Timothy Greenfield Sanders Interview

Above: Timothy Greenfield Sanders

Timothy: I graduated from Columbia University in New York in Art History, which I had been forced to take as they didn’t have film as a choice in those days. I was obsessed with filmmaking but there were no film schools in America in 1970 except Boston University and my high school guidance councilor said that I should go to an Ivy League school because my father had gone to Harvard. I graduated from Columbia in 1974 and then excepted at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which at the time was probably the best film school in the world. I went there to study film but it was at the AFI that I discovered portraiture. When I was there you would see every film made by Alfred Hitchcock for say two weeks and then Hitchcock would sit with us, the twenty to twenty five students at the school and we would have a three-hour seminar with him. The school needed to photograph these people who visited for their archive but no one wanted to do it, so I begrudgingly said I’d do it. I then learned photography from these people. Hitchcock told me that my lights were in the wrong place and so he invited me to his studio to meet his lighting people and they explained lighting to me. We saw every film featuring Bette Davis, then she came for a seminar and when I came to shoot her, I shot from low down and she said “What the fuck are you doing shooting from below? It’s an ugly angle to shoot from.” After the shoot she asked me if I had a car and said that if I did I could drive her around and that she would teach me about photography. She introduced me to a whole lot of photographer’s work I had never heard of, such as Georges Hurrell and all of the amazing studio photographers that she had worked with. That’s what got me into portraiture, everyone came to AFI, Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergmann, Billy Wilder, Francois Truffaut, John Ford all the greatest movie directors and actors of the time. By the time I had my degree in film I had fallen for photography and just as I left Los Angeles in 1978 I bought a Folmer and Schwing 11”x14” camera and I went from a 35mm camera and dabbling with Hasselblad straight to large format. I didn’t really know what it was at the time and nobody was shooting large format. Joel Meyorwitz was shooting some large cityscapes and Richard Avedon was shooting 8”x10” but it was not in fashion at all. I moved back to New York and immediately started photographing the art world with my giant camera.

Grant: A camera like that suggests a certain way of working and seeing.
Timothy: It does very much so, particularly that camera because you could only tilt it up or down you could raise or lower it and it had light leaks here and there. If you were tall I would shoot up on you, if you were short I’d shoot down on you.

Grant: That camera and its process appear to be a directly opposed to the filmmaking process you had studied.
Timothy: Filmmaking was too collaborative, AFI taught narrative filmmaking and in those days there would be 40 to 50 people on a movie set. You’d have to work your way up from assistant to assistant director to director or to assistant cameraman, it was a journeymen route and I just felt that it wasn’t art for me. As a photographer the work was mine, my portraiture, I get the credit, I get the blame but it was my art and I liked that I had got into film because of Andy Warhol, I loved the underground, experimental, crudeness of his films but at AFI I learnt Hollywood filmmaking. That was great to learn and later on in my career it turned out to be invaluable when I started making movies again.

Grant: Once your visual language as an artist was established through that camera, you were able to take that work into the commercial arena.
Timothy: I was very lucky because I started out as an artist, seeing myself as an artist, not as a commercial photographer and my goals were to show in galleries and getting my work into museums. That was the route of an art photographer and I didn’t even know what the role of a commercial photographer was until 1986 or 87 when the agent Stockland Martel contacted me to see if I would join them and do commercial work.

Grant: That period saw the birth of a new type of commercial photography.
Timothy: Absolutely. The hard thing for so many photographers is that they become very successful commercially and then they see themselves as artists and believe that everything they have done is art but the art world doesn’t accept them because it is not art. They are gifted but they have not done enough to be part of that art world. It’s very hard to have acceptance in both the commercial and art worlds. I was very lucky because I have never shot anything other than portraiture and I’m know for a certain style of portraiture, a certain look that I’ve created that’s mine. Sometimes it’s in fashion in magazines and some times it isn’t. Sometimes smart ad agencies hire me to do what I do and the rest of the time I just keep doing what I’m doing.

Grant: You are always working on self initiated personal projects.
Timothy: Yeah. You know I’m a serial photographer in the sense that I pick an idea and then I try and shoot everyone I can who is part of that idea. In the art world I spent 20 years shooting 700 people, 400 and something artists, 100 critics, collectors, curators. It was an obsessive way to shoot (laughs) I also looked at musicians, poets, the fashion world and architects that way. I would find areas of interest to me and obsessively photograph people who belonged in those groups. I realized early on in my career that the large format was something that was special in many ways. You can’t just shoot with it and hope you’ve got something, you’ve got to know what you want from the portrait. A lot of photographers especially now with digital just keep shooting, eventually they wear the subject down, to try and get something that’s weird or interesting. That’s’ a certain style and it’s not what I do.

