Porn Identity

By Ann Lindi
Artnews, October 1, 2004

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders takes a humanistic look at the stars
of adult films—with and without their clothes on.

Not many photographers can boast a Web site that garners 2.6 million hits in two weeks. But that’s what happened to Timothy Greenfield-Sanders after posting a site for his recent book, XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, late last spring. The handsome volume, featuring shots of luminaries—both naked and clothed—from the world of adult movies will be published this month by Bulfinch and followed by a show of oversize prints at Mary Boone’s Chelsea gallery (October 30–December 18).

Greenfield-Sanders, manning an antique view camera, prepares to take a picture of porn star Tera Patrick, as makeup artist Lia Van de Donk and assistant Mark Mahaney help with the shoot. Jordan Schaps is at left.


“Apparently, the site became linked to some heavy-duty pornography outlets, which get about 60 percent of the traffic on the Internet,� Greenfield-Sanders explains with a laugh. “Suddenly I got a call from the Web site sponsor, asking me, ‘What’s going on here, sir?’�

What’s going on is a frank and generous look at a realm more often dismissed as belonging to the sleazier fringes of society than celebrated as esthetically or sociologically interesting. Greenfield-Sanders, who at 52 still exudes a youthful enthusiasm for his work, wanted to change that. After years of shooting some of the most independent spirits of our time (Vanessa Redgrave, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali, to name a few), the photographer was inspired to turn his eye and camera on the leading lights of the X-rated demimonde when he saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, the highly praised 1997 film about an aspiring actor’s adventures in the California porn industry.

“And then a couple of years ago, I actually met a porn star,� Greenfield-Sanders recalls. “He wanted to pose for me, and I was so amazed by the way he dressed that I thought, I should just shoot porn stars clothed because it’s so interesting the way they present themselves.� In the book, the 30 stars are shown in double spreads, a shot of each star in the outfit worn to the photographer’s studio faces another of each in the buff.

In 2002 the death of Linda Lovelace, star of the notorious Deep Throat and one of the legends of the business, motivated Greenfield-Sanders to get a larger project off the ground. “If Linda Lovelace was dead, and she was only in her 50s, I realized I’d better do this now,� he says. “So I started to organize my thinking, and eventually, after meeting one or two of the top people, you start to get a sense of who the other people are.� His criteria for choosing subjects included a certain degree of fame and a wide range of looks. “Not just big-breasted blonds,� he says. “I wanted gay men, I wanted brunettes, I wanted unenhanced—the whole gamut of the porn world.�

Greenfield-Sanders also wanted to have a certain intellectual respectability, beyond the startling shots of the stars, “who are often very, very good at being naked,� as New York magazine columnist Simon Dumenco notes in his forward to XXX. To that end the photographer solicited essays from Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Johnson. Actor John Malkovich offered a remembrance of his first encounters with Playboy and The Robin Byrd Show. John Waters interviewed legendary porn-film director Chi Chi LaRue. And novelist A. M. Homes contributed a sly “A to Z� of pornography (“Nasty Nadia, I don’t want to hear about you needing nooky from my nice boy,� reads the entry for N).

But the real stars of the book are, of course, the porn stars themselves, from the blond and coolly regal Jenna Jameson, who graces the cover of XXX, to Chad Hunt, who boasted to Greenfield-Sanders of having the “biggest penis in the business.� Initially Greenfield-Sanders experienced a certain discomfort with his subjects, but he soon realized that “it was awkward for me, but not for them. They’re happy to take their clothes off. They can’t wait, really. Once you know and understand that, the rest is very easy. Obviously these are very exhibitionistic people, but there are so many other sides to them. I’m amazed by them.�

As he does before all his portrait sessions, Greenfield-Sanders went out of his way to make everyone comfortable, asking questions about their backgrounds and families. “Many are doing this primarily to make a living,� he explains. “They’re on their own. They’re not asking Mom and Dad for help.� He tells of one young up-and-comer who’s using the proceeds from his X-rated career to finish college, with an eye to becoming a teacher. Others genuinely revel in their celebrity status in the world of adult entertainment. “Whereas you and I might feel that this is the last thing we want our children to be doing, I think it’s different for a lot of these people,� Greenfield-Sanders says. “They’ve made it on their own terms.�

Eventually the porn-star photographic project evolved into a documentary he put together for HBO, which will air in the fall, and that development brought Greenfield-Sanders back full circle to his artistic roots. After graduating from Columbia University in 1974, with a bachelor’s degree in art history, he enrolled in the graduate program of the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, which he describes as the “best film school in the country.� At one point, after a two-week session of classes devoted to Alfred Hitchcock, the renowned director visited the school. It was AFI’s policy that famous visitors be photographed for the school’s archives and publications, and Greenfield-Sanders landed the assignment. Immediately Hitchcock leveled a few criticisms at the young photographer. “Literally, he said, ‘Your lights are wrong, move them over here, do this,’� Greenfield-Sanders recalls. “He was nice enough to invite me to a set the next day and said, ‘Let me introduce you to the cinematographer. He’ll teach you a few things.’� Later, he recalls Bette Davis blowing up at him when he photographed her for an AFI award: “‘What the f—k are you doing shooting from down here? You never shoot from below, don’t you know that?’�

