Entertainment

Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders :: It’s All ’About Face’

by Tony Phillips
Contributor
Monday Jul 30, 2012
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When Timothy Greenfield-Sanders provides directions to his East Village photography studio, he mentions the building looks like a church, but one look at his orderly desk nestled under gothically arched windows and it’s clear at some point it actually was a church. And what better than this hallowed ground as the setting for a portrait photographer who’s trafficked in images of everyone from gay porn star Chad Hunt to octogenarian supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice, not to mention a butt load of presidents from Ford through Obama.

He greets me at the door and takes me on the whistle-stop tour of his compound: as we turn off the foyer, a stubbly, sexy portrait of painter Francesco Clementi looks me dead in the eye. He shows me the ground-floor studio, much of which is taken up by his mammoth, large-format camera. Upstairs, we settle into the homey kitchen. A Warhol Pepper Pot soup can hangs above the fridge.

"Because I’m getting older," is how the photographer born in Florida, schooled in Los Angeles and living in New York bluntly answers the question about why he wanted to make a film in which supermodels address aging. He was born in 1952. "It interests me: how you reinvent yourself as you get older, how you deal with being so handsome," he says, looking me straight-faced for a beat before he starts laughing. "Think about how you deal with aging as a normal person," he continues, "and then it’s hyper-realized for these people because their business, their livelihood, their identity was about their looks. How do you get older and your looks change and fade? Do you have surgery? Do you go natural? What do you do? And how do you feel about that? So I thought, how could that not be interesting?"


Chocolate cake?

He gets around to the raison d’être for "About Face," his documentary which premieres on HBO this week, only after he’s quizzed me on who the interview is for ("Paris Match? Zoom?"); who my favorite models in the film are (Pat Cleveland and the aforementioned Carmen Dell’Orefice, natch); and whether or not I would like a slice of chocolate cake ("My wife Karen made it when she heard Tony was coming."). It’s a taste of what he’ll later describe later as his portraiture process in the studio, which is, after all, his home. And it basically boils down to southern hospitality.

"Ninety percent of portraiture is how you relate to people," Greenfield-Sanders explains, "from the moment somebody steps in the door, I am hyper-aware of reading them: how they’re feeling, what they need, what’s going on, because everyone is nervous about being photographed.

Even the most camera-friendly, ’the camera loves me’ type people are still conscious of it, so as a photographer you have to really think, what is it like being in their shoes? All the time. Some of it is where the light is. If the light’s in the right place, they’re professionals, so they’re aware of that. ’Oh, there’s a bounce underneath, that’s good.’ There are all these things that I do that are subtle code for ’I’m watching out for you, I know how to make you look good.’ I’m not here to--I won’t use the photographers name--but there are certain photographers who make you look ugly on purpose. That’s their style. That’s not who I am. And that also translates to why these women were so open to me on camera and the interviews were so real and honest. They trusted me because I got them to be comfortable in a setting that’s not a normal, comfortable setting."


Meeting Hitchcock

"Would you like some coffee?" Beauregard Houston-Montgomery pipes up from over near the sink. He’s brandishing an Italian coffee press. "I gave this to them as their wedding present," Houston-Montgomery deadpans, "it was during the world war. They’d just invented them."

Houston-Montgomery is a mutual friend who works with Greenfield-Sanders and not only introduced me to the About Face project, but also squirreled me around the various hoops that would have ordinarily stood between my sitting across the kitchen table from a world-class photographer. He takes care of many of the details as Greenfield-Sanders and I chat, but their working dynamic is fascinating to observe. They are both Southern gentlemen, a fact that’s deeply incorporated into their demeanor.

