Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Old Cameras New Attitude

- - Photographers

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.

If you want to see more work from Timothy visit his website (here) and keep an eye on the Huffington Post. His agent, Stockland Martel has a blog (here) where I discovered his new publishing venture.

There Are 16 Comments On This Article.

  1. This is all well and good but the fact of the matter is is that as far as I am aware the HuffPost does not pay – and perhaps I am misreading and you are just saying in terms of getting your work out there what a great platform for viewership. Going viral is good. Certainly a photographer of TGS’ stature doesn’t need another paltry slideshow fee and the mass of viewership he gets is enough for him. But as you say, high quality content will bring in the ad dollar so best to compensate the creatives who bring you that content especially us shlubs whose content may be high quality but whose other job does not involve contributions to vanity fair nor the creation of pictures that are readable in the thumbnail to 40×50″ size ranges. ; )

    Upshot: I’m not sure I’m with you on if it’s revolutionary for TGS to contribute to Huff Post – especially if he’s not getting compensated.

    • I’m aware that HuffPost doesn’t pay but this attitude of not experimenting or doing things online unless you are getting paid is shared by magazines, newspapers, television networks and has meant that bloggers, youtubers, googlers and a whole host of “we’ll do it for free until we can discover a way to get paid” to pioneer the online space. No one values high quality photography online because no one is producing it. It will likely stay that way until someone with the money and time can prove otherwise.

      • Debra Weiss

        @A Photo Editor,

        “No one values high quality photography online because no one is producing it. ”

        The reason photography is not valued online is due to the total lack of business model when the web was established. The model was “let’s give it away for free and we’ll make it up on the back end”. Unfortunately, there was no back end and we have created a culture of “free” whereby if it’s on the web, it’s mine for the taking. It is not that high quality photography is being produced – it is the total lack of respect for intellectual property that is the problem.

        • Debra Weiss

          @Debra Weiss,

          should read:

          “It is not that high quality photography isn’t being produced…”

        • @Debra Weiss,
          I don’t agree. The trend will be to pay for things. ESPN just put premium content behind a wall with 350,000 paying customers at $40/year. Flickr charges you for a premium account, youtube will eventually do it too. Nobody thought HBO would work because TV is free.

          There’s a lot of stuff that should be free that magazines used to pass off to readers but I’m willing to bet most people will pay for something original and good.

          I have yet to see a magazine besides the NYTimes reproduce photography online at an acceptable size.

          • Debra Weiss

            @A Photo Editor,

            Yes Rob, that will be the trend because it will have to be. There will be no other way to stay in business. But this will be a total uphill battle. And HBO worked because of the lack of commercials and the prospect of better programming. TV was not what it is today.

  2. “No one values high quality photography online because no one is producing it”

    Hmm. Well there is high quality photography being produced for print and much of that is being used online (often illegally) and that quality photography isn’t being valued online. Quality is quality regardless of the medium it was created for. Just because an image wasn’t originally produced for online use doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be valued for online use.

    The bottom line is, most things have no value online. Quality or not. And this is because of the “free” mindset of internet content users and providers.

    There is a lot of quality content for the web.

  3. I’m sorry. I know that I’ll catch heat for this and prob lose jobs, my rep will drop me and I’ll get flamed, but I don’t see the attraction of TGS. It’s just straight up portraits of famous people. It’s Irving Penn without the ink. That fashion show book was a letdown and the Porn thing was WAY overrated.
    I dig that he’s now all about going on-line and all but ss shooting straight up 8×10 portraiture “forging a path to the future?” I concede that we could all use a little less photoshop and a little more real talent, but is this the way?

    • john mcd.

      @JMG, I’m with you. A series of nicely-lit pictures of people staring at the photographer. Nothing special about their having been done with a large format camera, unless you’re looking at a very large print. And if they weren’t well known subjects what would we think about these pictures?

      • @john mcd., In today’s world of over processed images, Greenfield’s work stands out even more. While a lot of photographers are following the latest trends, TGS continues to keep his work ‘real.’ I’m not crazy about all of his images. Honestly, the HuffPost image of Bernhard doesn’t do too much for me.

        But, before you criticize him too much, I’d encourage you to check out his series of injured Iraqi War veterans. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=40
        The simple lighting works to bring more attention to the subject. And, in the words of my icon, Gordon Parks, “The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.”

