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SEEING THE LIGHT THE ART OF GREG GORMAN

BY ANDREW FISH, PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG GORMAN

“I think it’s a strong relationship between highlights and shadows,” responds Greg Gorman when asked to describe his style. “And it’s not about what you reveal in the highlights, but it’s what you keep from people in the shadows that tends to make pictures, for me, more interesting. I think a picture is most successful if it leaves you wanting to know more about a person rather than less.” Gorman’s mastery of both technique and communication has earned him a portfolio that includes Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Bette Davis, Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Leonardo Di Caprio, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand,

Jessica Lange, David Bowie, Sophia Loren, Andy Warhol, Billy Idol, and scores of others. He’s offered his signature balance of intimacy and mystery to album covers, movie posters, advertising campaigns, and magazines like Interview, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Newsweek, Time, Life, and Vogue. As a fineart photographer, Gorman’s highly acclaimed nudes celebrate the sculpture and emotion of the body, and his recent travels to Thailand and India exhibits his ability to capture the rare moments that define a place and time.

“I grew up in the midwest,” Gorman recalls of his formative years. “I borrowed a friend’s camera in 1968 to shoot a Jimi Hendrix concert and I had no idea what I was doing. He said, ‘Set the camera at 60th of a second, F56,’ and he gave me two rolls of Tri-X. The following morning I went back over to my friend’s house and we processed the pictures in his basement turned- darkroom. And when I saw the images coming up in the tray, it was so miraculous and I was so hooked.” The young novice got himself good seats for every act that came through town and shot the likes of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, and Joe Cocker. “It was a crazy time,” he grins, “but it certainly was the basis for my interest in photography.” He began studying photojournalism at University of Kansas — “which is about as far removed from what I do today as you could imagine” — and then transfered to USC and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in cinematography.

It was during his early years in California that the Kansas City-raised artist started doing headshots for friends, charging 35 dollars a day. “I was making a killing,” he remembers. “I thought this was the best thing ever!” Yet it was when the late publicist Barbara DeWitt took him on to shoot album art for rockers like Iggy Pop and David Bowie that things really took off. From there he developed strong working relationships with Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Dustin Hoffman. As his client roster grew, Gorman steadily built a portfolio of iconic images that transformed him into one of the world’s leading celebrity photographers.

After a time, he began to seek new ways to explore his craft. “I’d shot for so many years in the early part of my career when I was running around doing all this commercial work,” he recollects, “and I realized at a certain point that I really wasn’t doing anything that was pleasing me from the inside. That’s when I decided to start doing my nudes. It was like giving myself an assignment, keeping in mind that the important things for me were shape, form, and balance. To be able to have that and invoke that in the nude, so that the nudes also represented my style of photography. That was the big challenge. Pulling the camera back and getting rid of the clothes.”

As he split his time behind the lens between shooting the stars, illuminating the ephemeral, and investigating the sculpture of the male form, Gorman published numerous books of his photography, including Greg Gorman Volume 1 (1989) and Volume II (1991), Inside Life (1996), As I See It (2001), and In Their Youth: Earlym Portraits (2009). “Interview Magazine pretty much gave me my break,” he explains of his upcoming project. “All of us were working for Interview Magazine in those days. It helped launch a lot of our careers. Herb [Ritts], Matthew [Rolston], myself, Bruce [Weber], [Robert] Mapplethorpe, we all did a lot of work for Interview. During that time, I started working with L.A. Eyeworks to develop an advertising campaign for them called ‘Every Face Is Like a Work of Art. It Deserves a Great Frame.’ It’s a campaign I shot for more than 30 years. The ads were published every month in Interview. Usually I found the talent; a lot of the big stars were coming through my studio doors and I’d just ask them if they wanted to do an L.A. Eyeworks ad. Back in those days, celebrities didn’t realize the value of the endorsements and would do the ads for a few pairs of glasses. Nonetheless, they did get good exposure. That’s going to be my next book, my L.A. Eyeworks campaign.”

These days, Gorman spends as much time educating as he does shooting. He runs digital workshops at his studio in Mendocino, and in locales across the country and beyond. From Aspen to Luxembourg to Budapest, the artist enjoys the opportunity to give back. He takes pride in teaching students hooked on auto-focus and auto-exposure to “see the light.” “They basically have no idea where the light is coming from,” Gorman explains, “what the light means in relation to the subject. So when I’m teaching, the first thing I do is make them all put their camera on manual and they have to take a light reading. So many people will get a great picture because they’re lucky. They’re in the right place and the right time and the light happens to be fabulous. Then if somebody says, ‘Man, that’s great! I’d love a picture like that of me,’ they wouldn’t even know where to begin. So that’s where we start.” And from there he guides them all the way to the final fine-art print.

Gorman revels in the digital revolution and the control that photographers now have “from capture to output,” as he says. “We’re living at a time when we’re seeing the traditional face of photography change from silver gelatin prints to digital capture and digital printing. The images that I used to rely on other people to print for me, I’m now revisiting them and seeing them completely differently, and I’m able to bring out in the images something that I never was able to before.” Giving especially high praise to Epson and their Ultra- Chrome ink set, he was able to keep his hands on through the entire process of preparing his current exhibition at the Pacific Design Center, “Greg Gorman: A Distinct Vision 1970-2010.” The retrospective includes the images you see here. With two full rooms displaying almost 200 photographs, “Distinct Visions” is Gorman’s largest domestic show to date, and also represents the PDC’s steady move toward opening its commercial design spaces to the arts community.

