He photographed everyone from David Bowie to Jared Leto, from Andy Warhol to Keanu Reeves. And he has something to tell not only about portrait photography, but also about people in general. Read our translation of the highlights from an interview with famed portrait painter Greg Gorman by B&H Photography podcast producer John Harris.
At this same time a year ago, we were sitting in the recording studio with Hollywood portrait photography legend Greg Gorman, who was the keynote speaker at the 2020 Depth of Field conference. Blissfully unaware of the upcoming lockdown, we laughed and shared stories while recording the B&H Photography podcast. What can be said a year later? On the eve of the 2021 Depth of Field free online conference, we are still here and still love and honor the art of photography. And once again I was lucky to speak with Greg Gorman, who is celebrating the recent publication of his monumental new book It’s Not About Me and is printing photos for his exhibition at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.
In preparation for this interview, I tried to come up with a question for Gorman that would break the heart of portrait photography and show you how you can get close and create the iconic celebrity photos for which he is best known.
To be honest, it was a waste of time. Within seconds of starting a Zoom conversation, the answer becomes obvious — he’s just a very attractive, outspoken, yet fun, open and professional person you’ll ever meet, and a real fan of what he does. There are no riddles; he thrives on creative collaborations and open dialogue, and is genuinely curious about what makes people who they are, whether they’re a superstar or just super[человек]. And he always has stories in store that brighten up every conversation — dinner parties with Bowie, limousines with Mick and Midler, a young Leo DiCaprio and his longtime friendship with Devine. I’m not alone in hoping he writes a memoir one day, but for a taste of his life and work as a photographer, this new book is where to start. His portrait shots are simply mesmerizing, and the sheer number of artists, actors and musicians he has photographed is a real lesson in the names of cultural figures from the 1970s to the 2000s.
Gorman’s book, which he calls “a career retrospective,” includes an afterword by his dear friend and model, director John Waters, who writes that a model, especially a celebrity, “has to give something so that he can take.” I ask Gorman: “What exactly does the subject have to give in order for him (Gorman) to be able to make a portrait?”
His response: “Trust and openness. It’s really a game of trust and confidence, and if I don’t earn that trust, it’s going to be hard for me to get a good portrait. Likewise, if a model closes in and has a clear version in her head of how she should be perceived, it can get in the way of a great photo shoot. And that’s why Leonardo DiCaprio was so good in front of the camera from the very early days, because he didn’t care if he personified his masculine or feminine side. He was never effeminate, but he was always open to play and fun, and when shooting a portrait it makes a big difference if someone puts himself in your hands.”
And when a model comes in with a preconceived notion of what is expected of her, do you try to change her mind, and if so, how?
“Sometimes it just takes a glass of wine and a conversation, but the most important thing is to share your vision with the model, and I always did that by showing my Polaroids then or digital photos now. And you also need to let them know that you are playing for their team, and not against their team. I grew up in the Midwest and I’m a pretty level-headed guy, I can be charming and sincere and direct if I need to. It helped, especially in the beginning, but when I had a portfolio, it became a “charge of complicity” and “mutual respect”, and this plays a huge role in gaining the trust of clients.”
I also try to go into a photo session with a completely open mind about what I expect from a person and who I think he is. I prefer to go this route because having a preconceived notion of someone only clouds your vision and weakens your communication. And I never ask people to do stupid things; there are no humorous shots in my repertoire, I very rarely ask people to smile. I am as close to “still life” as it is possible for a portrait painter. I usually just tell the person to sit down and not move.
— Greg Gorman
In the afterword, Waters also writes about a People Magazine-style portrait of Waters’ parents that Gorman took when they visited the set of the 1990 film Cry-Baby. Gorman was doing portraits for the film’s posters and asked if he could take a picture of his friend’s parents. There can be a lot to portraiture, but at its best it is a gift of love and remembrance, and this simple portrait remained on the wall of the Waters’ home throughout their lives.
For this book, Gorman reviewed 50 years of material. The first edition consisted of 10,000 photographs, then decreased to a thousand, and he set out to find photographs that had not previously been published anywhere. He also admits that the book was meant to highlight the greatest stars, the most remarkable people he has photographed over the years, and that when he was younger, he didn’t always “take his own advice.” “I shot indulgently, taking ‘good shots’ of my models,” he says, “but not the ‘strong shots’ that I got as my style developed.”
However, when it came to selecting shots of models he had photographed many times, he gave himself the freedom to choose shots. “When I was editing this book, I was looking for ‘moments in between’. I chose not a sedate portrait, but perhaps only a cursory glance in this direction or less obvious gestures. And, of course, I included my ‘major players’ who I’ve photographed numerous times over the years — Bette Midler, David Bowie, Elton John.”
The order and pairing of the portraits is another very interesting part of the book. Al Pacino next to Marlon Brando and Evander Holyfield paired up with Muhammad Ali is an obvious move, but here Betty White on the page opposite Barry White brings a smile — a nod to everyone who understands Gorman’s humor. He told me that his friend and collaborator, artist Gary Jones, played a huge role in choosing the order of the images.
Gorman has also photographed for some of the most famous films in history. Dustin Hoffman in a red sequin dress as Tootsie, Al Pacino in Scarface, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. These photos were not only part of hugely successful advertising campaigns, they were copied, parodied, turned into T‑shirt prints and countless memes. I asked him if he thought much about how these images became part of our visual culture.
The only thing I thought about when I received an order for a movie poster was how much I would get for them. I never really thought about it, it was just part of the job. Sometimes I saw giant billboards — I remember the huge Heath Ledger as Casanova on Hollywood Boulevard — but overall I respected that work, although I didn’t have much personal attachment to the final product. In fact, the photo that has become hundreds of memes is my poster for the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival. google
— Greg Gorman
Reading Gorman’s own foreword to his book, one understands the amount of work required to build such a career — constant contact in editorial offices, advertising and galleries, and even modest work was carried out with professionalism. In addition to celebrity portraits, his nudes continue to be sold in the fine art market and used for advertising.
He also mentioned a new series that came out during the COVID-19 lockdown, for which he teamed up with Fujifilm and used a GFX-100 medium format mirrorless camera, a GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR lens, and a Rotolight Titan X1 LED panel. The project is still under wraps, however, he hinted that he shoots every day, as well as that “it’s a still life, but…” and “this seems to be the first brand new thing I’ve done since the 90s. I finally found a medium format that I can work with again!”
Gorman also praised the Epson SureColor P9570 44-inch wide-format inkjet printer, which he used to print his own photos for his upcoming show. He laughed at how easy it was to print and assemble an exhibition today, and how easily the P9570 handled large prints.
Gorman’s website has a section called We The People, which features a series of portraits taken for the Transportation Security Administration. He traveled the country in a van, photographing “ordinary people and their activities.” It’s far from his dramatic Hollywood work, so I asked him what he gets from portraiture, why does he enjoy it so much?
“I love faces, I don’t care if it’s a celebrity or a taxi driver, but I should be attracted aesthetically either from a physical point of view or mentally, with respect for the model. And the challenge of portrait photography is to get into the mind of the subject and break down the barriers to truly create communication art. It’s really just a means of connecting with people.”
Greg Gorman’s new book, It’s Not About Me: A Retrospective, is available here. And here is a list of equipment that he currently uses. You can also watch his presentation (in English) at the 2020 Depth of Field conference and read about the 2021 Depth of Field conference hosted by B&H.