Interviews

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on His Toni Morrison Doc and What Bette Davis Taught Him About Photography

The first full-length documentary on the Nobel Prize-winning author offers a rich take by one of the only people she trusts to take her photograph.

Timothy Greenfield-Sander, along with other collaborators on the film, speaking on Sunday, January 27 at the Sundance Film Festival after the premiere of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the nice surprises of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s touching documentary about Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. It is the first feature on the African-American author, and it links the novelist’s early personal history in Ohio, her life in publishing, and the novels she is best known for today (like Sula, Beloved, Tar Baby) to tell the tale of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am features interviews with Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, and Oprah Winfrey, among others. Hyperallergic readers will be particularly interested in all the modern and contemporary African-American art included in the film. The opening credits were created by Mickalene Thomas, but the work of many others, including Aaron Douglas, Kara Walker, and Hank Willis Thomas (to name a few) are included, and the result is visually powerful.

I caught up with Greenfield-Sanders to understand why Morrison trusted him with the project (there are rumors that others have tried similar things but they never materialized), how he learned to take powerful photographs (Betty Davis has a role in that), and how the art world has changed over the last few decades.

The film, which the director hopes will be in theaters this summer, will screen on PBS’s American Masters series in the fall.

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The Mickalene Thomas-designed poster for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Hrag Vartanian: How did your friendship with Toni Morrison begin?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Toni came in to my studio in the East Village. I’m also a photographer. It was February of 1981 — I think I have the exact date. She was promoting Tar Baby. It was her fourth book at that point. I did portraits for the cover of the SoHo News. We hit it off. You can tell with certain subjects that you get along. I remember very well that when she was leaving, I walked her to the corner because I knew she wouldn’t get a cab, and Toni never forgot that.

I think that was the beginning of our friendship in that sense that I had somehow understood enough to know that a Black woman in the East Village was not going to get a taxi. So, we continued to be in touch, and then as her books started to really blow up, I did book covers for her. I became, in a way, her photographer, really.

There was one point when she was asked by Vanity Fair to be photographed and she wouldn’t let anyone do it but me. Vanity Fair put me on the masthead about a month later. So, thanks to Toni.

HV: Wow! I mean, that’s trust. So, what do you think that trust was?

TGS: We were talking about it about a year or so ago, and she said, “I always let myself be open to you as a photographer.” I know what that means because subjects can hold back so easily, if they want to. She just trusted me. She knew that I knew what I was doing. I mean, I’m very good. I’m very able to make people feel comfortable. It’s not just… come in to the studio, sit down, take a picture. It’s so much more. It’s a dance until you get to that point on the set. Toni and I had a language about how to pose, and what she wanted out of the image. Also, she’s very conscious of her image, no question.

HV: Now, as that friendship, I’m guessing you can call it a friendship, developed over the years, one of the things that I kept wondering about was, how did her writing impact you?

TGS: Well, enormously. You can’t come away from reading Toni and not be impacted by her work. There is so much power to it. There’s no one like her. I realize this is a very big statement I’m going to make — and I’ve photographed so very many artists… she is one of the greatest artists of the last century. And I include Jasper Johns, I include Picasso, I include all of these people in that art world as well. I think Toni is a great artist.

I’m privileged to know her. If you look at my critical moments in my career, the Black List series for example, started at my kitchen table with Toni Morrison. I can tell you that story if you want, but —

HV: Yeah. We’d love to hear it.

TGS: Toni and I, we’re shooting press portraits for Margaret Garner, the opera that she had written. At lunch we started talking about the Black divas that she had interviewed for the opera, and there were so many great ones. Each was amazing. She said, “We should do a book called Black Divas, and I’ll write it, and you take the portraits.”

It started me thinking about focusing on Black talent in some way. Soon after, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not Black divas, but it’s just an African-American portrait series, interviews in the style of my portraiture on film, direct-to-camera, somehow.’ Now, this was 2006. If you look back, no one was really doing direct-to-camera except Errol Morris, and maybe one or two others. There was no history of direct-to-camera. Today, everyone shoots interviews in that style because it’s so powerful.