Martin Scorsese and Sharon Stone

Sharon’s a friend of mine and she called me and said, “Marty’s getting the AFI Award. Could you come to AFI and get a picture of us before he goes on?” I had 10 minutes backstage to get the shot of Marty and Sharon.

Alec Baldwin

This is kind of a classic shot of Alec Baldwin, who I’ve always loved and found very funny; he does great impressions of people. He’s always had such a strong, great face and he does such a great job on “30 Rock.” He’s a brilliant actor. I said, “Give me a profile,” because I wanted that power. It’s almost as though he’s in the Oval Office, like a political picture in a certain way, with the city in the background. The architecture was great. If my backgrounds aren’t neutral, I try to keep a certain sense of shape and form and balance. We don’t have many backgrounds in most of these pictures. That’s probably more indicative of my art; not too many backgrounds, pretty simple.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was always a great subject. I always let people know in interviews that despite all the problems he faced later in life, Michael was a dream subject to photograph because prior to all of our shoots, and I shot him a bunch of times, he would call and we would have an hour or two-hour discussion about what we were going to shoot. So when he would come in, it was like having a conversation with an art director. He would come in with specific ideas and I’d know exactly where we were going. This was actually one of his pet tarantulas that we shot with. You should see it in color; it’s orange and red and yellow. Tarantulas are not aggressive but it wouldn’t even have to bite me; if it got on me I’d have a heart attack.

The Atherton Twins

I met them because I wanted something sculptural and body-oriented, and to this day they’re two of my very closest friends. They were gymnasts; they’re identical twins from Manchester, England. I shot this in my studio in natural light on my roof in a cage that Idesigned for [light-modulating equipment manufacturer] California Sunbounce. The picture was taken [horizontally] with his feet on the ground and I actually bent it in Photoshop, so that’s actually slightly manipulated. I don’t manipulate many of my pictures but we did that. That was my brilliant retoucher, Robb Carr, who’s been my retoucher for 30- some years. He’s retouched a lot of the pictures you’re seeing here.

Tom Waits

The picture of Tom Waits was one of my very early album cover shoots. I would pick him up at 10 o’clock in the morning and drop him off at like 10 o’clock or midnight every night for three days. We toured all over LA [and shot] pictures in Pasadena in the graveyards for old neon signs. The shot you see here is in front of an old Hollywood tattoo parlor somewhere between Vine and Western. It was taken with a flash and time exposure so that’s what created that blur. The irony was I spent, I’d say, over 30 hours photographing him in all kinds of different setups, and the last time I shot him — which was a few years ago for the London Sunday Times — I was given about 20 minutes. He’s so brilliant in pictures that I got the shots, but that just shows you the difference between the ’70s and the millennium.

Barbra Streisand

This is a portrait of Streisand on a little movie called All Night Long (1981) that was directed by Jean-Claude Tramont. That was one of my first movies as a special photographer and I was so excited to get to work with her. I thought, “Oh my God, this is the beginning of my career!” I was young, I was green, I hadn’t really ever shot anybody as major as Barbra Streisand. We worked very well together and I have the utmost respect for her. She would take the time and go the distance to review the pictures and look at them. We’d make prints, I’d go over to her house, we’d sit down and go through the images. She was terrific and very much knew what she wanted and how she wanted to do it. She was very generous with her time and we’d stay after the shoot sometimes and shoot a little more stuff. We shot a few album covers that way. She was so aware of the camera. I love that shot of her with that short blond wig for the role. I always liked that photograph.

Three Boys Jumping

Three Boys Jumping was funny. I was working on my second book, Volume II, and I had them out in the desert doing portraits of nudes. It was the end of the day, the sun was setting, they were walking back and getting ready to leave — and I said, “On three, just jump. One, two, three!” I got one frame and it ended up being kind of a fun picture. It’s one of those spontaneous moments that just seemed to happen. And the light was beautiful because the sun was setting in the Kelso Dunes, toward Palm Springs.

Bette Midler

She’s been a client of mine for well over 30 years, which is pretty wild. We started very early on and I did a huge spread with her in Interview Magazine for her cover. We took a completely different spin on Bette: very serious, contemplative, more inner-reflective, and that kind of started our relationship. She’s one of my favorites. She’s such a class act and she’s so smart and she’s fun to work with and she’s witty and catty at the same time. This [picture was from] a more recent shoot. She called me in when she was getting ready to go to Vegas and we created all the images that were used for the campaign for her Las Vegas tour. She loves to play devil’s advocate with you, and if she wins then you lose — so you have to stand your ground!

