Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
“I Learned from Bette Davis”

20 November 2015

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Miami Beach, 1952) throws a light on other people’s talent. Artists and politicians feel safe when they enter his home-studio. A former Anglican convent in the East Village turned into a cathedral of photography and now of film too. “I bought it in 1978, thanks to an ad in the Village Voice newspaper,” he tells me in the kitchen while he cooks breakfast with scrambled eggs and coffee. “In those days, New York was very fragile economically. Real estate was cheap and this was a marginal neighborhood. I think in a way this building has been a big part of my career. It’s such an identifiable place. People like it. And, in a way it adds to my overall glamour. People feel comfortable here. I prefer to shoot here whenever possible.”
Greenfield-Sanders establishes a natural empathy with whoever he is talking to. The timbre of his gentle voice relaxes people. He gives them what they need and if he wants to take a picture of them he takes them to the large room on the ground floor, where he stands them in front of a light gray backdrop and points a 1905 11 x 14 inch (28 x 36 cm) Folmer & Schwing with a wooden body at them.
Then he turns one light on, usually the one on the right, and gives no particular emphasis to narrative elements. Mostly he just asks his subject to look straight into the camera. The feeling that you get looking at someone looking out at you from a photo is a powerful one. He has started to use that in his films too. The latest one is called The Women’s List.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: It has just aired on PBS in the US. It’s a continuation of my series that includes The Black List, The Latino List, The Out List and The Boomer List. This time it’s 15 women, ranging from Madeleine Albright to Edie Falco, Wendy Williams and Rosie Perez. I’m very proud of this film. And I was able to get Toni Morrison to write a special statement about women today and read it for the introduction. Toni wrote an amazing minute. It’s fabulous. Toni Morrison has been my friend for 35 years. She was very kind.

She recently condemned white policemen for the constant killing of black men in the US. Are diehard Republicans still furious that Obama was elected?

Yes. I think this is true. Americans on the radical right, the right wing, are innately racist. It’s a last desperate grasp for white control!

Do they reject the people they consider different from themselves?

Yes. Many of my films are about diversity.

Are you already thinking about your next one?

The Trans List for HBO. It’s not been officially announced yet. So you’re going to be the first to announce it! It’s coming out in about a year, hopefully for gay pride month, in June.

Have you already started the shooting?

I’m just back after shooting some interviews in LA. I had four subjects in one day. Incredible stories. Really fantastic. One was a survivor of the Stonewall riots. Her name is Miss Major. Trans people were at the forefront of the LGBT movement. Miss Major is a 6 foot 2 inch trans woman… and a truly remarkable person. She is revered by the trans community. We also interviewed a trans man who currently works as a porn star. He has tattoos and is uber masculine, but still has a vagina. In the interview, he described how there are more gay men than you think who like to have sex with a masculine man who also has a vagina.

And the other two people?

The third one was a young Latino / Native American man currently in the military, with the body of a body-builder. This man went into the army as a woman but is now a man. His story was remarkable. And then the fourth one was a Latina trans woman, who spoke of her years in jail, of living on the street and surviving it all to now work as an activist helping transgender women.

Alfred Hitchcock e Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Alfred Hitchcock and Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

We had a transgender politician in Italy, some years ago. Her name is Vladimir Luxuria. She was the first transgender member of Parliament in Europe. Now there is a lot of talk because of Caitlyn Jenner.

Everywhere people are talking about that. We are hoping to get her for the film. Caitlyn is so important as a door for people to understand trans. Caitlyn as Bruce Jenner was beloved and I think it helps people understand the urgency that makes someone do this.

Have you already met her?

I haven’t met her. I met him years ago at a party in Hollywood.

And Laverne Cox, the actress in Orange Is the New Black?

Laverne has agreed to be in the film.

You always work with the most talented people.

I try to. It is important to me. The other List films are well known now and people respect the level of our work.

Do you photograph everyone in your films too?

I always photograph everyone in my films. For The Trans List I am considering photographing more than just the 15 for the documentary. I’d like to shoot 50 trans people and do an exhibition and a book.

How do you choose the cast of your films?

It’s very difficult. There are so many great people to choose from. You try to present a wide range of subjects. With The Black List, we were careful to avoid too many actors, athletes or musicians. We wanted to show that there was great talent outside the obvious areas of achievement. Of course you want famous people to help get attention for the film. The press loves famous people! But it can’t be just well-known faces.

Are you responsible for everything? I mean the logistics, the concept, the presentation…

The List series was my idea. It’s based on bringing my portraiture to life. I don’t need to actually hold the camera, edit the film or conduct the interviews for it to have my imprint.

Do you have any assistants?

Sure, but I am a control freak and I do like to do everything. But I have a team of great people.

