I was pretty surprised a couple days ago to see Timothy Greenfield-Sanders starting a new portrait series on the Huffington Post (here). This is an incredibly encouraging sign as I strongly believe that photographers need to get out there and forge a path to the future. A photographer of Timothy’s caliber–contributing photographer for Vanity Fair, collected by major museums, multiple publishing deals and film projects cooking–doesn’t need to be looking for paths to the future, but those are the photographers who can really get people to take notice. I know what he’s doing may not seem extraordinarily radical to you, but these online media companies have been really slow to recognize the value of high quality photography in capturing an audience and bringing in advertising. That will change. I asked Timothy a couple questions.
APE: How did you get started contributing to the Huffington Post?
I first met Arianna Huffington in 1997 when I photographed her with the 20×24 Polaroid camera. She was extraordinarily bright and engaging and we stayed in touch. When she started The Huffington Post, Arianna asked me to blog for it and to recommend a few friends. I did both. Since then, The Huffington Post has grown into one of the most popular and important sources of news and commentary, period.
APE: I might label you an unlikely internet pioneer, because you favor a photographic process that uses ancient cameras and discontinued film, yet here you are at the forefront of the internet revolution producing original online content for a collective reporting site. What are your thoughts on photography and the future online?
I’ve been shooting large format portraits for over 30 years. In 1978, I bought a 1905 Folmer and Schwing 11×14 inch studio camera and for decades I shot black and white Kodak Ektapan film. My 1999 exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in New York consisted of every artist, art dealer, art critic and art collector I had shot to date… all 700 of them. When Kodak discontinued my beloved Ektapan, I moved down to 8×10 and over to color chrome. I now shoot color negative, as chrome can no longer be printed without scanning. And of course, all along I shot 809 polaroid. We all know where that story ends.
But I use computers heavily, and find digital photography terrific in many ways. I also make films, so we have HD cameras and a full Final Cut Pro editing suite in the studio too. It’s just that I love the look and feel of large format. The beautiful old lenses, the shallow depth of field, the wonderful wooden camera itself, even the challenge of limiting yourself to just a few frames. I think they all contribute to my portraiture. And of course, one huge advantage shooting large format has over digital origination is the ability to print very large and very detailed.
I think my photographic style lends the work a certain elasticity that allows for a variety of sizes and contexts. The images are readable as thumbnails all the way up to 58 x 44 inch exhibition prints, regardless of whether the context is a book, magazine, blog, film, or museum show. What’s interesting is that a viewer interacts with different sizes and contexts in completely different ways. The work doesn’t change; the viewer does. But of course, these days, the media is changing too. The web audience is simply huge. Far more people will see my Sandra Bernhard portrait on Huffington than they would have in a magazine. To me, it’s just another avenue. I don’t see why there can’t be beautiful portraits on the web.
APE: I’ve just openly criticized Photo District News (at the prodding of several observant bloggers) for picking an all white jury for their 2009 Photography Annual awards. You’ve just finished a book project and film called the Black List where you feature prominent African Americans and tell their story. Do you think the media industry still has a long way to go in giving African-Americans equal opportunities and coverage?
Observant bloggers are best! I find it disappointing and sad that Photo District News would pick an all white jury for its 2009 Photography Awards. I’ve spend the last 3 years producing and directing “The Black List: Volume 1 and Volume 2” (as well as photographing all of the subjects in the film). 40 remarkable, gifted, unique African-Americans, from Toni Morrison to Colin Powell to Chris Rock to Angela Davis, to name a few (see the project here). Working on this project has really opened my eyes. I remember showing “The Black List: Volume 1” at a prominent film festival last year and after the screening we did a Q & A with the audience, which was about 50/50 black/white. To my amazement, the festival director only acknowledged questions from the white people in the audience. It was as if the African-Americans sitting right in front of him were invisible. There’s been some mumbling about “post-racial America” since the election in November, and maybe that’s the attitude PDN had when picking their jury. But having done The Black List, let me tell you, we’re not there yet.