An uncluttered style and a willingness to work closely with his famous subjects has made Greg Gorman one of the most in-demand celebrity portraitist in the business.
The actor leans against a cement wall. He tosses back his shoulder-length hair and lets out a yell. He crouches on the ground and glares. Next, he is doing a handstand. With every movement, a camera shutter clicks.
It's 1994, and a relative newcomer on the Hollywood scene named Antonio Banderas is cavorting shirtless around a Los Angeles rooftop for celebrity photographer Greg Gorman. A few hours earlier, they were downstairs in Gorman's studio, shooting some poster stills for one of Banderas' upcoming movies. But neither of them was satisfied.
"The concept was to do a static studio shot, but I had always wanted to do something more creative with him," Gorman recalls. "When we finished shooting the straight campaign, I said, ‘Let's just go up on the roof.'"
For the rest of the afternoon, a less restricted Banderas went through every pose and emotion he could think of. The studio got its poster shots, but Gorman got something else: a more memorable nine-part photo essay showing the range, vitality and sexuality of an actor on the cusp of superstardom.
In the world of Hollywood, where celebrities are stage-managed within an inch of their lives by agents and studio publicists, such spontaneous creativity is becoming a rarity. For Greg Gorman, it's another day at the office.
After more than 30 years in the business, Gorman is on the short list of celebrity photographers — limited, perhaps, to Richard Avedon and Annie Leibowitz — with whom famous people choose to work and almost-famous people want to meet. Portraying everyone from Bette Davis to Bette Midler, from Andy Warhol to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gorman's work has appeared in countless magazine spreads and on covers including Esquire, GQ, Interview, Life, L'Uomo Vogue, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Time, Us and Vanity Fair.
Many of his portraits are instantly recognizable — actor Djimon Hounsou, his mouth stretched into an angry shout; singer Elton John, with eyes closed and arms folded, as if he's dreaming; Leonardo DiCaprio's smoldering gaze from over his shoulder. Gorman's nudes — famous for their classic forms and stark beauty, and infamous for their bold eroticism — have been shown in exhibits across the United States and in Canada, Europe and Japan.
Along with his signature personality portraits and fine-art studies, Gorman has done extensive work on print advertising campaigns, album covers, music videos and television commercials.
His biggest source of income, though, comes from shooting movie posters. Some of his dozens of credits include Pearl Harbor, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Big Chill, Total Recall, The Italian Job, The Sum of All Fears, Under the Tuscan Sun and Tomorrow Never Dies. Later this year, expect to see his poster work for the upcoming King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.
He attributes much of his success over the years to the bonds he has formed with many of his illustrious clients. "I know most of the people I shoot these days," he says. "What's important to me is to make them feel comfortable and involved in the picture-making process."
While some photographers like to use elaborate sets or ironic locations to bring out hidden aspects of their subjects' personae, Gorman prefers a more direct approach. Many of his black-and-white portraits and fine-art nudes are intimate close-ups with stark lighting, bold shadows and neutral backgrounds. "I basically shoot in a clean, simple style," he says. "I try to capture the personality of the subject and keep the props to a minimum. My goal is to let the person be the subject of the image."
Not in Kansas (City) anymore
The world of a Hollywood jetsetter is a far cry from Gorman's humble Midwest beginnings. Born in 1949 in Kansas City, Mo., he did not develop a serious interest in images and light until his early days at the University of Kansas. At a 1968 concert, he borrowed a 35mm Pentax from a friend and took some photographs of Jimi Hendrix from the crowd.
From that night on, he immersed himself in photography and soon declared a major in photojournalism. Like many kids his age, he often made rock 'n' roll his subject, photographing the likes of such diverse musical acts as The Byrds, Muddy Waters and The Doors. Later in Los Angeles, he would continue photographing other musical acts, including Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
At the University of Kansas, he completed his major in photojournalism. There, in addition to his rock 'n' roll subjects, he shot pictures of activist Abbie Hoffman and traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover Vietnam War protests. Soon, however, with the advice of good friend Larry Stevenson at Kodak, he decided to transfer to the University of Southern California in 1969 to pursue a major in cinematography.
Following the completion of his master of fine arts degree in cinematography in 1972, Gorman explored the world of motion pictures while continuing to take photos of celebrities who straddled the line between music and acting, namely Bette Midler, David Bowie and Barbra Streisand. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, he got his big break on the set of the Dustin Hoffman film Tootsie. Having been hired as the special photographer for the movie, Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack gave him a small part playing a photographer. During the shooting of those scenes, he took the famous photo of Hoffman in front of the American flag that later became the advertising art.