Who does the interviews in your projects?
It’s different with each film. Sandra Guzman and Maria Hinojosa interviewed the subjects in The Latino List. For The Out List, a gay person, Sam McConnell, conducted the interviews. It’s very helpful to have an interviewer who understands the territory. The woman who is doing the interviews for The Trans List is a trans woman named Janet Mock. She is brilliant. We are so happy to have her on the team.

When did you come to New York?

I first moved to New York for college in 1970, when I was 18. I went to Colombia University and majored in Art History. Then I went to graduate film school in California and then Karin and I moved back to New York and we bought this building.

What does your wife do?

She’s a lawyer who does mostly pro bono work for the environment. She also works with artists. Karin is the brains in the family.

In 1999 you won a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video for your first film: Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart. What does it mean to you?

I never thought a Grammy was important. Then one day, I won one. Now I think it’s important. It’s a big honor!

Reed Lou. Foto: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Lou Reed. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

When did you meet Lou Reed?

I knew him slightly in the old days, but not like a friend in any way… more like a fan. We met properly in 1992 at my studio for a photo shoot and really became instant friends.

He introduced you to Fernanda Pivano.

The first time I met her was at the poetry festival in Conegliano with Lou. In fact Fernanda is in my documentary, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, for a moment. Years later, she visited New York and came to my studio for a portrait. She was amazing. There’s nobody like her. She’s a unique figure. She’s the Gertrude Stein of Italy. The last time I saw her was in Milan.

You are well known in Italy.
Many years ago, Demetrio Paparoni visited my studio in New York. We became instant friends and Demetrio is very much the reason why I have had so much exposure and success in Italy.

Are you still in contact with Laurie Anderson?
Of course. Very much. Laurie was just in Venice with her new film, which is doing very well. I haven’t seen it yet. Laurie is in The Women’s List.

You have two daughters, Isca and Liliana. They are both artists: one is a writer and director, the other is a painter. How did you pass your love for the arts on to them?

They grew up in a house where every day there was somebody remarkable visiting our home and my studio. They might come home from school and have tea with Jasper Johns or ice cream with John Malkovich. It wasn’t a normal upbringing, to say the least!. When my daughter Isca married Sebastian, Lou Reed performed at the wedding ceremony. My kids grew up connected to celebrity and to fame. They knew how to pose for a photo from a very early age. They learned how to present themselves. My children grew up seeing, first-hand, the advantages and the disadvantages of celebrity and fame. Luckily they met great artists, talented actors, brilliant writers around the house… So fame and celebrity were connected to achievement and talent. Not reality TV or YouTube stardom. To someone who tried to make a difference.

Is it true that the first person who taught you photography was Bette Davis?

Yes. It’s true. She was the first one who took an interest in me that way. I was a student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. We would study the films of all the great Hollywood legends and then they would come sit with us for afternoon seminars. Hitchcock, Bergman, Truffaut, a young Steven Spielberg… They all came. It was a very privileged place. By the time Bette Davis came to the school, I had become the school’s photographer, with the job of recording these events for the AFI archives. Nobody wanted to do it. Photography was less important than film! But I really didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t a photographer yet. I knew how to take snapshots. So when I was shooting Bette Davis, I bent down to shoot her from below and she said to me: “What the fuck are you doing? Shooting from below? You never shoot from below. It’s ugly!” And she then asked me if I could drive a car and I said yes, of course. She said: “Well I’ll teach you photography and you’ll drive me for a week in LA.” For the next week, I’d pick her up every day. And we’d talk about photography and the films she liked, the directors who were really good. You have to understand that I knew everything about her, I was a big fan. Even though she was an old woman at this point, to me she was a legend. I loved her and I loved all the things she had done. She was iconic. Can you imagine how lucky I was to have this experience? Bette introduced me to the work of all the great Hollywood photographers… people like George Hurrell. She would describe how he would light her face and why he would use a certain lens. My photography lessons took place in an old 1954 Ford Customline car with Bette Davis as my instructor.

What other icons gave you private lessons?

I became friends with Hitchcock too. He invited me to visit him at Universal Studios to meet the lighting guys because he could see I didn’t know anything. AFI was the top school for film and Hollywood took an interest in us. We were the future of filmmaking.

Was it a sort of exchange between a young man and great masters?

That’s right. One of the most valuable things I learned at AFI was how to be with famous people. And I learned that when I was 24, 25. Very young.

Bette Davis. Foto: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Bette Davis. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

You met Tennessee Williams too, right?
Yes. He was a very good friend of my uncle, David Wolkowsky. But I was too young to understand how legendary he was. I was a teenager. Tennessee Williams wasn’t anyone to me.