I went back to Toni and said, “What I really want to do is have you be the guinea pig for this ‘list’ of interview style ‘portraits,’ talking portraits.” She sat for it and it became The Black List: Volume 1.

HV: That’s amazing.

TGS: Of course, once you’ve had Toni Morrison sit for you, when you call up Faye Wattleton or Colin Powell or Susan Rice or whomever, you have a great calling card.

HV: Totally. One of the things I really also appreciated was the opening credits are done by Mickalene Thomas. Now, are those all photographs by you that she is collaging?

TGS: Most of those are my pictures. I think there might be one or two portraits of Toni in there that we had in our archive.

HV: Got it.

TGS: I didn’t know Mickalene. She was an artist that I didn’t know personally, but I called her up. We were sitting there in the editing room and I kept thinking, “What is the opening for the film?” Usually, it’s my portraits or the subjects of the film that are in the beginning. I thought, “It’s really about Toni this time.” Then I thought, “Mickalene Thomas is so interesting,” and five minutes leter I had her phone number. She immediately said, “Of course, I want to do this. I’m in.”

HV: What was it about her style you think that really spoke to this?

TGS: First of all, I’m a big fan of her work. I thought that perhaps there’s some way to animate her collage technique. I had done it with my son-in-law in the supermodel film I did, About Face Supermodels Then and Now, where he painted a portrait and filmed it each step of the way till the final product. In About Face, we have that wonderful opening that Sebastian Blanck did. I thought, “Well, my mission here is African-American artists. So, I couldn’t hire Sebastian to do it, but Mickalene seemed like the right one.” Also. this idea of a collage of Toni was in the air for us because we had the title The Pieces I Am, which comes from Beloved. I thought, “That works.”

HV: Collage.

TGS: Yeah. It’s so genius, if you will. So, it was a very big step. Let me back that up. We really trusted Mickalene completely. We gave her all this material, and we left her alone for four months. Then, at some point, I emailed her and said, “We need this in two weeks because we have to submit something to Sundance, and I want your opening in there.” Three or four days later, we got this pile of video to play with, and that became the opening.

HV: That’s great. At the premiere, she also mentioned that she was surprised how much of a celebration of African-American art this is. I thought that was really beautifully done because you had inserted everyone from Aaron Douglas to, I mean, everyone.

TGS: Jacob Lawrence.

HV: Jacob Lawrence to Hank Willis Thomas, to —

TGS: Kerry James Marshall.

HV: … Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker. I mean, we could go on and on. The list is quite long. Why did you decide to do that?

TGS: Including art by African American artists happened very organically. First of all, I know a lot of the artists, and I certainly know almost all of the art. We got more and more serious about it early on when Rashid Johnson came over to look at 10 minutes of the film.

Rashid and I always talked about him sitting for a portrait. Finally, I said, “Come on over. I want to show you what I’m doing with Toni Morrison and take your portrait too.” We did a session in my studio, and then he came up to the editing room. We showed him some clips, and he said, “Oh, God! That’s so interesting with that painting there. You know Charles White, of course.” I said, “Sort of.” He said, “Well, you just look this.” We all jumped online and looked at a bunch of different artists. That got me thinking more and more of how wonderful it would be to incorporate as much contemporary African American art as we could.

It’s something that I don’t think I’ve seen it in any other documentary because traditionally, you cut to photographs, archival images, B-roll, interviews, video interviews, but you don’t cut to a painting and let it sit there, and think about what that painting is.

HV: … or when they did, it’s usually illustrative, but this wasn’t illustrative at all. So, what do you think it added to that?

TGS: Oh, I think it was so powerful. I was watching it yesterday. I mean, the idea to use the migration series by Jacob Lawrence for Toni’s migration from Alabama to Ohio, what could be better? What else could you use there? There are no photographs. What else would you put there? So, you either have to cut to someone else talking about it or these gorgeous paintings that were done specifically about this seminal experience.

HV:  So, you’ve known almost every famous artist, particularly in the New York scene for the last how many decades. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you think Toni Morrison is unique from that cadre of people.