But for Greenfield-Sanders, learning to extend that gentlemanly touch in the studio was one he learned the hard way. He harks back to 1975 and "that great film school in Los Angeles" the American Film Institute where he started out wanting to learn how to direct. "It was this tiny class in the most privileged place in the world at the time," he remembers, "the Doheny Mansion in Beverly Hills: there’s nothing more glamourous. You would see for two weeks every film by Alfred Hitchcock and then at the end of those two weeks, Hitchcock would sit with the 20 of us and have a three-hour seminar. They needed someone to shoot a snapshot for the school archive and I said I’ll do it. No one wanted to do it. I started to shoot and Hitchcock said, ’Your light’s in the wrong place. Why don’t you put it over here? And why don’t you come to the studio tomorrow and I’ll introduce you to the lighting people. They’ll show you.’"


Shooting Bette Davis

"And then you’d watch every film by Billy Wilder," he continues, "and Billy Wilder would come and every film by Bette Davis and Bette Davis would come." I’ve heard the Driving Miss Davis stories from Houston-Montgomery and am about to interrupt the reminiscence when Houston-Montgomery beats me to the punch, but also takes a bullet. "Don’t interrupt my story," Greenfield-Sanders snaps. It’s played for laughs, but there is tension underneath. Houston-Montgomery busies himself with the coffee press.

"So I’m kneeling down to shoot Bette Davis," Greenfield-Sanders continues, "and she stops the seminar and says, ’What the fuck are you doing shooting from below?’ And I said, ’What do you mean?’ And she said, ’You don’t shoot from below, it’s a very unattractive angle.’ After the session, she took me aside and said, ’Do you drive a car?’ I said of course and she said, ’Well, drive me around for a week, darling, and I’ll teach you about photography. So I drove her and she taught me about Hurrell, who I didn’t know about. She taught me about studio portraiture with large-format and how they lit and why her face needed a certain kind of lighting. You can only imagine, I was 27-years-old and it was the most fabulous thing to be driving Bette Davis around in my old ’54 Ford. So I started taking portraits of very famous people: Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, the young Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, everyone you could think of came to AFI."


Fell in love with portraiture

I ask if they were all that helpful and he replies, "No, but they were subjects. They were posing for me. So at the end of two or three years, I had this magical portfolio. They weren’t great pictures, but they were great people. I had this portfolio as a 29-year-old kid: Satyajit Ray, Howard Hawks, the young Peter Bogdanovich..."

At this point, Houston-Montgomery returns to the table with coffee, pouring it like a know-it-all waitress, adding, "And they loved Timothy because he was interested in them and he knew who they were. In Hollywood, when you’re old, no matter who you are they don’t really care about you. And he was somebody from out of town. He was unusual and smart and they loved him."

I glance over at Greenfield-Sanders, bracing myself for another smack-down, but he’s nodding. "And I cared about it," he adds, "It was an exciting part of the day for me and I fell in love with portraiture. I left filmmaking to become a photographer. And just as that happened, we were leaving to come back to New York. I traded in an old chair of mine and 50 bucks to a friend for this giant 11"x14" view camera. I went from tiny little 35 millimeter to large-format overnight and I went from thinking about just shooting to thinking I have very little film. It’s expensive. What is the picture I want? And I started to photograph the people I knew here in New York. Who did I know? All the young artists who were my friends: Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, all the people who were my age. Then my wife’s father’s friends were Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Motherwell, Lee Krasner. My father-in-law was part of the Abstract Expressionist movement."

He then points out a portrait of Joop Sanders, one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism, hanging behind me. It was painted by Elaine de Kooning in 1945. I’d almost missed it in the art-festooned kitchen. Greenfield-Sanders allows my gaze to wander for a bit, but then draws me back.

"So I started to shoot the young artists and the old artists," he continues, "and I fell in love with the art world. I had been an art history major at Columbia so I knew a lot about it and I liked it. And that was my world for the next 20 years. I shot the art world and as I continued, I became known for this large-format camera. Around 1985, I got a call from Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons. Rei said, ’ I’ve seen your portraits of artists. Will you shoot anyone you want in the art world wearing my clothes?’ And I started to shoot these catalogs: huge, oversized 11"x14" catalogs with just four pictures in them, that was it, on this very expensive paper and they went out to the two thousand of the most important people in fashion because that’s what they were for, to announce her line. So I had become known overnight in the fashion world."


