Noted for his portraits of artists, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders turns his lens on the fashion world.
This story first appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Elsa Peretti drank Scotch for three hours before she was ready. Betsey Johnson — no shrinking violet — volunteered. Calvin Klein acted as if he was right at home and Donna Karan worried about crow’s feet and cleavage before she could get to it.
“It” is a portrait session with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the photographer best known for obsessively chronicling the art world over two decades, and whose latest series features designers.
If shooting fashion insiders sounds easy, think again. Sure, they have a flair for dressing and know how to put their best face forward, but they’re as vain as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” — and just as terrified of aging.
“A lot of these people are public figures, so they’re comfortable being photographed,” says Greenfield-Sanders, who shot about 75 fashion luminaries in all. “On the other hand, because some of them are public figures, their image is so tied up with their looks. Obviously, Donna Karan wants to look good.”
Karan, in fact, looks great. Greenfield-Sanders, a master of the compliment, is an old hand at making his subjects feel comfortable in front of the lens. He also has the uncanny ability to capture the telling gaze and odd gesture that reveals some intimate facet of his subjects’ personalities.
“I learned portraiture by default,” says the photographer, who attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in the Seventies. “Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock would come to school to lecture, and I would photograph them. Hitchcock told me my lights were all wrong and Bette Davis told me never to shoot people from below because it’s unflattering.”
About 50 of the portraits will be on view for the first time at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami, from today to Feb. 28 as part of a show called “Sanders & Greenfield-Sanders,” featuring four members of the talented extended family.
Greenfield-Sanders’ daughter Isca, an artist who developed a technique for making paintings that incorporates photography, watercolor and oil paint, represents the younger generation. At the other end of the age spectrum is Greenfield-Sanders’ father-in-law and Isca’s grandfather, Joop Sanders, a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists in the Fifties. His son, John Sanders (Isca’s uncle), makes steel sculptures, forged and flame-carved to suggest nature, the cosmos or signatures in space.
Greenfield-Sanders has photographed more than 1,000 artists, dealers, critics and collectors, displaying the magnificent, stark, head-on shots in galleries. About 700 images were shown at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1999, organized in a grid formation on one of the gallery’s walls.
Six years ago, Fern Mallis, the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, suggested that Greenfield-Sanders photograph the organization’s members for a possible book.
Like most of his projects, Greenfield-Sanders found himself becoming much more interested in the topic than he anticipated. He set out to document as many members of the fashion clique as he could. His one ground rule: that all the photos be taken in his East Village studio.
The results constitute a rogue’s gallery of fashion icons, with a few who are now gone and others who are no longer in business. Like the most successful portrait photographers, Greenfield-Sanders walks a fine line between protecting and revealing his subjects.
Karan looks feminine and vulnerable, Diane Von Furstenberg is a feral beauty and Michael Kors has an air of detachment. Isaac Mizrahi allows a bit of signature imperiousness to penetrate his expression, while Pauline Trigére looks at once fragile and fierce.
With his hand resting against the side of his face, Yves Saint Laurent allows a worried look to creep across his visage. It makes the designer’s well-known nervousness palpable even on the page.
Peretti was so nervous when she arrived at the studio, she couldn’t think of posing. “Elsa took three hours and a lot of drinking,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “She ended up drinking Scotch the whole time and gave my children beautiful necklaces from a big bag of jewelry. Once she was in front of the camera she was magical.”
Johnson offered to sit for Greenfield-Sanders when the two met on a first-class flight to Jamaica. “She said, ‘I must come pose for you,’” he recalls. “And she did. She had her daughter with her. They did a lot of hair and makeup. She’s a really beautiful woman.”
Klein and Greenfield-Sanders have an easy rapport since they travel in some of the same art circles. But even though the photographer and Rei Kawakubo are old friends, the designer fought being shot tooth and nail.
“Someone like Rei, who is a very shy artist, doesn’t like to get press for herself,” he says. “She was very difficult to get to the studio and only did it because I’ve worked with her for so long. She was very uncomfortable in the situation.”
It was Kawakubo who gave Greenfield-Sanders one of his first commercial assignments in 1986 when she asked him to shoot art world figures for a Comme des Garçons ad campaign and Six, the company’s publication. That job led to an ad campaign for Barneys New York featuring color Polaroids of celebrities such as Tom Jones, Sandra Bernhard and Matt Dillon. Then came ads for Jil Sander.
After he’s finished with the designers, Greenfield-Sanders wants to shoot stylists. He once took a memorable photo of a topless Polly Mellon wearing a big hoop skirt with her arms crossed over her chest.
But there are still a few glaring omissions from the designer roster, including Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs and John Galliano.
“I’d like to shoot Ralph Lauren because he’s such an incredible name in fashion,” the photographer says. “I’d love to get Karl. We’ve already talked about it.”
Greenfield-Sanders is confident he can pull it off. After all, he’s a consummate diplomat. When shooting designers, he always steers the conversation to their favorite subject: themselves. “I know enough about the industry to know that nobody wants to talk about anything other than their own fashion,” he says.