When you are 13 years old, Tennessee Williams is not on your radar… I hadn’t read his plays. My brother and I would go to Key West to visit my uncle and go fishing. We’d catch fresh fish for dinner and Tennessee would cook it. Hard to imagine, right? I knew he was somebody important, even at 13. I could tell by the way people reacted to him.

How old was he?

He was in his mid-fifties. To me he was old! A few years later, when I moved to New York, I was lucky enough to see him in a small theater production of Small Craft Warnings. Tennessee acted in the play along with Michael York and Candy Darling. By then, I realized how special it was to know him.

Your uncle was an artist?

No, my uncle was a developer in Key West. He’s 96. He’s considered the King of Key West. My uncle had great vision and great taste. He built the first important hotel in Key West, the Pier House. But my uncle was like Gertrude Stein, he loved literature and writers. He was like Fernanda that way. You must remember that Key West in the seventies was “the place” for writers. They all went there for the winter… When Key West was in its heyday it was a special moment. Real estate and rentals were cheap, the weather was an escape from the cold north. It was a real artists’ colony. And my uncle owned the best hotel and bar in town. I loved going to Key West with my friends. My uncle would give us a cool place to stay and there were no rules.

Who else did you meet in that period?

I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a teenager. My mother was a musician and both my father and mother were involved in the fight for civil rights. Martin Luther King and my mother had lunch one day, but I didn’t know who he was. I was only ten!

And what about New York today. What about mayor Bill de Blasio?

What I like about Mayor de Blasio is that he is related to my great friend in Naples, Davide de Blasio, owner of Tramontano. They make the best leather goods. Davide was a huge Lou Reed fan and eventually became part of Lou’s inner circle. Lou loved Tramontano and the things they make. Anyhow, a few years ago, Davide said he would be coming to New York to meet his distant cousin, a guy named Bill de Blasio. Shortly after that… de Blasio runs for mayor!

According to the US press it seems that nobody is happy with him.

NY today is a very difficult city to govern. I don’t buy into this storyline that he’s not popular. It’s a media concoction because he’s a liberal person. The New York Post likes right wingers to run the city. They like dictators like Giuliani.

They say he was the person who made the crime rate go down.

Not really. The crime rate went down not because of Giuliani. It went down because of changes in the population and because the economy got better. There is a fascinating study on the effects of the ban on lead paint and crime. Giuliani was a tough guy when people were scared by 9/11 but he did many racist and illegal things as mayor. I think de Blasio has a good heart. That’s not something I would ever say about Giuliani.

It seems to me that there are more homeless people now than a few years ago.

You weren’t here in the seventies. It’s Disneyland now compared to that!

Clinton Hillary. Foto: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Hillary Clinton. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

What about the campaign for the next President of the US?

I think it’s early. The only one who has any brains is Hillary Clinton. The others are clowns. Can you seriously imagine Trump? The things Trump says are so horrible. But he understands the media very well.

Is it right to say that he is a sort of American Berlusconi?

I don’t think Trump has had sex with underage prostitutes, yet (LAUGHS). Trump is a very American phenomenon. A big, over-the-top personality who says things that are not thought out. He’s very dangerous because of that. His comments about Latinos are disgusting. I would be amazed if he becomes the Republican candidate. I don’t think he will because the Republican establishment wants someone they can control. That’s not Donald Trump.

You photographed Hillary Clinton. Have you ever met Donald Trump?

Yes, I photographed him, too.

He actually has a sort of talent!

He has a talent for media manipulation. Look at us… spending all this time discussing him.

Tell me just one last thing. Everybody here talks about the Latino people and the Afro-American people, but nobody talks about the Chinese or people from the East.

In the US, the largest minorities are Black and Latino. The Asian populations here are quite small comparatively. While they are certainly growing and in some cities are significant, their issues are often different. There is also a very difficult language barrier to consider. Unlike Europeans, most Americans know only one language. Chinese is infinitely more difficult than, say, Spanish.

Have you ever shot Chinese people?

Actually, I’ve started a series on Chinese artists. I have done a dozen or so portraits thus far.

That could be your next project!

It’s difficult. Taking portraits of people who don’t understand you is difficult work!

Trump Donald. Foto: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Donald Trump. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Fernanda Pivano. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Fernanda Pivano. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Toni Morrison. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Toni Morrison. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Alfred Hitchcock. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Alfred Hitchcock. Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

Enrico Rotelli

Enrico Rotelli interviews American writers for the La Lettura cultural supplement of Il Corriere della Sera and works with the Fondazione Fabrizio De André. He has been an assistant to Fernanda Pivano, editing her books Diari 1917-1973Diari Volume 2 1974-2009 and Medaglioni. He has also edited the autobiographies of Valentina Cortese, Carla Fracci and Paola Turci.

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