Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, storied American celebrity photographer and filmmaker, who’s a contributing photographer at
Harper’s Bazaar and Grammy-award winning documentary filmmaker for his first feature film,
“American Masters” Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, isn’t used to working under the watchful gaze of his subjects scrutinizing his every move. But that’s what happens when the women you’re photographing have spent the majority of their lives in front of a lens—and are the kind of
legendary models who only need a first-name intro: Christy, Paulina, Isabella. “They were judging the way I lit them,” Greenfield-Sanders says with a laugh. “They were very conscious of what I was doing.”
What started out as a photo shoot of the living icons, published in
Harper’s Bazaar’s April 2012 issue, quickly morphed in the photographer’s latest fashion film,
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, which receives its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs Festival this weekend. We chatted with celebrity photographer Greenfield-Sanders about the documentary and the revealing and often painful truths that undoubtedly emerge when the most notoriously beautiful faces in the world are held under a very different kind of spotlight.
Tell us about the genesis of the fashion film. How did you go from filming musicians and porn stars, from your past docs, to models?
It started two-and-a-half years ago when I went to a party that I was dragged to that my friend Harry King, a legendary hair stylist from the ‘70s, gave for his Facebook friends. I literally double parked my car outside on Seventh Avenue in New York and ran in for five minutes. And when I went in there were all these beautiful women from the ‘70s who were his friends and were supermodels and it got me thinking about that world and them as maybe this subject for a project. At that moment, I thought maybe just a photographic project but it very quickly became a portrait series and then a movie.
To find out who were the famous faces that inspired the must-see fashion film by the celebrity photographer, read on…
What compelled you about their stories to turn them into a film?
I saw at that party, and from talking to the women, an extraordinary group of very famous people who had done something special with their lives and continued to reinvent themselves—they’re still out there doing things. And it seemed like a fascinating idea for a film. When I started to make the film, I quickly wanted to expand it beyond just the ‘70s and ‘80s models. I wanted to go back to the ‘60s and the ‘50s and even the ‘40s, because Carmen Dell’orefice and China Machado who are in the film, both started in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
What did you originally have in mind when filming these women?
I was interested in strong women who had survived beyond that moment when they were very, very important and famous and privileged and adored, and what happens to that person who has that experience; what do they do with it, do they just have that for a moment or do they continue in some way? So that’s kind of what drove me to explore it.
So, who was at this party?
Karen Bjornson, Dayle Haddon, Nancy Donahue, Patti Hansen, Beverly Johnson—they were all there. And that was sort of enough to say ‘wow’. This is interesting.
Did you have a favourite model growing up?
You know, I didn’t read Vogue! [laughs]. It wasn’t my world, but what is my world is filmmaking and people of accomplishment. I think if you look all my work, from the porn stars who were the best at what they did, to that presidents of the United States that I photographed, to the artists and architects, and musicians and poets and writers and on and on, its always about people who have done something exceptional with their lives. And that’s what I’ve been chronicling for 35 years. And these women fit in perfectly, they were the best at what they did and they had amazing lives beyond that.
What shocked the famous photographer? Read on to find out…
Did you have any misconceptions about these women that were skewered as you filmed them?
I’m always interested in confidence in people. It’s hard, you know—I have two daughters who are in their thirties—how do you instill confidence in your own children? Are you confident with your talent, with your looks? All of those things are so interesting to me, because I’m actually very confident in what I do but I meet people and I find so many times, even with very famous people, they’re very insecure. So that was something I looked for, I asked about and I questioned in the film. And I would say that it’s a particularly difficult world to be confident in because you’re constantly being judged on nothing but your looks. And looks come and go and looks change style and fashion, and one moment it’s a blonde and the next it’s a brunette, so it’s something that you don’t have much control over. The strong ones survive in a sense because they can compartmentalize those issues, they can separate their ego from the attacks of the world.
Anyone in particular surprise you?
In the film, Lisa Taylor, who’s one of the great models from the ‘70s and ‘80s—Helmut Newton shot her so many times, a legendary woman— she talks about how she needed cocaine to give her confidence, to make her feel like she was somebody. And she says that in the film that she really needed that because she couldn’t be that person without it and she was basically a shy kid from a well-to-do family who had great, classic American looks.
What shocked you? Do you still get shocked?
It’s hard to shock me. It wasn’t so much that I was shocked, I think that I was impressed by these strong women who survived a very difficult world and came out on the other side as role models in a sense. Beverly Johnson is certainly a role model to so many people—the first black woman on the cover of Vogue and who went on to keep reinventing herself, having product lines and branding herself. As Christie Brinkley says in the film, once they knew our names we weren’t just clothes hangers. we were able to brand ourselves and that could turn into money. So she’s certainly done that well.
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now premieres at Hot Docs this weekend on Saturday April 28 (3:30 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), Sunday April 29 (11:00 AM (Isabel Bader Theatre) and Friday May 4 (6:30 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema). Tickets are available at hotdocs.ca.
Supermodel beauty tips: Kate Moss confidential
Bright side: The top skin brighteners
Spring beauty: How to update your look
Spring skin care: The top five myths about exfoliating
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.