The Out List: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Turns His Camera on LGBT America

Aaron Hicklin

Jun 25, 2013

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

New York during the Factory years; Los Angeles for the twilight of the studio gods, the photographer has had impeccable timing

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose new documentary, The Out List, which premieres June 27 on HBO, likes to say that he has good timing. The photographer and filmmaker arrived in New York a sophisticated and eager 18-year-old from Florida just as Warhol’s Superstars were at the height of their fame. That was in 1970.

In his second week studying film at Columbia University, he called up a family friend, the underground singer and actress Tally Brown, and said, “I’m here and I have a car,” to which Brown, who lived on 181st Street, replied, “Pick me up at 9 o’clock, we’re going to some parties.” Greenfield-Sanders didn’t waste time. Brown, an occasional entertainer at the celebrated Continental Baths and a regular in Warhol’s movies, was the young student’s entrée to a whole universe. “In the first two weeks of being in New York I met Candy, Holly, Joe, Andy,” he says—and if you have to ask, Candy who?, you are either too young or too square.

Brown died in 1989, but Greenfield-Sanders remembers her as “a very, very overweight blues singer who was absolutely brilliant and fabulous, and wore over-the-shoulder kaftans and eyelashes out to here, almost like a drag queen.” She looked, in fact, a lot like her friend Divine. You can imagine the impression the parties must have made on a young man new to New York and hungry for experience. “My only regret is that I didn’t take pictures,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “They were all incredible extroverts who would have loved to have been photographed, but I didn’t have enough sense to shoot them.”

He would not make that mistake again. If Greenfield-Sanders got his social education in the nightclubs of New York, he earned his professional stripes as a student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he agreed to photograph visiting speakers for the school’s archives. It was a job no one else seemed to want, but it turned into an unexpected education. The glamour days of Hollywood were over by 1974, but many of its brightest stars were still alive. Greenfield-Sanders got to photograph and learn from the best of them. Bette Davis reprimanded him for shooting her from below, then suggested he chauffeur her around town for a week as she tutored him on the work of such legendary photographers as George Hurrell; Hitchcock took issue with the position of his lights only to invite him back to his studio for tips from his own lighting crew.

When he returned to New York with his new wife, Karin, in 1979, the city was emerging from its bankrupt, white flight, “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era, and the couple settled in a converted church rectory in the East Village—another timely decision—where Greenfield-Sanders set up his studio. It’s a wonderful space, standing aloof from the rest of the neighborhood and varnished by time, like something out of a child’s storybook. Lucky visitors—and I’ve been one—are sometimes invited to join him for a casual lunch of bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side institution that has been selling smoked fish and caviar since 1914. Many of the walls are hung with art by his daughter, Isca Greenfield-Sanders, or by artist friends, whose portraits he’s taken over the years. His father-in-law, Joop Sanders, was one of the founders of abstract expressionism, which is how he came to shoot William de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and, well, the list goes on. Greenfield-Sanders reckons he has shot over 5,000 people, which brings to mind Quentin Crisp’s hopelessly romantic desire to meet everyone in the world at least once. But ask Greenfield-Sanders which of his many portraits he would take with him to a desert island, and he replies, “a self-portrait.” Very diplomatic.

But back to Greenfield-Sanders's impeccable timing: New York during the Factory years; Los Angeles for the twilight of the studio gods; then back to New York to shoot artists just as the city’s art scene exploded. In the '80s, like so many photographers, he was discovered by fashion—shooting artists such as de Kooning (again) for Comme des Garcons. It was a sensation, soon imitated by the Gap, but Greenfield-Sanders was too canny to be seduced by the slick, fickle glamour of high fashion, aware that while art photographers can cross over into commercial work, the reverse maneuver is harder.

In 2003, inspired by the movie Boogie Nights, Greenfield-Sanders made another leap with Thinking XXX, a portrait series of 30 porn stars. He hadn’t planned on shooting them nude, but when his first subject—gay porn star Phil Notaro, a.k.a. Kyle Bradford, a.k.a. Chad Slater—made the suggestion, he realized that was exactly how it had to be: each star dressed and undressed, the photos juxtaposed. Since then, of course, porn has become something of a bore—we’ve all seen behind the curtain, we all know how it works—but when Greenfield-Sanders shot XXX, porn was still intriguing enough for such simple, frank treatment to feel revelatory. A book, co-authored by Gore Vidal and with essays by Salman Rushdie and John Malkovich, sold tens of thousands of copies. There was a movie for HBO. Talk about the mainstreaming of porn!

For Greenfield-Sanders, XXX also marked the end of a certain kind of anonymity, when he was known primarily among a coterie of artists and art fans. At the same time, he recognized that photography was being devalued; the Internet and digital cameras were giving rise to a deluge of images, and it had become increasingly difficult for a picture to stand out from the crowd.