  4. I was inspired by the post and the vision and consistency of TGS portraiture. simple.clean, straight up; I am also inspired by how he has taken interest in the people projects- in light of the PDN jury dialogue recently my hat goes off to his BlackList project-a portraits collection with so much to offer; the XXX book gives a window into another way of SEEIng people in a world very much colored by our preconceived ideas of who these people are. What does it say about What is a portrait ? portraiture? Our subjects only ? a reflection of us as the shooter and how our eyes and hearts SEE the world??? or a bit of both….what’ makes portraiture different in Disfarmer’s work, or portraits of the Killing Fields; A Mark Hauser, Avedon or Penn, Annie Leibowitz or Jim Marshall ?
    How could just using a simple background, or white and be so diverse in the emotive portraiture they’ve made. not to mention all the portraits over the generations from the good ol photo booth??

    I am the kind of photographer who plays and experiments a lot. It is difficult to define what I do; what my style is, or 10 or 20 of a kind; people and portraiture- some people say you need to have consistency and others say you need diversity- so when I see this kind of consistency of TGS portraits over the years it is an amazing feat for me to comprehend and what he is aspiring to bring to light.

    Remember people “whining is anger being forced through a small hole”……I am startled at how biting people’s comments seem to be in the forums these days…..Would people actually talk to one another like this person to person? I would like to support a more thoughtful delivery -remember we could all someday be sitting next to each other on a train or on a plane going down- wouldn’t it be better to learn how to conjure up some kindness and alternative delivery and get back to a healthier way to communicate our feelings,ideas, responses with some integrity and respect for our fellow ‘humans’ in these online discussions- it seems there’s lots of angst these days so why don’t we play a little nicer in the sandbox and get back to what we were suppose to learn when we were in kindergarden…which I’m posting just in case you’ve forgotten.

    All I Really Need To Know
    I Learned In Kindergarten
    by Robert Fulghum

    – an excerpt from the book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten

    All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.
    ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do
    and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not
    at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the
    sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

    Share everything.

    Play fair.

    Don’t hit people.

    Put things back where you found them.

    Clean up your own mess.

    Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

    Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

    Wash your hands before you eat.

    Flush.

    Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

    Live a balanced life – learn some and think some
    and draw and paint and sing and dance and play
    and work every day some.

    Take a nap every afternoon.

    When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic,
    hold hands, and stick together.

    Be aware of wonder.
    Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup:
    The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
    really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

    Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even
    the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die.
    So do we.

    And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books
    and the first word you learned – the biggest
    word of all – LOOK.

    Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
    The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
    Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

    Take any of those items and extrapolate it into
    sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your
    family life or your work or your government or
    your world and it holds true and clear and firm.
    Think what a better world it would be if
    all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about
    three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with
    our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments
    had a basic policy to always put thing back where
    they found them and to clean up their own mess.

    And it is still true, no matter how old you
    are – when you go out into the world, it is best
    to hold hands and stick together.

  5. Jean-Marie

    “No one values high quality photography online because no one is producing it.”

    That’s an uninformed statement- or at the very least a convenient oversimplification for the sake of making your point. Richard Bangs was producing online expeditions with beautiful, commissioned photography in the late 90s. Russell Sparkman and the folks at FusionSpark Media were commissioning photographs from the likes of Natalie Fobes, Pat O’Hara, Brandon Cole and Jack Dykinga for online productions since 2000. Clayton Cubitt and others like him were commissioned by Nerve.com since the late 90s for online subscribers. There are many other examples.

    The fact is: high-quality photography has been online for years- many years. Just because the major media outlets can’t or won’t get their collective act together, or that the Old Guard of editorial photography are in denial about their sinking ship doesn’t mean good examples don’t exist, or that quality photography hasn’t been online for a long time.

  6. Thank you, Timothy. for your work- and your observation. Had the latter come from that group not called- who would have believed?

  7. On the final episode of ‘Make Me a Supermodel,’ the three finalists had their portrait taken by TGS. I’d seen a profile on him in a special on photographers on Ovation TV, and there he came across as a bit pretentious — almost like Frasier Crane. But watching him work during ‘MMAS’ was truly enlightening — he has a great air of relaxation that puts the model completely at ease, and he knows exactly how to pose them and what calm direction to give them to get the one shot — and one shot only! – – that he’s looking for. The results were beautiful. It was quite a contrast to the usual fashion photographers they have on that show who shoot approximately 8 gazillion frames trying in vain to get THE one.