Grant: The traditional routes of commercial photography have now disappeared, whilst the art world has grown exponentially leaving what I call a new landscape for photographers to traverse.
Timothy: What happened for me is that I started making films and I did that just as digital photography started to develop this new landscape. For me it started with my Lou Reed film, I knew that when I was filming the incredible people in that film, that I should also photograph them because I could and also because the stills would be invaluable to the film as promotional material; DVD covers, posters and press. I understood the mechanics of that, whereas so many filmmakers forget to take those very important pictures along the way, I hear this from HBO constantly. Too many filmmakers are too busy making the film and forget that they will need something to promote it with. So, when I started working on the XXX project I knew that it was going to be a multi-media project, it was not just going to be still portraits, it would be a film about the making of the portraits, an exhibition, a DVD, a CD of the soundtrack of the movie, everything I could possibly do I did. This was back in 2004 and a lot has changed over the past eight years. I’ve always been good at looking to the future and I could see the future of the Internet and that porn was becoming very mainstream, fashion and porn were merging in imagemaking. I knew that I was in the right place at the right time with that project and I knew that it would get a lot of attention thanks to the all of the media channels available to us now. It is no longer enough to have an exhibition of your work and say that’s it, that’s enough. I understood that you have to use everything and fortunately I was able to thanks to my history of filmmaking. I knew how to light things beautifully, I knew where the camera should be, I understood editing having studied with the greatest people in the filmmaking world. The XXX project has become a paradigm for me ever since, The Black List, The Latino List and About Face have all been multi-media projects.

Grant: You were friends with Lou Reed before you made that film was the project initiated by Lou, by yourself or by technology?
Timothy: That’s a good question because in a way it was technologically driven. In the 1990s video cameras had become affordable and available and I bought one. I’d met Lou in 1992 and as we became friends I started travelling with him and filming him in concert and on the road. I was amassing all of this documentation, very much in the spirit of Warhol my great mentor in the belief that you should shoot everything you can, record it, tape it, photograph it, do everything you can wherever you are to capture the moment. Warhol did this and no one understood the new world the way he did.

Grant: It would be interesting to see how he would react to our new digital multi-platform landscape.
Timothy: He would have everything, Facebook, Twitter, websites, Tumbler accounts he would understand all of it because he foresaw it.

Grant: Interview magazine was in a way his own version of Facebook.
Timothy: Yes. He started Interview magazine because he wanted to get into a film festival as a press member but you had to have a magazine so he started Interview. With Lou I started to film him, photograph him and very inexpensively document a great artist, a friend and an icon to many people. At a certain point I went to see Susan Lacey the head of the American Masters documentary series at PBS and I told her that I had about 50 hours of video footage and that I was thinking that there may be a short in the material and if she could give me some advice. She thought it should be a feature film and included in the American Masters series and that I should direct it. That’s how I started back into film. The XXX project then took me 4 to 6 years to get started on, it took me a couple of those years to get the nerve to do it. The idea came to me after seeing the film Boogie Nights in 1997, I thought it would be interesting to photograph porn stars with their clothes on and by the time I started working on it I had done many serial projects so I knew exactly how to do them. The first thing you need to do is to get somebody very famous to agree to be involved and then if they agree then everyone else wants to be a part of it. It became like a badge of honour to be involved. The person I really wanted to include was Jenna Jameson but her people wouldn’t even respond to me, so I thought about what she would want from being involved and I thought that what she would want most was mainstream publicity. So I spoke to a friend of mine who was the head of Time Inc at the time and who ran over 170 magazines. I suggested that we do a story on the porn business through the eyes of Jenna Jameson for one of his business magazines, he thought it was a marvelous idea and within the hour it was set up. That’s how I got her.