Johnny Depp

This is probably the first professional digital photograph that I got. We printed those out the day I shot Johnny and it was amazing to see how rich and how sumptuous the colors and the sharpness of the capture were. I’ve known Johnny for a long time. I worked with him the first time on Cry-Baby (1990) with John Waters and we’d had a relationship for a while as good friends and wine drinking buddies. I hadn’t seen him for a long time and the day of the [Pirates of the Caribbean] shoot, at about 10:30 in the morning, I had three different bottles of wine decanted for us to try. When we see each other we always like to have a little wine.

Al Pacino

When I was hired on Scarface (1983) the publicist told me that if I put long lenses on I’d probably get thrown off the set. “Don’t point the camera at him too much!” The thing is, I’ve never approached with trepidation or fear because then they’ll just eat you alive; they’re generally more nervous than you are. With Al I was just very direct. I remember one day on the set, Al was doing some pictures with me and the assistant director came over and said, “We’re ready for you on the set, Mr. Pacino. We’re waiting for you.” And he goes, “Well, Greg has been waiting all day. When I finish doing the pictures with him I’ll join you.” So just being very direct and straightforward and not mincing words, and also sharing your vision with the people, is a big part of being able to let them become involved in the shoot. Shooting is a very personal thing and I’ve always enjoyed sharing my vision of what I’m getting and how I’m seeing it with the talent, so that they have an understanding of what it is that I’m looking for, and if we’re on the right track. I ended up shooting Al’s last book cover. He’s a great guy and a monster talent.

Tootsie / Dustin Hoffman

I was hired as a special photographer on Tootsie (1982). Dustin and I got along great; he loved doing pictures and we had a great time shooting. He enjoyed [his role] so much that Sydney Pollack had promised him a day on the picture when he could do whatever he wanted. He said, “I want to do a day where Greg shoots me for all the magazine covers.” So that’s how the movie poster came out of it; we shot that during the making of the movie. It was really one of the first gender-bender movies that actually worked with a major motion-picture star. Dustin paved the way with that movie and did such a great job, and that became a tradition. Every actor wanted to play a female role in a movie, but Dustin did it better than anybody.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was a character. Andy, at that time, had just started modeling with Ford, I believe. He called me up one day in his inimitable stammer; he stammered pretty good. He said, “Greg, uh, it’s Andy. Uh, do you think that, uh, LA Eyeworks would, uh, want to shoot me for one of their ads?” I said, “I think probably they would.” He came out and he shot the ad. He later wrote in his diaries that my makeup artist was one of the few people that ever screwed his mop on straight.

Marlon Brando

That’s in Hawaii. I’ll tell you how funny he was: We were working on Don Juan DeMarco (1994) and Johnny Depp [told me that during a close-up] Marlon — I’m sure he was 350 pounds — turned around, dropped trow and mooned him, and Johnny just totally lost it. You can imagine how big that tush was.

Meryl Streep

Meryl is one of our great, consummate actresses. I see her every now and then; I haven’t shot her for quite a few years. She’s always been great and I think she’s one of those actresses that transcends both comedy and drama. She’s so comfortable playing both roles and playing them perfectly. She’s a very elegant, very beautiful woman. A person that’s very comfortable with herself, and consequently it comes across in the pictures.

Tony Bent Over

Tony Ward was one of those magical models that just seemed to be able to sense where the camera was and what to do. He was amazing at moving and working in the light. That’s shot in my daylight studio with top overhead light coming down. Really beautiful, natural light. It’s very sculptural.

Robert De Niro

De Niro was a cover for GQ. It was in the ’90s and I shot that in New York. That was the first time we worked together; we’ve worked together a bunch of times since then. He was great. He’s very no-nonsense and get-to-it. He showed up and we nailed the pictures. He’s a pretty shy person. As outgoing and crazy as he is in front of the moving camera, in real life he’s very quiet. He’s comfortable around his close friends, and I think with people he doesn’t know, he’s quite reserved.

Djimon Hounsou

Djimon was one of the early models who I totally loved working with and loved collaborating with. He’s one of the most perfect specimens of a human being, period. His teeth, his skin, everything. He looks like a sculpture and that was kind of the concept behind the shot of him on that pedestal. He as well as Tony Ward are two of the great males subjects that I’ve photographed in my career. And this was Djimon prior ton becoming a movie star.

David Bowie

David Bowie was someone I really always looked up to. He was one of my heroes since the very beginning and I was really nervous when I went to shoot him the first time in New York. Subsequently, he and I had a great relationship in the long run. I shot four or five album covers for him. David was such a creative guy and we would always come up with really cool images and really enjoyed taking pictures. He understands photography because he’s also an artist; he’s a painter. He was someone I always enjoyed working with and certainly a great face to shoot.

Greg Gorman

I hate being photographed and that was actually a candid with another gal and we were sitting out on the bench at my home in Mendocino where I’m the most relaxed, where I teach. One of my assistants got it and I thought, “Wow, that’s a good picture of me. It hides my bald head and my tired eyes. I’ve got sunglasses and a chopped off head; it’s a picture that totally works on all counts.” 􀀀

“Greg Gorman: A Distinct Vision 1970- 2010” runs September 15th through October 29th at the Pacific Design Center. To learn more about Greg Gorman, visit www.greggormanphotograph

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