whitehot | Thomas Butter interviews TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS in conjunction with the Whitehot Magazine Festival, New York 2007
Timothy: My database shows 5,496 people as of this morning. 1313 are art world related, 680 are self-described artists. Computers can be quite amazing sometimes.
TB: You have been on the scene for 30 years. Photographing someone is an intimate act involving trust on the part of the sitter, and intuition on the part of the photographer- and as such seems to me would offer tremendous access to the mood, and state of mind of artists (in a general way) during the time you’ve been working. Has this been true for you?
Timothy: To some extent, it goes with the territory. Portrait photographers tend to be good at reading mood and character…we can find a personality in someone when it’s really quite hidden! Sitting for a portrait is NOT fun for most artists. I try to keep my sessions quick and painless. That’s not always easy to pull off.
TB: How has making your portraits affected you in a cumulative way, in a way that transcends the particulars of the individuals involved?
Timothy: After 30 years of portrait taking, I now tend to look at my work with some distance. I mean that in the sense that I often question whether or not someone adds significantly to the whole body of my life’s work. I’ve pursued certain key groups over the years: the art world being a major one, but I have also shot a lot of musicians, politicians, architects, writers and fashion designers. I like to build on those groups and don’t stray much outside of them. Not a lot of scientists for example sit for me. It’s just not my specialty. A few years ago when I did my porn star series, I created a whole new group to shoot. That was unusual for me, but I really enjoyed that series and meeting those people.
TB: Your large format camera seems to offer exciting detail and enhances the presence of the sitter- the quality of “being there”. Are visual artists different from other creative people in front of the camera?
Timothy: I wouldn’t say that visual artists are different per se, they are just more interesting to me as subjects. My undergraduate degree at Columbia University was in Art History. Art has always been my first love. As for my camera, I think it has a personality of its own. People probably like it more than they like me. I’m quite jealous of my Deardorff camera.
Timothy: Not really. I still sense at least from the younger artists I shoot these days, the same sense of excitement about their work and about making a name for themselves in the art world. The drive is still there. Perhaps what is different now is that I am more well known and unfortunately my own “minor celebrity” can sometimes gets in the way of taking a portrait.
TB: You are working with the Red Cross on a really interesting project- could you tell us about it?
Timothy: Over the past few months I photographed a number of celebrities with real-life Red Cross volunteers. We wanted to use the celebs to bring attention to the Red Cross and to encourage volunteerism. Jamie Lee Curtis, Julianne Moore, Paul Shaffer, Marcia Gay Harden and Aisha Tyler are a few of the actors who participated in the campaign. My friend, actress Elisabeth Rohm (Law and Order) got me involved. Here’s a link to the photos and the videos of the shoots. It was a great experience for me.
TB: Also you are involved with an upcoming HBO special-“Alive Day Memories: Home from ”. What did this involve?
Timothy: My last film, “Thinking XXX” (http://www.thinkingxxx.com/) about my porn star portrait book was made for HBO. Because of my friendship with Sheila Nevins, head of programming for HBO’s documentary division, I was invited to photograph the injured soldiers in the film. Actor James Gandolfini conducted the interviews. It’s an extraordinary film. You can view my images of the soldiers at this link…
The Donnell Library across from MOMA will display the portraits in September and there are posters around town now…the one below is on the corner of Houston and Essex in our very own East Village.
TB: Both projects seem to reflect a strong sense of social responsibility, and a sense of political engagement. This is very impressive- could you talk about how this came about for you?
Timothy: I grew up with an interest in radical and progressive politics. The last 6 years have been sad for anyone with a brain. I was a teenager during the height of the Vietnam War, so it was crystal clear to me what kind of mess Bush was getting us into. A lot of people fell for the “shock and awe” regarding . I didn’t for a second. I like to be politically involved. I guess I am fortunate to be able to use my access and friendships in positive ways. We all do whatever we can.
TB: You have a Wikipedia entry- how cool is that?
Timothy: Is that a sign of success? If so, I’m flattered! Long live Wikipedia.
TB: Could you talk a bit about the “Irascibles” projects? The original was made by Nina Leen in 1950 of fourteen Abstract Expressionists and published in Life in 1951. You have done some interesting things with it.
Timothy: During the mid- 1980’s the East Village was for a short time…the center of the art world…it’s really hard to believe but it was. There were over 150 galleries and hundreds and hundreds of artists. My great friend, art critic Robert Pincus-Witten and I would visit the galleries with my wife Karin and our little children in strollers and meet the artists and dealers. It was a very exciting moment for our neighborhood and it all took place on Sundays when there was nothing else to do. I wanted to photograph the scene, but there were just too many people to shoot them individually, so I came up with the idea of using Nina Leen’s historic portrait as the paradigm for my interpretation of the “scene”. I created 7 images; 3 groups of artists, 2 groups of dealers, 1 group of critics, and 1 group of collectors.
TB: You produced and directed “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” originally for PBS. I haven’t seen it, but I imagine you would maintain the direct, unadorned, to-the-point approach you use in your photographs….
Timothy: Lou Reed has always been an inspiration to me and I think to a lot of other artists. After we became friends, he trusted me to tell his story. I interviewed everyone from David Bowie to Holly Woodlawn. My wife Karin was the senior researcher on the film, so we got the facts right! The film won a Grammy Award in 1999 for Best Music Documentary. It was my first film. (My graduate degree was in film from the American Film Institute).
Timothy: A portrait shoot should not be about ME, it should be about the subject. I work very hard to pull that off.
TB: I read on the internet you have been “batting some ideas around” with the actor Christopher Walken for possible projects. Care to elaborate?
Timothy: That project is currently “frozen” but I have hopes it will thaw. Walken is an amazing guy and I’d love to work with him on anything.
TB: You have had a recent addition to your family- a beautiful grandson. And you and your wife Karin have two very artistically accomplished daughters. How has it been raising a family in the East Village?
Timothy: The East Village was an ideal place for my kids to grow up. It’s not a sterile neighborhood… it’s about as diverse as you can get. They learned a lot just walking around, aside from how to handle themselves on the street and all of that… I think my grandson, Hudson will love it here as well.
Timothy: Neighborhoods change. People change. I still find the East Village an extraordinary place to live. I feel lucky to live here really. It’s different of course, not as edgy, not as scary. Now-a-days there’s a bank on every corner instead of drug dealer…but that’s probably a good thing. I guess?
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief