His photos are reflections of the dreams and aspirations of people who’ve felt marginalized for far too long. Serena Altschul introduces us to the photographer, and his subjects:
In Los Angeles this past September, the red carpet was rolled out at the Annenberg Space for Photography for an unusual guest list: the stars of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ latest project, titled “The Trans List.”
Greenfield-Sanders trains his lens on the transgender community, and catalogs their stories in a film that airs on HBO this Monday.
“My films are my portraits come to life,” said Greenfield-Sanders. “They’re that plain backdrop, that direct-to-camera gaze, that simplicity.”
Some of the stories you may have heard, like Caitlyn Jenner’s:
“Every journey has its struggle. ... Going from a very positive masculine figure to what a lot of people perceive a feminine, weak figure. Publically. Not easy to do.”
Greenfield-Sanders said, “What Caitlyn did was allow men in particular who loved Bruce Jenner, who respected Bruce Jenner, to all of a sudden think differently. This was an incredibly important moment.”
But no less important are the stories that you may not have heard, like that of British actress, model and former “Bond Girl” Caroline Cossey.
“After I was outed by the News of the World, I felt desperate. Suicidal. It really wasn’t anyone’s business. And it should have been left to me if I wanted to talk about it.”
“Our culture has these kind of boxes of, you know, what a man should be and what a woman should be,” Greenfield-Sanders said, “And I think certainly, in the last 40 years, the gay rights movement has made people more aware that it’s not so simple”
Capturing the complexity of the American identity has become something of a specialty for Greenfield-Sanders. He has been capturing powerful portraits of race, gender and sexuality in photographs and film for the last ten years.
In 2006, he and author Toni Morrison hatched the idea to photograph renowned African Americans -- a series of photographs and films titled “The Black List.” That work was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery.
Other lists followed: “The Latino List,” “The Out List,” “The Women’s List” … an unconventional body of work for an artist that fell into photography almost by accident, as a film student in Los Angeles.
“They needed someone for the school to just kind of take snapshots of the visiting dignitaries -- you would see every film for two weeks by Bette Davis, and then Bette Davis would come,” he recalled to Altschul. “But she said, ‘What the f**k are you doing shooting from below?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And she said, ‘Well, if you can drive a car, I’ll teach you about photography, young man.’
“And I drove her around for a week. I’d pick her up in the morning and we would drive to her agent’s and have a nice Bloody Mary about 10:30. And she would then talk about these great Hollywood photographers and how they would light her and how light should be set for her face. And it got me more and more interested in portraiture.”
Newly-wed and fresh out of film school, the budding artist moved to New York City’s East Village in 1978. “So we ended up luckily buying this building, a 1905 neo-Gothic German Roman Catholic rectory that we bought from the archdiocese.”
The former priest’s home became his studio.
“People ask, ‘What’s your favorite photo or your favorite?” It’s not really ever that. They’re all kind of great experiences. You know, with Patti Smith or with Victor Cruz or Alan Cummings, those times on this set in this room, in this building were special.
Greenfield-Sanders says the difficulty of working with an antique camera made him a better photographer. “It forced me to think about what the portrait was, rather than just shoot and hope I get something,” he said. “There’s something about large format that’s so beautiful -- the fine art print side of it and the complicatedness of it. And it became kind of a signature, really, for me.”
A signature camera -- and a remarkable career.
To watch a trailer for the HBO documentary “The Trans List” click on the video player below.
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