TGS: I would certainly say that from the experience of making this film. I was overwhelmed by how much love there is for Toni. I don’t think there’s a single artist out there that isn’t influenced by her. If there is one, I’d be amazed. How can you not be influenced by Toni? How could you not have read her work? Lots of artists don’t read anything, but if you’re going to read something, it should be Toni Morrison. What I’m saying is that there’s no question about her iconic status.

In our outreach, as I said yesterday, everyone we reached out to just said, “Whatever you need.” I reached out to Kerry James Marshall. I didn’t personally know him. I’m a big fan. He said, “Of course. What is the context?” I explained how we’d use it. “Oh, I love that. That’s great. The gallery will give you whatever you want.” His generosity and the generosity of all the artists who contributed to the film was overwhelming to us.

HV: That’s great. I’m interested to also ask you as an artist, not just as a filmmaker, not as just a friend of artists: How has your own art evolved and changed? How do you see this fitting into that bigger scope?

TGS: Well, unquestionably, the list series, which started with Toni, dominated the last decade of my life. The Black List became three feature films, followed by the Latino List: Volumes 1 & 2The Out List, The Women’s List, and The Trans List last year. There are eight films in total that are part of the identity series.

HV: That’s an impressive output for about a decade.

TGS: I know.

HV: That’s a lot.

TGS: The problem is I don’t think I’ve done enough.

HV: That’s what makes you an artist, I think.

TGS: I know. I always think, “I should be doing so much more. I’m not doing enough.” It’s interesting, too, because it was a decade where I did a great body of work, hundreds of photographic portraits that accompany the film series, that have traveled and been seen in museums. I’ve really been able to have a career as a filmmaker, but also show in galleries and museums with the work that I’m shooting that are part of the films.

HV: So, where do you think your sensitivity comes from? Because I mean, clearly, if people like this are trusting you, if you’re able to create these portraits that are clearly resonating with a lot of people, what do you attribute it to? I know it’s hard to do a little bit of self-forensics on these types of things, but I’d really love to hear.

TGS: I do think that so much of being a portrait photographer is being able to read people. Many people can have a skill to take a portrait, and they can understand cameras, and they can have great technical proficiency. They can even take good portraits, but there’s so much more to portraiture, and that extends into my filmmaking, which is this ability to read a person. When someone comes in the room, you need to get a sense of the baggage they’re bringing with them, and how to get that subject relaxed and ready and trusting.

I’m just very good at that. I was good at it early on. Part of it is that I’m charming! I don’t want to say it in an obnoxious way, but… I don’t know how else to say that.

HV: Charm works wonders.

TGS: My mother once said to me, “Don’t just rely on your charm,” and I thought, “Why not?” I think certainly part of the success I’ve had as a photographer is that ability to charm people — to get people to trust me.

HV: So, what is your hope for this documentary?

TGS: I would love Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am to be in theaters. It should be part of this wonderful moment we have right now, when great docs are being seen by a lot of people in movie theaters.

HV: It’s being released this fall on PBS. Is that correct?

TGS: Yes, and we’re hoping that it will be in theaters this fall. It’s a of film that if you could tap into Toni’s base — serious readers — I think those same people would go to a movie. And there are a lot of those people out there.

HV: Absolutely. One last question: How do you think being a contemporary artist in New York has changed over the decades? Everything I’ve heard from you before and now is you have an optimism or at least a certain level. I feel like a lot of artists of your generation tend to be a little cynical about New York and the art world, but you never seem to have that. I’m curious how have things changed or maybe you are cynical and I just don’t know.

TGS: No. I think what’s changed is that the art world has become so much bigger than the art world that I knew when I started out in the early ’80s, late ’70s, early ’80s — a world that you could almost get your arms around. You knew mostly who everyone was. There weren’t really that many artists. Interestingly, my father-in-law, Joop Sanders, who was a founder of the Abstract Expressionism Movement, talked about when he was painting in the ’50s and ’60s, there were so few artists that everyone got a review in the art journals. It was a really tiny, tiny art world then.

There were X number of galleries and artists compared to today, when it is so gigantic, and it’s international, and it’s usually talented. I mean, it’s impossible for me anymore to have my finger on the pulse of the art world. I had it on the pulse of the art world back then. I could never do it today. It’s just too big.

