Archive for April, 2000

Timmothy Greenfield-Sanders

April 22, 2000
The collision of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ worlds-art and celebrity-manifested itself with a tabloid-worthy explosion of publicity, celebration, and homage last fall at the opening night of “Art World,” his highly touted show at Manhattan’s Mary Boone Gallery. Showcasing Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits of artists, the installation effused enough pre-opening glitz to be worthy of a film premier. As evidence, a cast of the city’s cognoscenti fawned and mingled with Monica Lewinsky, whose book cover Greenfield-Sanders had shot earlier in the year. The hyper-surrealism was not lost on the guests, who collectively bubbled with excitement while trying to congratulate Greenfield-Sanders over the din of chatter and buzzing cell phones. In a distinctly post-modern moment, many in the gallery began to take in the sight of the 700 portraits of artists, dealers, collectors, and critics on the wall, only to find themselves. “Look at me,” said one patron of the arts longingly, “I had so much hair then!”

Greenfield-Sanders himself stood poised and grinning, chatting up socialites, steering reporters away from Lewinsky, and holding court over an exhibition that has defined his life for more than 20 years. Some of the most influential artists of the latter half of the 20th century have sat for the photographer, as well as some of the best-known actors, musicians, sports figures, models, and politicians. To pigeonhole Greenfield-Sanders as a mere portrait photographer would be remiss-he has defined the art of capturing the sublime essence of each of his subjects in a way that few of his contemporaries can. Simple, elegant, and profoundly personal shots are the hallmarks of Greenfield-Sanders’ work, and with a book published by Fotofolio accompanying the show, Greenfield-Sanders has just begun to grasp the gravity and meaning his work has had on the world of photography.

“To me it’s a revelation. Some of these photos I haven’t looked at for a dozen years. When you shoot in volume, you take the shot, develop it, contact print it, and archive it. It wasn’t until I had someone type in all the photos into a data base that I realized exactly what I had amassed.” What Greenfield-Sanders had amassed was a collection of virtually every major figure in the art world from the last 50 years. From Warhol to deKooning to Mapplethorpe to Haring, Greenfield-Sanders has collected a sprawling array of portraits-artists from the 1950s as well as contemporary artists, some living, some dead, the sheer historical value giving even Greenfield-Sanders pause. “It’s a compelling installation and a complicated show. It’s much more than just 700 pictures on the wall. It’s 20 years of the art world, the relationships of these people. It’s who has died and who’s alive and who’s changed so much and who’s forgotten. It was overwhelming.” Additionally, many young artists included in the show and the book were given the opportunity to see their place among both their peers and influences. The opening gave Greenfield-Sanders a mirror to reflect on his own past and his beginnings as a photographer.
Greenfield-Sanders’ introduction to photography is now the stuff of legend, as he has often repeated the story of how, as a film student at the acclaimed American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the old masters of cinema would come to speak about their work. Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and Orson Welles would lecture, and the school was looking for a volunteer to take their portraits to mark the occasion. On a whim, Greenfield-Sanders became the school’s photographer, and with the giants of the medium before him, Greenfield-Sanders would snap away, all the while being instructed and critiqued by the filmmakers themselves. “Hitchcock would say to me ‘young man your lights are all wrong…that doesn’t make sense what you’ve done,’ and Bette Davis would say ‘…what the hell are you doing..? Why are you shooting so low..?’ and so on. I learned at the feet of the masters.” Greenfield-Sanders was also building an impressive portfolio of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, which, for the young photographer, represented an enviable head start on his career as a professional. He found work taking portraits for Interview and People magazines and had access to stars that bolstered his growing reputation as a celebrity shooter.

With a masters degree in film in hand, Greenfield-Sanders and his wife, Karin, moved to New York’s East Village in 1978 and settled in a converted church rectory that became their home and his vast studio. The photographer already had a connection to the art world, as his wife’s father was Joop Sanders, the abstract expressionist. The East Village was far less gentrified when the couple moved there in the late seventies than it is now, and young up-and-coming artists found sanctuary in the old tenements to live cheaply and find their creative voices. Greenfield-Sanders quickly identified with the rhythm and freedom of the area and ingratiated himself into the art scene.

Soon, he was soliciting artists to sit for his behemoth 11×14 camera in his studio. Artists felt comfortable and willing to let down their guard in front of the photographer’s lens. In order to achieve this loss of inhibition, Greenfield-Sanders employed a minimalist style akin to Warhol’s “screen tests” where a movie camera would be set up and the subject sat for three or four minutes, uninterrupted, staring into the lens. Greenfield-Sanders brought the idea to his photography in order to allow the subject to be himself and feel comfortable in his body. “I never wanted to manipulate people when they sat. People tend to go into a pose that is very natural for them if you let them.” In keeping with this straightforward technique, the photographer uses a single light source to simulate the look of natural light.

