Photographing the Famous, Even Those of an X-Rated World

By Mel Gussow
New York Times, July 29, 2003

In Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's studio, the ground floor in a former rectory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, famous artists, novelists, actors and politicians come to be photographed. Toni Morrison, Brian Dennehy and James Watson each sat for a formal portrait recently, and Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut were brought together for a surprisingly fraternal literary trifecta that appeared in Vanity Fair. And then there was Gina Lynn, who on a July afternoon also posed before Mr. Greenfield-Sanders's Deardorff camera.
For those who may have missed her latest films ( "Dirty Work," "High Rise" and "Retro Lust"), Ms. Lynn is a big star — as big a star in her own world, the world of pornography, as those other celebrities are in theirs. Of course, in contrast with the others, Ms. Lynn posed nude, wearing only six-inch plastic heels.
Ms. Lynn is one of 30 pornography stars — women, men, gay, straight — who will appear in Mr. Greenfield-Sanders's new book, tentatively titled "XXX: 30 Portraits of Porn Stars." Actually she is No. 20, 19 others, including Jenna Jameson, the so-called queen of pornography, having already been photographed either in the New York studio or in Los Angeles. Each model will have two matching color portraits, one clothed, the other unclothed — as you are, as you bare.
The pictures will be accompanied by essays on pornography by John Malkovich, Nancy Friday and Karen Finley, among others. The book does not yet have a publisher, but when it comes out, presumably about a year from now, there will be a simultaneous exhibition of the photographs at the Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan.
For Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, whose portraits have been marked by their dignity as well as their perceptivity, this is decidedly a change of pace. He is, he said, "a portrait photographer in my studio." It is almost as if Yousuf Karsh had suddenly been transformed into Robert Mapplethorpe.
But Mr. Greenfield-Sanders is taking no moral stand. "I've never been judgmental about the people I shoot," he said. "So I wouldn't start with this." He added, "I don't think who I shoot is a reflection on who I am."
On the other hand, Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said, the essays will show a range of viewpoints about pornography. "I'm not saying everything should be positive," he said. "I'm also trying to look for people who would write negatively about the subject." He also takes note of the growing awareness of the industry's perils. One subject photographed for the book is Sharon Mitchell, a former pornography star who has started an organization called Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, which hopes to regulate the industry and require participants to undergo medical testing.
Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said he was first drawn to pornography after seeing "Boogie Nights" several years ago. "I thought it was a fantastic movie," he said, "and I started to think maybe some of those people would be interesting subjects. I had always wanted to shoot nudes but could never figure out a way to do it that hadn't been done before."
He is known as a serial photographer, taking sequences of pictures of people in the same profession (artists of the 1950's, art critics, architects). With the rising popularity of adult films and their proliferation on the Internet, he decided to take a look at pornography. One of his first steps was to go to an industry convention in Manhattan. It was "like a high school science fair," he said.
"The whole discussion of porn is supercharged," Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said. "Whatever you say about it has so many meanings. If you say, `I watch porn,' or `I don't watch porn,' it's a much more complicated remark than saying, `I go to museums,' or `I don't go to museums.' It's very personal."
When he told his friend Ms. Friday about the project, he said, she reminded him that pornography was first about exhibitionism, that the actors and actresses liked to perform sex acts in the presence of others.
"I found with porn stars that they're much more comfortable nude than they are clothed," he said. "They're energized, and they feel more in control. I was very inhibited myself. After shooting a few of them, I don't feel uncomfortable, because they're not uncomfortable. They talk about sex so openly. At first I was shocked, but you go with the flow."
With the help of Jordan Schaps, a photography-production coordinator, he began making contacts in the industry. The performance artist Laurie Anderson suggested that he call his book "XXX," and that suggested a play on the Roman numerals, convincing him to limit his exploration to 30 people, as representative of the thousands in the business. "The range is wide," he said. "There's the girl next door, the dominatrix, and in the gay world there is a whole range of different types."
When she arrived for her sitting, Ms. Lynn looked, if not exactly demure, at least like an actress auditioning for a role as a girl next door. Cuddling her Shih Tzu, Gizmo, she was a vision in powder blue — blue blouse, blue jacket — with long blond hair. She was accompanied by her husband, Travis Knight, who is also her manager and an actor in these films. (Both their names are pseudonyms.) They had driven to New York from their home in Reading, Pa.
Over lunch Ms. Lynn, who is in her late 20's, spoke about her entry into the business. She was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Jackson, N.J. As a senior in a Catholic high school, she worked as a dancer in a strip club, and that led to her career. She does what she does and does not do anything she does not want to do, she said. In a four-year period, she has made 50 to 60 films, her salary increasing with each.
More recently she has begun to enter the mainstream, doing a music video with Eminem and acting in several Hollywood movies, including "Analyze That," in which she plays a dancer for whom Billy Crystal feels a sudden passion. She also has a speaking role in the fifth season of "The Sopranos."
Mr. Knight said he had been running his own roofing company for 11 years when he met Ms. Lynn. "I was bringing in about $200,000 and then I met her and started off doing the adult," he said. "At first I only did the adult on the side. It was so easy: go to L.A. for a week and come home with $20,000 for doing nothing but being nude."
Still in her street clothes, Ms. Lynn posed for Mr. Greenfield-Sanders. Getting in the spirit, he took off his sandals and worked in his bare feet. With the help of his assistant, he photographed her with his large-format portrait camera and simultaneously with a Polaroid. Explaining the nature of the book, he told her that he would take her picture twice, in basically the same pose. As she stood before the camera, he said, "I don't want it to be too pin-uppy. I want it to be more natural, kind of cooler." Then he directed her: "Your head is too tilted back. A little sweetness in the eyes. Mouth closed. Don't make it so sexy. Hold that." Pop. He took her picture, checked the Polaroid and took it again and again, until he was satisfied. In the pictures she looked sweet and natural.
She went to the dressing room to change, or rather to undress, and was a long time primping. Finally she walked out, stark, except for those heels. She is short, 5 foot 2, but her long legs give the illusion of height. The photographer fixed her hair to cover part of her breast. "Straighten your head more," he said. "That's lovely."
Being photographed by Mr. Greenfield-Sanders has a certain cachet, which Ms. Lynn can add to her other mainstream credits. For the present, however, she does not plan to give up adult films. But as Mr. Knight made clear, even in pornography people have standards. He said that Ms. Lynn had been asked to appear on "The Howard Stern Show."
"They wanted her to do a contest where she had sex with a listener," Mr. Knight said. "I don't feel that we have to do that." He added, "It's just degrading."