HV: Right. There are so many art worlds now it feels like, right?

TGS: There are so many art worlds, and there’s so much great work as well. You’d have to be you — full-time following it to —

HV: Right. Exactly.

TGS: I mean, even you. I’ll throw the question back to you.

HV: I mean, I feel the same way. There are so many art worlds it’s like … I think we have our own circles and our own things we’re interested, and it doesn’t make things better or worse. It just means that it’s far too large. So, do you think your own family history in the art world is part of the reason you love photographing artists?

TGS: I think I fell into photographing artists because I had studied art history at Columbia. I loved art. I had started as a filmmaker. I went to film school, learned how to make films, and essentially put film aside for photography because of Bette Davis and Alfred Hitchcock, who encouraged me when I met them. It was a big change for me.

HV: Wait, wait. Could you tell me a little bit about that? I don’t know this part.

TGS: You don’t know the story?

HV: No.

TGS: So, I went to the American Film Institute (AFI) for my MFA, which was the great film school in the ’70s — still is great. We would see every film by Hitchcock or Bergman or Bette Davis or Truffaut for two weeks, and then that person would come to the school for a seminar. I was asked by the school to take portraits for the archive. No one else wanted to do it. I think my classmates thought photography was beneath them. One day, I leaned down to shoot Bette Davis’s portrait, and she said to me, “What the fuck are you doing shooting from below?” I said, “Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m learning.” She said, “Well, you can drive a car, drive me around Hollywood, and I’ll teach you about portraiture.”

So, I drove her for a week. I’d pick her up in the morning, and we’d have a Bloody Mary at her agent’s house, and then ver casually she’d say, “You should look at George Hurrell. He really understands large format photography. Look at my face. Now, you see this light from the sun? Look at how it … ” She would teach me, literally, in the car how the light would hit her face in a certain way.

HV: That’s incredible. So, she taught you portraiture.

TGS: She taught me portraiture. Hitchcock did too. I was shooting him, and he said, “Your light is in the wrong place, young man.” He said, “Come to the studio. I’ll introduce you to some people.” I met the lighting people who worked with Hitchcock, and they explained a lot of lighting ideas to me and told me what I should be doing better. Hitchcock took an interest in me. I was at a very privileged school. So, the mission of these legendary figures who come to talk to us was to help us. Bette Davis went way out of her way, and then we became friendly, and definitely because of her and Hitch, I fell in love with portraiture.

HV: Wow!

TGS: I finished my degree, and I moved back to New York, where I started shooting the people I knew in large format 11 by 14 black and white. Who were they? They were my father-in-law’s friends, de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell… that world that no one gave a shit about at that point, really.

HV: Right, because they were “out of fashion.”

TGS: They were very out of fashion. I also started shooting my friends, who were the young artists, like Cindy Sherman and Julian [Schnabel] and David Salle and Peter Halley, a little later, those kinds of people. So, I fell into that.

HV: Then what was the Hitchcock part?

TGS: Hitchcock was just someone who went the next step with me, lind of a mentor. I’d visit him at Universal Studios, hang out on the set, have lunch with Edith Head, the great costume designer.

HV: Wow!

TGS: I think we got along because I knew every film of Hitchcock’s. I had studied with Hitchcock and Andrew Sarris at Columbia and was the projectionist for the Donald Spoto Hitchcock class at the New School. I watched every film on Hitchcock at least twice — and I mean every film. So, I could sit with him and really talk with some insight.

HV: So, would you say that you have a little bit of a cinematic quality to the lighting of even your still portraits? I’m curious how that influenced them.

TGS: Yes and no. Ultimately, I became interested in large format portraiture because of Bette Davis, but I really just use one light that feels like sunlight, but soft light. I don’t like a lot of lighting. It feels too gimmicky. Portraiture with lots of lights makes you think about the lighting. “Oh, there’s a hair light. There’s a side light.” It’s all about the technique. I wanted it to be about the person, about the face. So, very early on I came to understand that one single light source was all I needed. It feels like daylight, like Rembrandt.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will be broadcast on PBS this fall.

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