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.

Pho­to: Cyrill Mat­ter / interview.de

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.

Greg Gor­man’s mon­u­men­tal book It’s Not About Me: A Ret­ro­spec­tive with a pho­to of his long­time friend and mod­el Grace Jones on the cov­er. Pho­to: bhphotovideo.com

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.

Alfred Hitch­cock, 1972. Steven Spiel­berg, 1994. Pho­tos: Greg Gor­man

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.

John­ny Depp in Cry-Baby, 1990. John Waters Sr. and Pat Waters, 1989. Pho­tos: Greg Gor­man

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.”

Orson Welles, 1970. Mar­lon Bran­do, 1994. Pho­tos: Greg Gor­man

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.”

David Bowie, 1984. Tom Waits, 1980. Pho­tos: Greg Gor­man

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.

Bet­ty White and Bar­ry White from It’s Not About Me. Pho­to: Greg Gor­man

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?

From the series “We, the peo­ple”. Pho­to: Greg Gor­man

“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.


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