Archive for December, 2000

Greg Gorman

December 22, 2000

While Greg Gorman may be best known for his stark and dramatic black-and-white portraits of the entertainment elite, he’s also directed music videos and commercials, shot CD/album covers, and undertaken still-photography ad campaigns for top multinational clients. His fine-art work, including striking and elegant explorations of the nude, is represented by Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and has been exhibited around the globe. A number of books have been published of his photographs, most recently Greg Gorman Volume Two from Treville Press and Inside Life, a retrospective of his work from 1968 to 1996 from Rizzoli. Scheduled for publication this fall, his new book, As I See It from PowerHouse Books, will be a collection of male nudes.

In the motion-picture field, his images are used for advertising and publicity and are reproduced in magazines throughout the world. Celebrities seen through his lens include Leonardo DiCaprio, De Niro, Travolta, Pacino, Sharon Stone, Kim Basinger, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Brando, Sophia Loren, Alec Baldwin, and Johnny Depp. Among the films for which he has created advertising graphics are Tootsie, The Big Chill, Bull Durham, Total Recall, Last of the Mohicans, Sex, Lies, and Video- tape, The Grifters, No Way Out, Speed, The First Wives Club, and The Thomas Crown Affair.

In the music arena, he counts among his subjects Michael Jackson, Bette Midler (with whom he’s had several 15-hour photo sessions), Joni Mitchell, Motley Crue, Elton John, Deborah Harry, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, the Judds, Travis Tritt, Barbra Streisand, Grace Jones, and Dolly Parton. Gorman has undertaken advertising campaigns for top agencies worldwide representing Reebok, Levis, Rolex, United Airlines, Colgate, Maybelline, Dewar’s, Kawasaki, Eveready, Coca-Cola, and AT&T. Somehow he also manages to find time to lecture at universities and photo schools, including a yearly seminar on portraiture and the figure at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. He spoke to us from his elegant studio in the heart of Hollywood.

PhotoInsider: How did you get started in photography?

Greg Gorman: In the late 1960s, I borrowed a friends camera to shoot a Jimi Hendrix concert. The pictures were blurred, quite the antithesis of what I shoot today–pictures that are sharp and crisp. But my interest in rock led to an intrigue with photography, and I began studying photojournalism at the University of Kansas in 1968. Later, I moved to California and planned to go to the Brooks Institute of Photography. However, I’m really glad that that didn’t work out.

PI: Why is that?

GG: When I lectured there last year, the person who was then head of the school didn’t consider photography to be fine art and refused to put up any of my nude posters. I slammed him during the lecture. I said it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard–going to a school, studying an art and a trade that the director doesn’t even consider fine art. I think that’s an insult to your intelligence. I believe that director is out now, but it was so bizarre.

PI: So where did you end up studying?

GG: I got a degree in film from the University of Southern California. That probably accounts for why many of my pictures have a movie-lighting look to them–dark, accentuating shadow detail, and harsh highlights. I began my career shooting mostly with tungsten movie lights, 4K Lowel softboxes, and 2K spots.

PI: Focusing spots like they used in the 1930s?

GG: Yes.

PI: Why did you go from filmmaking back to still photography?

GG: In film, there were too many people involved in the decision-making process. With stills, on the other hand, I enjoy having the control and more of a one-on-one relationship with my subjects.

PI: When you got out of film school, what did you do to start making a living in photography?

GG: At the time, a girlfriend was working for a film distribution company that repackaged TV movies and low-budget films for distribution overseas. I designed movie press kits and single-sheet photo ads for them. I was also doing my own photography–headshots for $35 a day including film and processing. I’ve bulk-load my own film, and I thought I was making a lot of money at the time, which is kind of humorous. Little by little, I put together a portfolio. I’ve do small jobs for friends, and eventually the work got seen. In the early 1980s I started working for Interview magazine and things snowballed. That was a big break–early in my career I was fortunate to get talent like David Bowie and Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand as clients. Another big break was working with Dustin Hoffman as a special photographer and shooting the poster for his film Tootsie. Doing that, The Big Chill, and Scarface early on really helped get my career rolling.

PI: At what point did you establish a studio?

GG: In the late ’70s. Since ’94 I’ve been working in my current space, which includes a rooftop-terrace daylight studio.

PI: How do you plan a shoot? For example, describe your nude portrait of Iman.

GG: That was part of a personal project of male and female nudes for the book Greg Gorman Volume Two. After years of being well known for doing close-up portraiture, I wanted to take a different direction, pull the camera back and focus on black-and-white nudes. Today, the fine-art male nude is one of the main subjects I work on when not doing my personality or advertising assignments. Iman was a friend of mine, and I called her up and asked, “Will you do some nudes with me?” In the studio I built in my home, I designed a glass skylight above a stone platform. The pictures were taken there using only natural light.

PI: Was the skylight diffused in any way?

GG: No, it was clear glass. The pictures were taken between noon and two in the afternoon.

PI: When a lot of people wouldn’t dream of photographing.

GG: There is no artificial light in the picture, just some reflectors.

