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Third Screen: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on "Black List"

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2009-02-22-Michelle_Obama.jpg
Photo courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

He's photographed Lou Reed and wounded American soldiers. He's captured the visual meaning of actors and presidents. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is one of the most accomplished -- and certainly one of the busiest -- portrait photographers in America. This week, he and journalist Elvis Mitchell -- whom I interviewed in this column last year -- return to HBO with their second addition to the remarkable ongoing documentary, "Black List." And just how did he wind up photographing a certain former senator's wife shown above? She's not in the film, but, you know, she's been busy. Caught up with Greenfield-Sanders to get his take on things ...

Third Screen: What was it like to photograph Michelle Obama?

Greenfield-Sanders: She came to the house a few years ago when President Obama was a mere senator. She needed a single photo, I got the shot, and said wonderful, we're done, let's hang out. I wish I had shot 20 rolls.

Third Screen: Was she a good subject ?

Greenfield-Sanders: She's an extremely easy person to feel comfortable around. As a photographer, that's what I do as well -- try to make people feel comfortable around me. When Elvis and I did the first "Black List" that became the goal, to make people feel they could talk about themselves, discuss real things -- not promoting something, not spinning something or selling a DVD.

Third Screen: What do you talk about when someone comes to your studio for a portrait?

Greenfield-Sanders: No talking points. Just a mutual desire to reach a significant place in their story. For the first "Black List," for example, we photographed Al Sharpton. We had doubts about whether or not to film him because we see Sharpton everywhere, all the time. I said 'Elvis, I photographed him years ago, and there's something about him that doesn't come through and I think there's a chance to show the real Al Sharpton.' Elvis talked to him about religion and the black church. People stand up and applaud at screenings when they see that segment about him.

Third Screen: Celebrities as non-celebrities?

Greenfield-Sanders: Yes. My portraiture is about making people look the way they see themselves in the mirror. Not to overly glamorize or be cruelly honest. You can make someone look hideous even though he or she is a beautiful person A lot of photography today is about making people look ugly or putting them in a bad or uncomfortable pose. That's the aesthetic of many photo editors. I'm so against it. Is catching people off guard necessarily the truth? I don't think so.

Third Screen: What are you after, as a photographer, in the films?

Greenfield-Sanders: Getting the visual story of accomplishment. Portraiture come to life. We have them talking in a simple studio shot with one light and a clean backdrop in order to make it all about the person and not about my fancy lighting and my jazz. Elvis and I both felt that if you could look at someone in a still, it's got to be interesting to hear them talk. The simplicity of it pulls you in.

Third Screen: So anyone can do this at home?

Greenfield-Sanders: Actually, the simplicity is very deceiving. People say all they did was put someone in front of a camera and ask them to talk. Not quite.

Third Screen: What was it like to photograph George Bush, father and then son?

Greenfield-Sanders: At the time I photographed Bush, Sr. he was already out of office. I found him to be very elegant and quite cooperative. He was interested in me and my work and we discussed Andover where my daughter Lily was in school and where he had studied as well. I photographed Bush junior at the White House. It was a disturbing day. The contrast between the two men, well, that's for a different article. It was very hard to connect with Jr., and I think part of it was my own anger at the war in Iraq. As a photographer, you can never bring your personal politics into it, so the only thing we really connected on was bicycling, and I'm hardly an expert. I really did find it hard to hold back and not tell him what I thought! But, he was a terrific subject. Most politicians really know how to pose. I mean this literally. They're like Hollywood pros - they understand the camera and pay attention. I photographed Kerry and Teresa and they were not flawless in front of the camera the way Bush and Laura were. .

Third Screen: What makes someone a good subject?

Greenfield-Sanders: They know what their body's doing, what their face is doing. They control it. They listen to you. They know if what you suggest is going to work for them or not. I see it in actors. If you say to them, give me a tiny smile, they give you a tiny smile. If you say to a child give me a tiny smile, guaranteed it's going to be too big. But an actor can control his like opening and closing a door.

Third Screen: Who challenged you the most for Black List II?

Greenfield-Sanders: Valerie Montgomery Rice, the doctor who runs a medical school. She's not a public person. I love the picture, but it was harder to get than, say, Lawrence Fishburne, who's been photographed a million times. With Fishburne, keeping him interested was the difficult thing. I don't shoot a lot. I use an 8 x 10 camera, only a few frames, just 8 or 10 frames and, in a way, it's more fun for the subject because it's a big old funky wooden camera. We have as much conversation as possible - I sit with them in the make-up room or after we've done the interview already. I'm always watching for mannerisms or poses. If you watch people, you'll see what's comfortable for them.

Third Screen: Have you changed your approaches over the years?

Greenfield-Sanders: I have been photographing artists for 30 years. My original world was the art world - my friends were artists and my father-in-law was an Abstract Expressionist from the 50s -- and I started out as a filmmaker at the American Film Institute in LA. It was there that I learned how to be a filmmaker and got interested in portraiture. I always knew how to make films. So I can take photos and I can make films. It's what Andy Warhol had always taught me. An artist can do anything. You don't have to just paint. It's the next great liberation. Old-fashioned thinking is that photographers can only take pictures. Look, today, at Damien Hirst, who has a restaurant, and makes paintings, and has a factory for paintings, and modeled.

Third Screen: What was it like to photograph Angela Davis?

Greenfield-Sanders: Angela Davis is a professor at Berkeley and an amazing woman, someone I very much wanted to include in Black List II. She's movie-star beautiful and equally beautiful as a person. A delight to photograph. It was exciting for me to photograph the subjects in "The Black List: Volume 2." They're all amazing. While some are not brand names, they are enormously accomplished. "The Black List" is very much about highlighting accomplishment. To me, that's real celebrity. To paraphrase Mr. Warhol... who coined the expression that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Well, these people deserve an hour.