Larger than life

Two years later, Barney’s called and hired Greenfield-Sanders to shoot their entire campaign on the large-format Polaroid camera he’d just started to use. The subject? Movie stars. "So I started to shoot movie stars and musicians and architects and expanded beyond just that art world: all large-format. Twenty years later, in 1999, I had that show at Mary Boone of 700 portraits which was everyone I shot on that large-format camera."

Asked how he fit so many large-format portraits into Mary Boone’s gallery, he rattles off, "Five high, 20 across on seven walls," as if it was just yesterday. "It was sold as the entire show," he continues, "you had to buy all 700. And MoMA bought it and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and a collector in Italy. I have the fourth set."

"It was an amazing moment," is how he describes the show that really put him on the map, "I’ve always been good at seeing what’s coming next. And I saw that the art world was becoming art stars in the ’80s. I saw that happening. I was right there. It was just before the art world became so gigantic, this was that moment when you still knew who everyone was, before it became unwieldily the way it is today."

So how to follow a blockbuster gallery show? "Porn stars," he replies, as if the answer were obvious. He says his 2004 XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits book "happened just as porn and popular culture where merging. Jenna Jameson’s book was out and people dressed like porn stars as if it was nothing. Fashion and porn were merging, so I’ve been very, very smart about seeing what was going to happen next. Just as Obama was nominated for presidency, ’The Black List’ series came out on HBO. I started two years earlier when no one even knew who Obama was. And my Latino List, right now everyone is talking about Latinos. My next film is ’The LGBT List.’ So my timing has always been, like, I wish I could do the same with stocks."


Not all famous

It’s easy to imagine this very white, black-clad photographer dipping in and out of the art world. But Blacks? Porn Stars? Latinos? There is a moment when Greenfield-Sanders introduces me to the Latino children of his substitute housekeepers tackling the rectory that day, while Houston-Montgomery explains that his regular house cleaner was "an illegal" for 19 years, but is finally back in Brazil visiting his family now that he has papers.

When Greenfield-Sanders adds, "He’s like the rich American to them. He’s a house cleaner here, but to them he’s a sanitation engineer," it’s hard not to read some white privilege into his process. "I’m going to become black and gay and Jewish to understand it better?" is Greenfield-Sanders response to the critique. "I’m a photographer," he continues, "if you look at my body of work, it’s all about achievement. It’s all about people who are exceptional be they every president I’ve photographed or every porn star. They’re the best at fucking. They’re the best." Houston-Montgomery diffuses the situation by asking Greenfield-Sanders if he’s referring to the presidents or porn stars.

"The smartest, most interesting people are who I’ve been drawn to," Greenfield-Sanders continues, "and they don’t have to be famous. I mean, 700 artists, they’re all not famous. They’re hundreds of them that people don’t know, but I know and I think they’re interesting. They’re not recognized as much as Jeff Koons, but they’re interesting, talented people."

Still, he must concede that the list projects, even one as large as 700, necessarily becomes as much about who’s not in as who is. "700?" he asks. "There’s no on left at that point. At 700 I pretty much had everyone who’s meaningful. It’s part of what I was saying, after that it became 10,000 people. Yeah, there were a handful of people that weren’t on my list because they wouldn’t pose for me or they don’t like being photographed, but that’s meaningless. The other thing that happened after the artist show was that I realized I could do both film and portraiture and combine them. I do books and DVDs and all of this because it’s all possible now and you need to do all of it to get attention. It used to be you’d have a show and that was enough. Today, you have to have a show in a gallery or a museum and be on television and have a book and DVD and, if you’re lucky, a soundtrack."


Lists and more lists

"And a Facebook page," Houston-Montgomery adds. Greenfield-Sanders seems back at his tipping point with Houston-Montgomery. "There’s just so fucking much out there," he says, shaking his head. "How do you get attention?" he asks. "How do you have a show in Chelsea and get TV people interested or get the literary world interested or get other people than just the art world?"

