Well, what a title for a book full of intimate portraits of the most iconic celebrities of the last 50 years.
It is a retrospective of a career that is still ongoing as the album cover photo of Elton John’s latest release clearly shows. “It’s Not About Me”, is a look at people. It is a look through the lens of a legendary talent. I hate to tell you, Greg, it is all about you.
I have been lucky enough to have been on the other end of the lens from Greg on a couple of occasions. Having also been lucky enough to have had many talents in the photographic art space take portraits of me, let me start this tale of Greg Gorman as Hemingway would have wished, with my own experience.
When I walked into Greg’s studio in 2002, I was a young kid that felt very old. The world had become smaller for me after traveling around it a few times. Seven years in the fashion industry with the glamour and shooting with famous names, both alongside me and on the other side of the camera from me, I thought, made me a veteran.
That first day with Greg Gorman, gave me a glimpse of how much I did not know, about the business, and about famous names. Anthony Hopkins just happened to drop by to have lunch with us and look over some images Greg had taken of him, leaving me a bit starstruck, as just one example.
The shoot also taught me about life, when Greg and I would chat between shots about ideas and aspirations, politics and love.
When I first viewed the images that came from the camera wielded by Greg, I was shocked again. Even though the first viewing did not allow me to understand the full importance of the images. Don’t get me wrong! They were and are amazing, and I was and am very grateful, but it has been the years since then that the importance of the portraits in my life has come to bear.
Greg’s portraits seem so simple. It may even seem that there is nothing truly remarkable about them, at first glance. They seem like very nice images, but it is in time that you see the artistry that will endure. It is what they capture about the essence that makes them special. When you look a bit deeper at the image’s you see how truly special they are.
When I viewed the images on display at the gallery and in his book it really is breathtaking to see so many people that we think we know. We have seen them for years, many movies, tv shows, documentaries; then there are the portraits that Greg Gorman, and only Greg Gorman, could take.
Each one comes with its story. Each story, like each person and each portrait is a personal experience.
I was fortunate enough to get to spend a bit of one-on-one time with Greg during this first stop on his book and gallery tour. We spoke about everything under the sun in disarming, charming, Greg fashion.
We spoke about his former favorite haunt, the Chateau Marmont, that instead of taking care of its workers that made the place a home away from home to Hollywood’s A-list crowd, decided during Covid to do the unacceptable and fired the entire staﬀ, erroneously thinking that it was the name that kept people coming back and not the people that made the place feel like a home
away from home. He was not upset that he lost his go to local place.
He was upset that the staﬀ was treated so poorly. It’s not about him.
When we finally got around to speaking about the work, I questioned him about the title first oﬀ. He explained the title came from his creative director, (Gary Johns). Then he went on to explain why he felt it fit.
“The title, actually is a great title, because it stems from my philosophy and how I do personality photography. I take a back seat. I set the stage, then let the talent kind of unfold, rather than trying to invoke too much of my personality into the picture. What I invoke into the picture is basically my style as a photographer, in terms of my lighting and my staging. What I want is their personality to come through. So I try to get inside their head by winning their trust and confidence playing up or down in front of the lens. Many times celebrities are more comfortable playing a character rather than themselves in front of the lens. Where in the movies it’s one thing because they can be their alter ego but when it comes time to strip them bare of who that person is and figure out who they are inside their head it’s a diﬀerent ballgame. I try to give them as much room to unveil themselves in front of the camera. So that’s why I say it’s not about me. I shoot very simply, minimal props, minimal background, as you know. Simple poses, I like to shoot in close with most of my portraits at the beginning. They are head on and fairly tight. I think that is the best way to connect with a person before beginning a portrait session.”
One of the things that has always struck me about Greg’s work is how he has been able to capture images of all these celebrities that we all know the face of so well and yet, there is something that is very diﬀerent in his portraits of them. They show something, with Greg, that we have not seen of them. So, of course, I had to ask- how he feels that comes about?
“I try to share my vision with the artist… I think when the talent feels they can trust you they are much more willing to open up. When there is a barrier between you and the subject it is much easier for them to put up a defense mechanism, and give you the John Travolta, or Brando, or De Niro, but when they feel they can be vulnerable with you that is when you get a portrait that makes sense. It’s about vulnerability, because if people don’t show you their vulnerable side, it’s oftentimes hard to capture who they are as an individual. They are going to show, either what they think you want to see or what they want to project as their image. To get past that you have to build that relationship with winning their trust and confidence.”