“And that’s how I became a photographer,� Greenfield-Sanders says. “My mentors were directors and actors. At the end of my time at AFI, I had a wonderful book of portraits that weren’t particularly great, but the people were great, and it was a truly amazing portfolio.� In addition to Hitchcock and the temperamental Davis, his subjects included directors Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray.

In 1978 he bought a prewar 11-by-14-inch view camera, a piece of large-format equipment that allows the photographer to make a contact print without enlarging the negative. “It really changed my whole mind-set because you have to think so carefully about everything you shoot,� he says. For years he preferred working in black and white, until he acquired a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid in 1988 and began tentatively moving into color.

As for subjects, Greenfield-Sanders happened upon a rich array of memorable faces and talents when he met his wife, art lawyer Karen Sanders, who is the daughter of the Abstract Expressionist painter Joop Sanders. In the late 1970s, the couple bought the turn-of-the-century rectory of the Catholic Church of St. Nicholas in Manhattan’s East Village and transformed it into a spacious and unpretentious family house with a studio in the basement. The photographer first turned his camera on the members of Joop’s coterie, including Willem de Kooning, Esteban Vicente, and Theodoros Stamos, and through those artists he met others in the New York art world. The circle widened when Greenfield-Sanders’s friends and neighbors from the burgeoning East Village scene agreed to pose for him. The eventual upshot was a compilation of 700 black-and-white photographs of artists, dealers, critics, and curators in the volume Art World, published in 1999 by Fotofolio. That was followed two years later by another monograph, which included a broader range of subjects in addition to art-world luminaries—movie stars, politicians, musicians, and fashion models.

Years ago, when photographing Orson Welles, Greenfield-Sanders learned a critical lesson in the art of portraiture. “I asked him some stupid questions, like ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ and immediately realized that was the wrong approach,� he says. “What I should have been asking is, ‘Are you comfortable? Can you sit here? Can I get you anything?’ The session should have been about him in a way that made it really about him, instead of testing him.�

A typical session with a new subject begins with a cup of coffee in the Greenfield-Sanders kitchen, where the walls are lined with works by Elaine de Kooning, Jasper Johns, David Wojnarowicz, and Andy Warhol (indeed, throughout the house there is an astonishing but casually displayed collection of art from friends and admirers as well as paintings by Isca Greenfield-Sanders, the couple’s accomplished 25-year-old daughter). Downstairs all the equipment has been carefully set up in advance, and as painter Peter Halley noted in an essay on the photographer, the first thing Greenfield-Sanders asks is for the “sitter to relax his or her face, removing any trace of expression. . . . This allows [him] to focus on the sculptural character of the sitter’s face and body while, at the same time, permitting nuances of emotion to emerge.� Greenfield-Sanders adds, “I’m a very fast photographer, and because I shoot in large format, I don’t take a lot of pictures. Sometimes I spend more time sitting upstairs having coffee than I do on the actual set.�

Savanna Samson, the fresh-faced star of a remake of The Devil in Miss Jones, recalls being surprised by how easy it was to work with him. “He’s a very gentle soul. Most photo shoots I’ve done, they take 300 rolls,� she says. “He wants you to look like you look, nothing fake, just the real deal.�

Gina Lynn, who starred in Dirty Work, Retro Lust, and Deviant Behavior (and has also appeared in The Sopranos and Analyze That), says that Greenfield-Sanders captured a “really cute action shot� of her—naked except for high heels—cavorting with a puppy. “Sometimes you go to studios and the photographer is a very hard-core ‘Let’s just get this done right away’ type,� she says. “Timothy had constant compliments, overwhelming me almost. On my demeanor, how I looked, how I carry myself. Of course, when a photographer does that, he’s going to make you feel better about yourself, and you get a better shot.�

By now Greenfield-Sanders estimates that he’s done more than 5,000 portraits, but it’s a genre he finds inexhaustibly fascinating. “I’m not particularly interested in landscapes or still lifes. I don’t think I do those things well,� he says. “I’m interested in people.� The prints of the porn stars are sure to cause a stir in critical circles. As Dumenco notes, “It’s just human nature to want to check out the fleshy wares.� But beyond the skin lies a compassionate and even witty eye that finds the sympathetic nerve in a subculture that has often—and perhaps erroneously—been characterized as dehumanizing.

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.