Grant: Porn stars have a very set public persona, with About Face you are dealing with models who in many ways are the complete opposite in their public persona and yet they are also very similar in their relationship to the masses through the visual media.
Timothy: Both projects are very similar in that they are both about situations where the women have more power and are more important than the men. There is probably always an agenda with my work but About Face started when I met a handful of these older supermodels at a party on 7th Avenue, which a friend of mine was giving for his Facebook friends. I’m tuned into opportunities and I left this party impressed by the models I’d met and with the idea of creating a models project. There were 100 people at the party but no one else left thinking of making a film. The next day I called Vanity Fair magazine where I’m on the masthead and spoke with the editor Graydon Carter and Photo Editor Susan White and suggested a portrait portfolio to them of 70s and 80s supermodels. They said yes, which meant they paid for and helped organize the whole project and getting the 12 models together in New York and Los Angeles for me to shoot. Then I paid for the film and they paid for the stills. When I want to get someone such as HBO interested in my films I always start the film first and get them excited about it before showing them something, it’s a lot easier to pitch a project that has three to five minutes of footage, so they can see what its going to look like. The list films are very much my portraiture come to life. My idea from the start with the films was to take my one light and my aesthetic which is all about the face, about the person and a simple backdrop and let the subject talk. I wanted them to look right at the camera just like in my portraiture. It’s a technique with two cameras, one on top of another, one close up, one medium, cutting back and forth between the close up and the medium so that there is no need for a jump cut. It’s not an easy thing.

Grant: Interestingly, it is now possible to make the kind of underground film that inspired you today to a much higher quality, with much smaller teams, which to me is a fundamental element of the new imagemaking landscape.
Timothy: That’s very true and very well said. All of my films are created by a handful of people, three or four people at the most. The ease of use of today’s equipment is revolutionary. The flip side of that is that everyone can now make films so you are now competing as a filmmaker with so many other filmmakers. When the equipment was expensive and filmmaking was harder to do it was mostly professionals or crazy people (laughs) who actually attempted it. Today everyone sees themselves as a filmmaker.

Grant: That’s been the case with photography for the past few years but working with the large format maintains a level of mystery to the photographic process.
Timothy: Exactly, the other day I was photographing a famous American comedian for my Latino List film. After two frames he said “I really like what you’re doing, I get it” and we instantly bonded, he realized that I was paying attention to him and the process to shoot just 6 still frames.

Grant: The camera brings a gravitas to the process.
Timothy: It absolutely does. It elevated me in his eyes and made what we were doing seem more important and I think that as everyone continues to take a picture of everything they do photography becomes devalued. Its not photography anymore its recording. Its like Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” There’s a big difference between caring what the image is holding up a camera and recording what you see. There is a lack of depth in the digital world, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who’ve mastered it, because there are. I shoot digitally sometimes if I’m doing a portrait favour for someone because it’s easy to do.

Grant: But from a filmmaking perspective you have fully embraced new technology.
Timothy: I have, the Canon 5D is a fabulous camera but I don’t want the equipment to get in the way, I want the work to be about the subject opening up to us. I don’t want the film to be about fancy equipment.

Grant: As well as the advancements in image capture the past few years have seen an explosion of possibilities for getting your work to an international audience.
Timothy: When I started the Black List one of my ideas with that project was that people have an increasingly short attention span, thanks to things like the Internet and Youtube. People don’t want to watch for an hour in one go, so I thought why not create a movie of twenty-five four minute pieces of different films hooked up together by one central theme. That’s what the Black List is, no one believed it would work until I’d finished it.

Grant: It’s a concept that takes us back once more to Andy Warhol and his Screen Tests.
Timothy: Absolutely, they are a central document in my life and I even see my still portraiture linking back to the Screen Tests. In a sense they are still photography. I fully admit to taking what Warhol did and modernizing it.

Grant: You said earlier that you are good at looking to the future. Where do you think we are today as image makers and where are you as an artist going next?
Timothy: I saw the future to be multi media driven and that I was in a position to engage with that. As a 60-year-old photographer I had to reinvent myself. What’s hard today is the volume of images is so enormous, there’s so many photographers and there are so many uses for photography but they are not as important as they once were. They are all spread out and diminished in their quality and their importance, there was a time when you could have a magazine cover and a spread and everybody would talk about it, it was a big deal. If you had a show in SoHo the whole art world went to see it, today it’s so global and difficult to get anybodies attention, so you have to do what we do on a very wide platform. I think I saw that early on before a lot of other people did. I think its going to be even more spread out and devalued in the future and harder to make a living, but I guess if I knew the future I’d be there, I’ve managed to make a living and make art despite what’s happening out there. I’m a strange mixture because on one hand I work with antique equipment and on the other I work with some of the most technologically advanced video equipment available, I love mixing it all. I think that’s very Warholian, to not limit yourself. Andy always said that as an artist your not just a painter, you can be a painter and a filmmaker and a fashion model and a magazine editor and a sculptor and you can do all of these things and you’re an artist. You don’t have to say I’m a photographer I only do this.

© Grant Scott 2012


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