The continuity of the poses (folded arms, hands in pockets, serene smiles) in Greenfield-Sanders’ work evokes the same aesthetic, shunning the contrived and gimmicky in favor of the unfabricated. Greenfield-Sanders’ introduction to the gallery circuit occurred in 1979 when the poet Mark Strand came to the photographer for a portrait to be published in Avenue magazine. He was impressed with the photographer’s style and asked where his work was being shown. Greenfield-Sanders replied that he didn’t show anywhere. Strand made a phone call and put the photographer in touch with a respected dealer, Marcuse Pfeiffer. Soon, the photographer’s work was being shown in New York to outstanding reviews.

Commercial work continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Greenfield-Sanders found that his training as a portrait photographer made him a valuable commodity for editorial and advertising work where the subject was shown as a real person. Although he has shot endless spreads for Mirabella and GQ, Greenfield-Sanders does not consider himself a fashion photographer. “I am a portrait photographer who does fashion. Sometimes that’s in style. If heroin chic is in style then I’m not in style.

Since the trend has come back to photos of fashion and real people, I am in demand.” According to the photographer, celebrities and models understand the idea of a good portrait. Exercising great control, with easy, relaxed poses is second nature to those whose lives revolve around being in the spotlight. “Working with actors is fun. You ask them to give you a little more smile and they give you a little more smile. In a sense, they are the easiest to work with.”

As his reputation grew, Greenfield-Sanders became a member of an elite tier of photographers who were called upon to photograph the biggest names in the entertainment business, including Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Martha Stewart, Cindy Crawford, John Malkovich among countless others. “I think one of the most enjoyable things about being a portrait photographer is that you get to meet so many interesting people. My diary is filled with fantastic days with funny, captivating people.”

Greenfield-Sanders’ status was one of the reasons he was chosen to shoot the most public woman of 1999, Monica Lewinsky. The cover of her book of memoirs, which was also a Time magazine cover, elevated his public image even more, and he carries with him a certain mystique that attracts the rich, famous, and infamous.For his subjects, especially politicians, the photographer works quickly and intuitively, taking into consideration that, unlike celebrities, heads of state are often stiff and preoccupied when in front of the camera. In order to relax a session, Greenfield-Sanders often uses a large-format Polaroid to allow his subject to get an idea of the kind of expression and stance he is looking for. “Shooting for politicians has to be a fun, fast experience. I use a Polaroid because it changes the whole atmosphere from being tense and nervous to the person seeing that we can take a really good portrait. You always have to be prepared.” Greenfield-Sanders found himself in a tense position when shooting a portrait of Al Gore during the height of Clinton’s impeachment ordeal. The shoot happened to fall on the day Monica Lewinsky’s testimony was to go public. “Gore was so uninterested in being photographed. Something was clearly on his mind.”
The photographer was given five minutes with the Vice President in his office and then abruptly told the session was over. Greenfield-Sanders was stunned. While trying to cajole the staff to allow him to get the best shot possible, Gore was making his way out the door. The photographer knew he had only one chance. “I turned to Vice President Gore and said, ‘excuse me, 20 seconds.’ I looked right at him and his assistants were standing there with their mouths open. I told him that I needed only one minute of his time, everything is ready now, let’s go.” After a moment of shock, the Vice President acquiesced. Greenfield-Sanders, surprised at his own gall, started to run furiously down the hall to where his equipment had been set up. He didn’t realize he was running straight towards the Oval Office. “The guards who were standing there start to raise and cock their guns. A staff member called out to me and said, ‘don’t run!’ I regained my composure, Gore came in for literally 60 seconds and the shoot was over. Sometimes, you have to be a little pushy.”
In addition to his career as a photographer, Greenfield-Sanders is also a filmmaker. His Grammy-winning documentary, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, a loving examination of the legendary musician, draws from the same influences and styles that makes Greenfield-Sanders’ photography personal and compelling. Produced and directed by the photographer, the film traces Lou Reed’s life from childhood to the present day with interviews, music, and photographs. “The film is really about why Lou Reed is so much more than a musician. He’s a cultural icon. From the ups and downs of his career in the Velvet Underground to his solo work, Lou has a great vision.” Reed and Greenfield-Sanders are longtime friends, as witnessed by the natural and relaxed feel of the film as an extension of the work the photographer has been doing throughout his professional life.

With the opening of “Art World,” Greenfield-Sanders has come full circle in his career and his life. He has been able to walk confidently in two different worlds and work with equal prowess with some of the most influential and entertaining people of the late 20th century. He sees himself continuing to evolve in both spheres. “To some extent, I have tried to control my own career but in other ways, you have to let things happen to you. I just want to be true to my work and myself.”

An elderly woman at the Mary Boon gallery, obviously an old denizen of the arts, spun slowly on her heels as she took in the spectacle of the opening. She grasped the hand of a woman standing next to her and exclaimed “It’s dizzying, I don’t know where to look.”