The Tootsie campaign led directly to poster gigs for The Big Chill and Scarface in 1983. From there, he met and developed a rapport with many of the big stars of the day. "A great deal of the credit for launching my career should go to Robert Hayes, the late editor of Interview magazine," Gorman says. "From the very beginning, he was very supportive of me and gave me many great opportunities for covers. I still work very closely with Interview."
Today, Gorman, 54, has amassed hundreds of clients in the commercial and fine-art world. When he's not working in his studio or giving lectures about his work, he divides his time between his homes in Los Angeles and Mendocino, Calif.
In the foreword to Gorman's 1996 book Inside Life, film director and friend John Waters says that Gorman makes his subjects feel happy not just about being photographed, but about being famous. This philosophy of inclusion and collaboration extends to the design of his 7,000-square-foot studio on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Because most of his work is done in the studio, the space is designed for the utmost comfort of his clients. The lofty entrance foyer and open courtyard of the sleek, modern structure give visitors the feeling of entering a home environment rather than a workspace. If the strobes and 18-foot ceilings in the curved cove of the main studio do not provide the desired photographic effect, an upper cove on the roof is available to allow for shooting in natural light. Other amenities include two makeup rooms, a 160-square-foot dressing room, an extensive collection of music to fit the mood of each shoot and a "green room" with private phone and fax lines, cable TV and a VCR.
Food also plays a role in the process of setting up a shot. Since many of the shoots can run for a full 10-hour day, the studio has a dining area and a full-time caterer on staff to provide meals as needed.
"I like to start the day having breakfast with the subjects so we can go over wardrobe ideas and talk about the look we both want," he says. "Some photog-raphers don't like to involve the talent as much, but I like to discuss things with them so that they feel included in the process."
After several rounds of shooting, Gorman enjoys having a sit-down lunch with his subjects because it affords him the opportunity of getting to know them better. Some afternoon shoots tend to run into the early evening. "In the early years, Bette Midler and I went for three days on a shoot," he says.
"I like to do a lot of hand-holding with the talent," he adds. "Actors are at their best when they are becoming another character. When you ask them to be themselves, they can feel vulnerable. Some of them can be a bit neurotic when you strip away those characters."
As each shot evolves, Gorman tries to highlight certain features to bring out the best look in each subject. "I do it mostly through body language," he says. "If one eye happens to be slightly bigger than the other, I can focus more on the smaller eye to even them out. If a nose has a slight bend, I can shoot from a different angle to make it look straighter.
"A big part of telling the tale is through the eyes," he adds, "so that's where a lot of the focus goes."
Born-again with digital
Although Gorman seemingly has met or photographed everyone who is "anyone" in Hollywood, he says he's still learning with every shoot. For the last couple of years, in fact, he has felt less like an old master and more like a voracious student. The subject of this crash course has been the rise of digital technology.
As the digital juggernaut began rolling across the industry in the 1990s, Gorman was one of the longest holdouts. "It was hard for an old dinosaur like me to make the transition," he says. "I feel like I've spent half of my life preaching against digital. I used to say that computers were a good excuse for poor photography. I didn't even have a computer until five years ago."
Recent advances in technology, however, have completely changed Gorman's outlook. The rapid conversion from analog cameras to digital is now the biggest issue facing all kinds of photographers, he says. "Until the past year, digital couldn't compete with film," he says. "But now, about 80 to 85 percent of what I shoot is digital. Film is dying. Labs are closing, especially with the onset of larger file sizes. It is now almost essential to learn software programs like Adobe's Photoshop and to keep your eyes on the latest technology in hardware and software."
He started out with a Foveon camera and then experimented with the Canon EOS D30 and D60 models, but was not overly impressed with the file sizes. What ultimately convinced him to make the leap to digital was the Canon 1DS. "It gives you the spontaneity of 35mm with the quality of a medium-format camera," he says. "The color subtlety, range and interpretation are all superior to film."
Besides the huge technical strides in the cameras, Gorman also is impressed with the physical ease of using digital. Earlier this year he returned from a job on location in New York, shooting actor Hugh Jackman for an advertising campaign and album cover. "I came back with just a handful of Flash cards," he says. "With digital, you can shoot with much lower luminance, so you don't have to have a vanful of equipment as well as a variety of film stocks to drag around."
Although some movie studios still prefer to have their posters shot with film, the immediate gratification that digital imaging can provide is changing hearts and minds. "After shooting digital," he says, "the laborious process of shooting film drives me crazy."
Editing and color
After several years of playing catch-up, Gorman now knows enough about digital printing to conduct lectures. In February he presented a digital work-flow seminar at the Photo Electronic Imaging Live conference for digital photographers in Dallas, and at the Photo Marketing Association Convention in Las Vegas later in the month. He also spoke to more than 1,000 people at the recent Wedding and Portrait Photographers International convention in Las Vegas about Photoshop techniques.