The question is an open-ended one, but it’s clear that after his ground-breaking show at Mary Boone, the format Greenfield-Sanders stumbled upon were his lists. And he’ll be the first to tell you how revolutionary they were. "When I started the idea," he says, "I was thinking about the internet and how I make a modern documentary. The attention span of people is so short now and the internet is something where you consume information very quickly. I thought, why not make a film with 20 people in it where there’s just one little pod after another? It was a radical idea at the time, no one had done that, just going from one to the next. Even at HBO, it was hard for them to understand, but I said, ’It’s just going to be these short films connected together, one after another, there’s no relationship between one or the other. Each one is its own little pod and that’s what it is.’ But who would believe that that would work? Of course it does work because it’s storytelling, that’s all."

"All I need to be happy is a major museum show on the ground floor with oversized portraits and then a big screening room," he jokes. "I’m not asking for a lot. Sure, that is the ideal way to experience the lists, because portraiture and filmmaking are not the same. They’re very different. The lists are portraits come to life. That’s what those films are. I was lucky I could do that because I could take pictures and I could make films and I knew how to read so I could use the interviews for my books, it was really a perfect way to combine it all. I always thought you could stare at a portrait of Serena Williams and get something out of it, you certainly could watch her for three or four minutes talking. It had to work."


The LGBT List

And what has he learned for his latest: "The LBGT List?" He mentions another doc in the HBO Monday night series, "Vito," and how he "enjoyed watching it. It was stuff I didn’t know." He then talks about a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story about coming out, but admits he hasn’t had time to read it yet. Then he discusses the change of leadership at GLAAD and how they’ve decided to become more aggressive again. "I just got an email about that today from Karen my wife," he says, "she sends me anything gay-related so I’m up on the latest gay news. She’s online all the time." Houston-Montgomery laughs out loud and cracks, "She’s very gay-friendly."

I wonder if GLAAD and the almost militaristic focus on the four-second sound byte instilled during the ACT-UP period makes "The LGBT List" an easier or tougher nut to crack.

Greenfield-Sanders replies, "I think certain people--Wendy Williams is an example--are just phenomenal in the way they can speak. Paulina can do it too. I’m really conscious of editing and what I’m saying, and I still can’t really do it. They can say something that’s so interesting and use language profoundly and quickly. To create good sound bytes is an art, it really is. I remember when we shot Wendy Williams for ’The Women’s List,’ everything she said we could have used. And it connected, she’d start something and she’d connect it back." Houston-Montgomery can’t resist chiming in, "Her wig is a giant computer!" and we all dissolve into laughter.

"We’ve already shot six people," Greenfield-Sanders continues of The LGBT List. "I’m doing four more in two weeks. It’s been bought by HBO and will probably be on air next summer. And I’m hoping for Sundance. We’re submitting. We did Ellen, Dustin Lance Black, Larry Kramer and Janet Mock. Do you know Janet Mock? She’s a transgender woman who works at People.com. She’s amazing. She’s so fucking smart and emotionally together and extraordinary. And we did Christine Quinn, so we got six done and Lady Bunny is coming."


His favorite model?

He takes a moment to tell Houston-Montgomery to "hold the 11th and 12th" for that shoot, then continues, "George C. Wolfe, Wade Davis, the black football player who just came out and we did Jake Shears already, who’s great. Anyhow, we’ve got this list and we’re trying to get Neil Patrick Harris and Ricky Martin has said yes. It’s going to be one terrific list film."

I begin to fret aloud that almost three quarters of an hour have passed since no one has mentioned Dovima, which puts us back where we began. I put Greenfield-Sanders initial question back to him: favorite model? "I have no favorite," he replies, "I can’t do that. I have children so I don’t do that." He pauses for a moment, then remembers, "But I did do that at the Sundance Film Festival during the premiere. I introduced my daughter, Liliana, and then I said, ’She’s my favorite daughter.’ The audience was aghast. She texted my other daughter immediately. And, I can assure you, Isca was not amused." He laughs for a moment, then adds, "My favorite daughter really loved it, though.