Hearing this answer, I just had to ask; Is there anyone that stands out to you as being very open and easy to shoot that lets you pass that barrier?
“Leonardo always did. Leonardo di Caprio was always amazing. We shot so much in the early days. Leo was one of the few actors that actually understood the significance of a solid portrait. He would also throw himself into the moment of where we were shooting and he would find a tool or element in the picture that he could play oﬀ of to really come across in the final image.”
Looking at the very candid portraits of Keanu Reeves, I had to ask about him. Keanu Reeves, you see is a kind of hero of mine, since learning more about the person he is oﬀ screen. How did those images come about?
“It’s a good story behind that actually. I was shooting Keanu for a Detour magazine cover and I had booked a big loft in downtown LA and we had a big loft with a motorhome and all the wardrobe down there and everything. We were up in the space and I’m watching Keanu and he seems a little antsy, he just didn’t seem relaxed. So I said to him, ‘The vibe I’m getting is you might rather be somewhere else. I’m just not feeling you’re comfortable in this loft’. He said, ‘yeah actually’. So I asked him what was he thinking and he said, ‘I kinda wish I was riding my motorcycle in Malibu’. So I said let’s pack it up and go out to Malibu. We were in downtown L.A. It was like an hour drive early in the morning. We got out to Malibu and we just started shooting and he was much more in the moment. There was a moment when he was changing and it’s not that uncommon you know for someone to be changing in front of the photographer but you put the camera down. I had even turned my back and he said, ‘Hey you can shoot it’. So I turned around and didn’t say anything just kept shooting, and we got done. When I got the pictures back, I thought they were kind of fun. I thought if I call his publicist she’s going to kill every one of them. So I called Keanu, and I want to say he was staying at the Chateau Marmont at the time and I said can you come up to the house and let me show you some pictures I think they are pretty cool. He just said, ‘I love’m/ run’m it’s cool no problem’. Those pictures went on to become pretty well known pictures.”
Knowing that this book tour was happening later than originally planned due to covid and also knowing that Greg is a personable, social guy, I just had one more question.
So what did you do during the lockdowns in L.A.?
“I didn’t do anything for a while. (laughs) But I had this new camera, a Fuji GFX 100 -100s and got these new lights from my lighting sponsor Rotolight – the TITAN X1. So, I had all these great tools but no one to sit in front of my camera. Since I have never shot anything that couldn’t talk back to me and vowed I never would, I had to figure out what the hell am I gonna do. Along came the thought that I had a fairly good collection of vintage African tribal art masks and figures. So I thought it might be interesting to shoot some portraits of them in the same manner I would do a person. Turn them into the light and away from the light to find the right angles. At the same time I was thinking people have photographed art like this, and I had no interest in doing a catalog book, but if I could combine them with some other form of art, they might hold some relative significance. My art director, Gary Johns, who has worked on almost all my books, had been shooting all kinds of street art, graﬃti and little bits of art in museums, torn posters et al during the time that I had been doing my portraits. I thought it might be interesting to take my pictures of the African sculptures that I had been creating and his art and put them together and see what we came up with. I sent oﬀ some pictures to him and when they came back to me, they were spectacular…they looked more like painting more than photographs yet it was all photography. You saw the influence of African art on 20th century Art, on Modernism, Cubism, and so many artists from Picasso, Matisse and on down the line. So, every day I would send him a few and he would play with them and it was just the two of us, or three of us, with my retoucher Rick Allen, and we have just worked on it every day since January 4th of this year.”
I would love to show a preview of Greg’s next book but that will have to wait for a bit. It will be published by Hatje Cantz soon and they rightfully should get the first chance to showcase this remarkable and unexpected work. There will be more to be said about his “Homage to African Tribal Art” when we explore with Greg and his team what African art means, how it has influenced us all and the diﬀerence between appropriation and appreciation. That will be in our IMPACT issue of IRK.
Until then, you can find all of Greg's work via his website gormanphotography
You can follow him on his instagram greggormanphoto I highly recommend that you do so. Then you might have the opportunity to meet up with the lovely human and legendary photographer that is Greg Gorman at his show "It's Not About Me" when it visits your neck of the woods. If you just can't wait for the show to come to you you can always go to Munich and see the show at Immagis Gallery before the 15th of December.
Photography Curtesy of Greg Gorman
Interview and story by - Donny Lewis Donnylewis.com