"I used to host a lot of celebrity dinner parties. Now I just hang out with a lot of digital geeks," he jokes.
Knowledge of digital editing techniques is not limited to photographers, either. "It's very interesting to see how much celebrities now know about the wonders of Photoshop," he says. "They know what it can do for them, and love the reassurance of seeing immediate captures and printouts in minutes."
Gorman likes to shoot in 16-bit raw mode, and does all of his editing on-screen through iView MediaPro. "I find that it's a bit faster than Photoshop's file browser," he says.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of digital editing has been color management, Gorman says. With today's new software and hardware (see In the Loupe), artists now can have total control over the color and tonality of their prints.
"There's a major lack of knowledge of color management out there," he says. "The separation houses are diminishing what digital is accomplishing these days because it cuts out the middleman. With digital, you don't have to listen to the poison from the lab boys anymore."
The switch to digital also has solved a major concern that Gorman used to have in converting from color film images to black-and-white. "The problem was the grain issue," he says. "But with digital, you have no grain to worry about. So, basically, every photo can now be shot in color and easily converted to black and white. You just have to be careful to think in terms of black-and-white images when you're shooting."
At his workshops Gorman also offers a step-by-step tutorial created by Robb Carr, his personal retoucher for the past 30 years, to convert digital color to toned black-and-white images.
In recent years Gorman has produced several books highlighting his idealized nude studies, including Perspectives (1999), As I See It (2000) and, most recently, Just Between Us (2002), which focuses on a single male model, Greg Knudson.
"It's kind of a frank sexual foray, all shot with a Contax G2," he says. "Since then, I haven't done as many nudes. I don't want to get typecast as only doing nude portraits."
These days, between his lecture tours, Gorman is doing more work with magazines such as Interview and Vanity Fair. He also is planning on assembling another retrospective book on his early works, plus a book about world-class athletes for the World Sports Academy.
Gorman's fame has allowed him to do only projects he wants to do, most of which involve his many close friends in Hollywood. "Clients usually come to me, now," he says, although he is cautious about whom he works for and about conflicting demands being put on his art.
In a review of Inside Life, a 1996 anthology of Gorman's work, Peter Weiermair, director of the Rupertinum Gallery in Salzburg, Austria, described his images as "having an ethereal quality, as if they glowed from within . . . (H)is photographs have the quality — a mark of all great portrait photographers — of allowing the subject to unfold his or her own personality in front of the lens."
"For me," Gorman says, "a photograph is most successful when it doesn't answer all the questions, and it leaves something to be desired."
IN THE LOUPE: Greg Gorman
Home: Los Angeles and Mendocino, Calif.
Studio: Los Angeles, 7,000 square feet total, 1,600 square feet of shooting space, 18-foot ceilings.
Staff: A studio manager, three assistants and an in-house caterer.
Fine-Art representation: Fahey/Klein Gallery, L.A.
Favorite subjects: Bette Midler, Djimon Hounsou, Bette Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio and actor/model Tony Ward. "I like working with those who are willing to experiment; those who will take chances and be creative, regardless of other people's expectations."
Equipment: Canon EOS 1DS, Contax and Hasselblad. Digital editing: Macintosh G5's; Adobe Photoshop; Adobe Camera Raw; Gretag Macbeth color management; Colorbyte's Image-Print; Sony Artisan monitors; GTI Lightboxes; Epson Stylus Pro printers; Extensis Server software; Apple Xserve and Xraid; and Imacon's Flextight 848 film scanner. In the studio, "I'm a big fan of Briese lights," he says. "Their 2,500-watt HMIs put out more light than my 6,000-watt Arriflex."
Greatest influences: American portrait photographer Richard Avedon. European fashion photo-graphers Guy Bourdin and Peter Lindbergh. "The most important influence for me was Helmut Newton," who died on Jan. 23 at age 83, Gorman says. "When I first saw Helmut's work in a gallery in the early 1970s, I knew that's what I wanted to do. His death was a great loss."
Books: Greg Gorman, Volume One, 1990 (CPC Publishing), black-and-white personality portraits with male and female nudes; Greg Gorman, Volume Two, 1992 (Treville Press), male and female nudes; Inside Life, 1996 (Rizzoli International Publishers), a retrospective of Gorman's work from 1968 to 1996; Perspectives, 1999 (Art Books International), celebrity portraits and nudes; As I See It, 2000 (Powerhouse Books), a collection of male nudes; and Just Between Us, 2002 (Arena Editions), erotic nude studies of model Greg Knudson.
Advice to new photographers: "A lot of kids today are not clear on the importance of establishing an identity," he says. "They keep varying their imagery and style according to the flavor of the month. Develop and showcase your own style, and get an assignment that reflects where you want to go. Don't be afraid to be original."