BEHIND THE LENS
Star Cineplex publisher Salah Bachir in conversation with renowned portrait photographer Greg Gorman
GREG GORMAN IS A HOLLYWOOD LEGEND. Throughout his remarkable career, the Los Angeles- based photographer has created a distinctive and impressive body of portrait photography. His secret: mastering the light and creating an atmosphere where his subject’s guard truly comes down. His best work has been collected in one place with It’s Not About Me, a star-studded book of some of his finest shots from his half-century capturing Hollywood. Gorman found his true calling in 1968, when he borrowed a friend’s camera to take pictures at a Jimi Hendrix concert in Kansas City. The experience marked the start of Gorman’s professional career and his images would appear on movie posters, CD covers and the pages of almost every major magazine, including more than a dozen times on the cover of Andy Warhol’s iconic Interview Magazine. Gorman’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, and he is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Professional Photographers of America, and of the Achievement in Portraiture Award from The Lucie Foundation, among many others. It’s Not About Me is a hefty 400page hardcover retrospective (weighing in at an impressive seven pounds). Inside, you’ll find images from some of his most famous movie campaigns, including Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, Pirates of the Caribbean and Cry Baby with Johnny Depp, and Scarface with Al Pacino, as well as multiple images of long-time friends like David Bowie and Grace Jones. Another of his subjects is Elton John, who wrote the book’s foreword, saying, “His magical lens is able to peer deep into the soul of his subjects and reveal their inner beauty, their struggles, and their happiness.” The tome is like the ultimate fantasy dinner with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Sharon Stone, Michael Jackson, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Eartha Kitt, Diane Lane and Iggy Pop – to name just a few. “Give Greg the luxury of lighting me properly before you take me away in a body bag,” John Waters wrote in the epilogue of It’s Not About Me. “Then and only then will I be ready for my last photo shoot. With Greg. He’ll make me look alive even when I’m not.” Gorman sat down with Star Cineplex publisher and longtime friend Salah Bachir to discuss his more than 50-year career, the stories behind some of his most striking celebrity portraits, and much more. Salah: You’re looking great. Greg: Well, you know, June Newton [the late Australian portrait photographer] told me there are three stages in life: youth, middle age, and you-look-great. Salah: Well, you’re as active as ever! I don’t know when we first met, to be honest. I think it was somewhere in New York in the ’80s. Greg: I think we met through our mutual admiration for Attila [Richard Lucaks]. Attila said to me, ‘I have this friend who’s a collector friend of mine, and he’s a fan of yours, and I think we should put you guys together.’ I’m pretty sure that’s how we met and it was…well, it was a long time ago. Salah: I think that’s the formal meeting but I think we may have run into each other before that… Greg: Probably through the Warhol gang way back in the day. Salah: You’re the only one I’ve let photograph me naked, though. Greg: Well, there you go! You got that picture I sent you? Salah: Yeah, they’re great pictures. But let’s start with your book. It’s amazing: 400 pages, and each image is more spectacular than the previous. How do you feel getting a retrospective out like that? Greg: It was a fun book. Initially, I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to approach it, so I basically just bucked down and went to my facility where I store everything in cold storage and one by one I went through 160 boxes of transparencies and negatives. That took a year. It was a trip down memory lane and like anything we do in life, it was a learning process. I learned that film is never as precise as digital, but it has an intrinsic quality that digital never has, no matter how you fool around with digital. Today, with the technology you can make everything perfect and change it, but it takes on a certain artifice that film never pretended to be. It was always much more real and tangible. But this book is mostly film, as you know – there are just a handful of digital pictures – but it was a tough edit! Salah: Tell me about the Warhol years and working on Interview Magazine. Greg: It’s interesting that you start with that. I consider that there were two major influences in the launch of my career and Interview was certainly the most major one. I was actually working with producer Alan Carr on Grease 2 with a young actor who was the hottest thing at the moment, Maxwell Caulfield, and everybody wanted a piece of him. But of course, like everything, it’s about being in the right place at the right time and somehow Interview – I had been reading the magazine religiously – found me on the set of Grease 2 and asked if I could photograph him for a cover. We shot the cover on the set of Grease 2, and then I shot a session up at his home in the Hollywood Hills. It was my first cover and it helped launch my career in many ways, because I shot many covers for Interview Magazine over the course of the next 15, 20 years. Salah: I remember telling Sam Wagstaff [ the American art curator] that anybody could take a photograph – one of the statements I regret in my life. But you’ve seen that… Greg: That’s become true today, Salah, because anyone with a cellphone with automatic exposure and automatic everything is a photographer. You have so many self-appraised artists – and some of them are artists – but many of them would be hard-pressed to reproduce an image they got on their iPhone. If you said, ‘I want a portrait that looks like that,’ they wouldn’t know what to do, because today it’s such an automated process. Salah: I know several people who will