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

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. In 1981, actually, February of 1981, I think I have the exact date, and 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 book started to really blow up, I did book covers for her, and 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’re 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 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. 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 mean, in a sense — and this is a very big statement I’m going to make — and I’ve photographed every artist there is, practically. 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 world as well. I think Toni is a great artist.

So, in a sense, I’m privileged to know her. If you look at my career, the Black List series, which 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: So, Toni and I, we’re doing portraits for Margaret Garner, the opera that she had written. Here’s another piece of Toni that didn’t make it really into the film because you could do 10 minutes on Margaret Garner, the opera. I was sitting there talking about the Black divas that she had interviewed for the opera, and how there were so many. 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. It was this idea of maybe Black talent in some way. Eventually, not even that far 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 or maybe one other person. There was no history of direct to camera. Today, everyone does direct to camera because it’s so powerful.

So, I went to Toni and I said, “Maybe what I really want to do is you are the guinea pig for this list I’m going to do of people.” She sat for it and it became the Black List.

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 at that point.

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’s one of the few artists that I don’t know, never very buddy-buddy, but I called her up and just … We were sitting there and the other thing I kept thinking, “What is the opening?” Usually, it’s my portraits that are in the beginning. I thought, “It’s really about Toni this time.” Then I thought, “Mickalene Thomas is so interesting,” and just within five minutes, I had her phone number and I had her on the phone. 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: I think, first of all, I’m a big fan of her work. I thought that 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, where he paints a portrait and films it in 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 was African-American artists. So, I couldn’t hire Sebastian to do it, but Mickalene seemed like the right one,” and I thought, “It is a collage of Toni.” Also, by that point, 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 didn’t talk to her for four months. Then, at some point, I said to her, “We need this in two weeks because we have to submit something to Sundance, and I want that 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: I am in a position to … It was the perfect thing for me to do. First of all, I know a lot of the artists, and I certainly know all of the art. So, it actually started very early on when Rashid Johnson came over to look at 10 minutes of what we were doing. He came for a portrait.

We always talked about, “Let’s do a portrait.” I said, “Come on over. I want to show you what I’m doing.” We did a session at my studio, and then he came up to the editing room. We showed him something 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.” That got me thinking more and more of that’s the thing to do here is to incorporate as much art as we can.

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 for this.

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, and that I don’t think there’s a single artist out there that isn’t influenced by her. If there isn’t one, I’d be amazed. I mean, 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, particularly the Black community. I mean, there’s no question that this is an icon.

In our outreach, as I said yesterday, everyone just said, “Whatever you need.” I called up Kerry James Marshall, I don’t know. I’m a big fan, of course, and 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.”

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 films, followed by the Latino List, two films, Latino one and two, the Out List, the Women’s List, and Trans List last year. I mean, I think there are nine films in total that are part of that 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 portraits for those series that have traveled and gone to museums. So, I’d 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 film.

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 could do it very technically, and it’s a good portrait, but there’s so much more to portraiture, and that extends into my filmmaking, which is this sense of a person reading a person. So, if a person comes in the room, you get a sense of the baggage they’re bringing with him, 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, I think. I mean, part of it is that I’m charming. I don’t want to say it in that way, but … I don’t know how to say that.

HV: Charm works wonders.

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

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

TGS: I would love this film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, to be in theaters. It should be part of this wonderful moment we have, where 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 summer, some theatrical run with it. It’s a kind of film that if you could tap into Toni’s base, which is serious book readers, and I think those are people who also would go to a movie, there’s 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 it 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 who everyone was. There weren’t really that many artists. Interestingly, my father-in-law, who was the founders of the Abstract Expressionism Movement, Joop Sanders, he talked about when he was painting in the ’50s and ’60s, there were so few artists that everyone got a review, that that was this tiny, tiny world.

There were X amount 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 talent as well. You’d have to be like 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 in Columbia. I loved art. I had started as a filmmaker. I went to film school, learned how to make films, and essentially put that away because of Bette Davis and Alfred Hitchcock, who encouraged me when I met them. I mean, it’s pretty big.

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 AFI, which was the great film school in the ’70s, still is great. We would see every film by Hitchcock or Birdman or Bette Davis or Truffaut for two weeks, and then that person would come to the school. I was asked by the school to take portraits for the archive. No one else wanted to do it, my classmates. I was way beneath them. 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 she’d say, “You should look at George Hurrell. He really understands large format, and 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, 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 to me better what I should be doing. He took an interest in me. I was at a very privileged school. So, their mission to come there was to help us, but Bette Davis went way out of her way, and then we became friendly, and I fell in love with portraiture from that.

HV: Wow!

TGS: I finished my degree, and I came back to New York and started shooting the people I knew. Who were they? They were my father-in-law’s friends, to Kooning and Lee Krasner, and 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, and my friends, who were the young artists, like Cindy Sherman and Julian [Schnabel] and David Salle and Peter Halley, a little later, those kind of people. So, I fell into that.

HV: Then what was the Hitchcock part?

TGS: Well, Hitchcock was just someone who went the next step with me. He invited me somewhere to the Universal Studios. I spent days with him. He’d take me wherever. We’d have lunch with Edith Head, the great costume designer.

HV: Wow!

TGS: I know every film of Hitchcock’s. I had studied with Andrew Sarris at Columbia on Hitchcock and Donald Spoto. I was his projectionist at the new school for a job, and I watched every film on his couch twice, and I mean every film. So, I could sit with him and really talk film.

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: No. I think, ultimately, I became interested in large format because of Davis, Bette Davis, and then I decided it was really all about one light, that I wanted to have a feeling of sunlight, but it was a soft light. I didn’t want it to be gimmicky. I felt that portraiture can have all these other lights, and you’re looking at it, “Oh, there’s a hair light. Oh, there’s a side light.” It’s all about the technique. I wanted it to be about the person, about the face. So, this idea very early on came to me to just have one single light source. It almost feels like daylight, really, and that’s what I did.

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

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