"If I hadn’t gotten into Sundance," he continues, "I’d still be making the movie. I had so much fun and I fell in love with all of these women, so I would still be shooting. There were certain people I wanted who I couldn’t get, one of whom was Veruschka. I thought she would be important because of her age and she fit into that gap between Carmen and Isabella Rossellini. It would have been divine to have had her, but she was not interested. She said, ’No, I’m not talking about that period. I don’t care about it. I’m an artist.’ So what am I going to do? It’s also not the history of modeling. The history is there, to a certain extent, but there was all kinds of stuff I didn’t bring into the film that would have been interesting."


In 10 years, you’ll like it

One of the most interesting moments that is in the film is when Rossellini, dressed in a man’s suit and tie, no less, excoriates the entire fashion industry for the cosmetic procedures foisted upon women, characterizing the entire topic of surgical intervention as misogynist.

After that, the only male talking head in the film, Calvin Klein, comes on to discuss the transition from women models like Dovima to children like Brooke Shields. I’m sure his points are germane, but for almost the entirety of his screen time, I can barely hear a word he says as his face fills the screen like the surgically altered surface of the moon.

Such an obvious counterpoint to the female beauty myth goes unaddressed in the film, and, as Klein must have been a bit of a "get" for the film, Greenfield-Sanders is not about to address it here. "He’s on camera the same way the women are," is all he’ll say, adding, "I hope Calvin likes it."

"Paulina says it wonderfully," Greenfield-Sanders continues, "when she says, ’I never thought I deserved to be called beautiful until I quit modeling. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I looked back at myself at 25 and thought, My God, was I beautiful! Why didn’t I go naked all the time?’ It’s a great line, but it’s very profound as well. It’s interesting, as a photographer, if I take a portrait of someone and they don’t like it, i always say to them, ’Inevitably, in ten years, you’ll like it.’ And it’s true. In ten years they’ll look and back and go, ’God, I looked great then.’" I interrupt to tell him I find it hard to believe anyone would bitch about a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders portrait and ask him if that happens a lot. "Not a lot," he replies, "but it happens. It happens because people are terrified of their looks or uncomfortable and insecure about them. They see themselves, but can deceive themselves about their looks. You can look in the mirror and go, ’Oh I look pretty good,’ and you go out in this horrible outfit. You don’t see it, but a camera doesn’t lie. A camera has a kind of very cold viewpoint."


The flip side

With that, the front doorbell buzzes and his longtime producer Chad Thompson rings up on the mobile. It’s pretty clear that after a very generous hour, it’s time to clear out of chez Greenfield-Sanders, but the question of what’s next still looms. Greenfield-Sanders says he’s still fascinated by the discussion of beauty, but wants to look at it from the flip side. He already has a great title: Supermen. "It’s going to be about male models," Greenfield-Sanders explains, "and it will be good because men are not supposed to care about how they look.

That’s part of being masculine. Grooming is not important, your looks are not important. all of those things are supposed to be tossed off because they’re feminine. But then there’s a whole industry where the men have to be conscious of their looks, but they have to do it in a way where it’s like nothing. And it’s an industry that’s completely run by gay men." With that, Houston-Montgomery returns, dropping a FedEx on the table and announcing, "M-O-N-E-Y." While Greenfield-Sanders opens the envelope and plucks out the check, Houston-Montgomery takes the opportunity to pitch a male model friend for the Supermen project.

Greenfield-Sanders looks up from his business to express surprise that "About Face" is finding a straight male audience. "I always thought that the film would be popular with women and gays," he says, "but straight men like it too." When asked if there’s a single factor responsible for that shift, he replies, "Sports Illustrated. Before they started putting swimsuit models on their cover, sports was for men and fashion was for women, but now men know who these models are too. And that was a brilliant move. Now straight men know who Cheryl Tiegs and Carol Alt are."

You can almost see Houston-Montgomery biting his tongue, but finally he just blurts, "They’re hot cougars!"


Tony Phillips covers the arts for The Village Voice, Frontiers and The Advocate. He’s also the proud parent of a new website: spookyelectricproductions.com.

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