go straight to you and no one else. Do you have people you really want to work with? Greg: There are people that I’ve worked with over the years that I still shoot. I don’t work so much commercially anymore, it’s more personal projects. I work a lot with Elton John and I work with Grace Jones. There’s a handful that I look forward to. I think when you have a long career, that’s a long time to be shooting the same person. You understand all the idiosyncrasies, you also know how to shoot them. You’re not starting out from ground zero. They’re not coming in nervous or not knowing how you’re going to approach them or shoot them. You understand the importance and level of respect and privacy in their lives and it’s just a comfort factor. Salah: When you look back at your career and the career of many of the people you’ve worked with – I’m thinking of, like, Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise – they were kids when you shot them. Greg: I started with Leo when he was very young and I shot a lot of his formative years. He was one of the most amazing people I ever had the opportunity of working with because he was never really worried about what image he presented. Leo was always game to play and have fun and we shot so many times. He was just extraordinary in front of the camera. He was one of the rare celebrities that I actually enjoyed taking pictures of back in those days. I don’t know if it was because he didn’t know any better, but he was always tremendous and one of my favourite people I’ve ever photographed. Salah: And then there are the legends you’ve shot, like Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren – were they as easy to shoot? Greg: They were fun. Sophia, I spoke to her on the phone before I went over to Rome to photograph her, and I said, ‘Is there anything I can bring you?’ She said, ‘Oh, well, Greg, you know it might be nice to have a short wig.’ I must have looked like the quintessential L.A. hairdresser getting off the plane carrying a mannequin head with a wig on it. She wore the wig and the picture ended up being the cover of the magazine, which is kind of funny. And Brando was brilliant, of course. I worked with him on a few movies. He was extremely intelligent and very quick. The first film I worked on with him, I think, was in Toronto, in your hometown. Salah: The Freshman! That’s where I met Brando as well – it was shot in my neighbourhood. Greg: I worked on that one, and that one was pretty funny. He told me, ‘ Who told me to wear this suit? Everyone knows the Godfather wears it.’ Salah: How did you adjust when you shot the Cannes Film Festival? Greg: That was insane! That was crazy! They called me to shoot the 50th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival and there were around 100 people in that picture. So, I came in three or four days beforehand and I rehearsed it, because it was film and I had to hold the depth of field of five or six rows of people and from the left to the right. We got everything set up; we got everything dialled in and running perfectly. Then, just before they brought 100 people into this room, the police came in with their dogs to make sure there were no bombs and they knocked over half our gear. This was 15 minutes before taking one of the most important pictures of my career! I thought, oh my God, what is going to happen!? But we got everything set back up and got the final shot in 15 minutes. There was no Photoshop. That was a straight picture with no head-swap or anything, got everybody’s eyes open. Salah: You’ve shot so many iconic movie posters and your images are everywhere, but you’re unknown to many people. Do you like being more anonymous sometimes? Greg: I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have a career where I didn’t have to be in the public eye. I remember a couple of times being at parties where somebody was like, stupidly, on me for no reason. They would follow you around the party. You couldn’t relax, you couldn’t even fart. You’d be worried what someone’s going to say or think. I don’t know how celebrities do it. I’ve been in some really weird situations and watched it happen. Pierce Brosnan is a dear friend of mine, and one time he and I were in Ireland at a bar and this guy comes up and says, ‘Man, I just gotta shake your hand.’ Pierce puts his hand out to shake his hand and the guy says, ‘ That’s the closest I’m ever gonna get to Halle Berry’s ass.’ It’s just these stupid remarks from people, you know, crazy. People came up one night and asked him at the dinner table for his autograph and he very politely told them, ‘I’m happy to do that after I’m finished dinner here,’ but the guy didn’t want to wait and told him he was never going to watch another one of his movies! People assume way too much, and take on this air of familiarity because they’ve seen someone on the big screen. But there’s no real cognitive recognition, other than visual. Salah: Are there young photographers today that you admire or you say, ‘Wow, they’re doing great work?’ Greg: Oh, there’s a lot of work, but I’m still stuck in the old school and follow more of the old regime. I’m guess I’m still a die-hard classic portraitist. So, I would say that I would be the worst person to ask that question. Salah: What are you working on now? Greg: I’m just finishing a big project that was a totally different direction for me. I feel like I’ve been there and done that with the portraits and I’ve been there and done that with the nudes. So my other interests, I’m spending my time fishing! And shooting. I had a huge shoot yesterday just to get used to the newest camera I’ve been working with that I love. And I teach. I’ve been teaching a lot. I’m still very old school in terms of photography, I guess. Salah: It may be old school but it’s still pretty revolutionary what you’ve done. GREG GORMAN’S HARDCOVER BOOK IT’S NOT ABOUT ME: A RETROSPECTIVE IS AVAILABLE ONLINE AND IN BOOKSTORES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.