn stars, politicians, soldiers — who of the groups you’ve worked with have been the most challenging?
For me it’s hard to shoot athletes because I’m not interested in sports, they’re not interested in photography, and they don’t care much about the portrait. A politician understands that it’s important, that it’s his image, and an actor sees it as an image that they’re controlling, or that’s gonna make them money.
If I knew more about what athletes do, I could probably get them interested. I’m just not very good with statistics.
How do you prepare for a shoot?
I’m very good at reading a person very quickly, so I don’t have to prep too much. I just kind of do it.
Why are you so good at that?
I think I was born with it. I don’t think you can learn it; you just have it. I have gotten better, but I think I’ve always had it.