PI: Tell me about your tight headshot of Leonardo DiCaprio.

GG: I’ve shot with him a lot; he’s one of my favorite subjects. This picture was taken in 35mm on Tri-X with my Canons, in natural light on the roof of my current studio.

PI: When you’ve going to photograph someone, do you plan the day before? Do you have some ideas?

GG: I definitely have some concepts of what I hope to accomplish. If it’s an editorial shoot, I usually have it fairly well mapped out. If it’s on location, the locations will have been scouted and photographed, and I’ll have a rough idea of what I want to do. But I rely a tremendous amount on spontaneity during the shoot. I don’t like to be too rigid or too locked down. I need to have the openness to let things flow and see how they develop based on my personal interaction with the people I’m photographing.

PI: When you’ve doing a celebrity shoot today, how many people are involved?

GG: It depends. If it’s a movie-poster job, there could be 30 people here. If it’s a nude shoot, a personal project for me, it could be as few as a makeup artist, myself, and maybe two assistants. On an average shoot, I usually have hair and makeup, a couple of assistants, a full-time chef who cooks all our meals, a stylist, and stylist assistant. Sometimes with the talent will come a manager, an agent, or a publicist. Also, I have a studio manager and a runner here, and a business manager who is not in this building.

PI: For the film-poster work, are you given a layout?

GG: Yes. Most times, they are relatively well spelled out. Sometimes they’ve good, sometimes they’ve awful. Usually I’ll try to accomplish what they’ve asking for. Then, if I have some specific ideas myself, I’ll try to invoke those by suggesting, “Can we try it this way?”

PI: How did your 1997 shot of actress Anne Heche evolve?

GG: They wanted a sexy picture of her for George magazine. So I told the stylist what types of clothes to get. When Anne came in, we tried a few things on and chose what seemed to look the most interesting. This was early in her career. We went for a kind of a sexy, bawdy picture. It was lit with either a small softbox or a dish reflector, and a reflector for fill.

PI: In most of your work, the backgrounds are very simple.

GG: My style is very simple. I believe in letting the personality of the subject shine through. I’m really not into a lot of the shtick you see today where photographers impose more of their impression of the person. The pictures become editorialized by the photographer or the assigning editor rather than showing the essence of who the person really is. I prefer to strip the picture bare of a lot of props or any excess editorializing. I try to capture who the person really is, and I find that’s done more easily through a simple picture.

PI: What determines your lighting and posing?

GG: I tend to light each person for their face. I choose the type of light based on the person, their age, how their features are, and what the picture is supposed to accomplish. I work with everything from available light to a combination of available light and strobe, or a combination of available light and tungsten. I work a lot with tungsten light, and I use diffused window light. Up on my roof, where I did most of the pictures for my new book of nudes, I have quite an elaborate contraption. It diffuses the natural light through silk.

PI: What cameras do you work with?

GG: I work with three different systems. To capture total spontaneity, for my loosest, free-range pictures, I use the 35mm Canon EOS bodies. In the studio, when I’m locked down and shooting with strobes, I use Hasselblads. Recently, I’ve been shooting a great deal with the Contax 645, the first medium-format, autofocus, autoexposure camera that I’ve used. It’s really terrific because it frees you up. I do everything with that camera handheld; I never put it on a tripod. Particularly if I’m shooting with tungsten light or available light, this camera is perfect. I’ve always loved Zeiss lenses.

PI: Will it take a Polaroid back?

GG: Yes. And they even have a vacuum back, which pulls the film flat and really keeps the pictures sharper when you’ve shooting with a motor drive.

PI: What films do you like? You shoot a lot of black and white.

GG: I shoot mostly Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X in black and white. For color, I use Fuji, and I just switched from RDP to Astia, which I think is a great transparency film. I find that it pushes better and has truer color balance than the Kodak films. The Kodak color films are terrific with normal exposure and processing, but when they’ve pushed, it looks pretty brutal. As far as color negative, I don’t shoot much, but when I do I use Kodak stock, the VC (vivid color) type.

PI: Early on, when you were establishing yourself, how did you set rates and fees, and how did you know when to raise them?

GG: When nothing was getting turned down. You sort of feel out your competition. As your career progresses, the jobs get bigger and bigger. You consider how these pictures are going to be used and for what length of time. You use this information to decide what your fee should be, with a sliding scale and with flexibility. I’ll bid based on the nature of the job. There’s obviously a big difference between editorial and personality photography, and movie posters and advertising.

PI: How do you promote yourself?

GG: When I started out, I was doing everything myself. Later I got a rep, and things worked pretty well with her for a while. Then we split, and I tried a few other agents. I had a lot of reps who were sitting there answering the phones, but they weren’t out there hustling work. To give them 25 percent of my income when they weren’t even bringing in 2 percent was just ridiculous. Today, Trish Swords is my studio manager and we handle it in-house. It’s an advantage that I’m here and can speak directly to the art directors. The bottom line is that I’ve always been my own best rep.

PI: In conclusion, how would you define your approach to photography?

GG: For me, a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions.