On the Scene with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ latest film “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” screens Saturday at the opening night reception of the 9th Annual Honolulu African American Film Festival at the Doris Duke Theatre.
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Timothy Greenfield-Sanders grew up in Miami. He graduated from a prestigious private prep school, earned a bachelor’s degree in art history at Columbia University and an M.F.A. in film from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Greenfield-Sanders went on to successful parallel careers in photography and filmmaking. His work as a photographer includes fine arts portraits of politicians and entertainment world celebrities. His first documentary film, “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart,” won the Grammy Award for best long form music video in 1999.
Greenfield-Sanders, 67, released his latest film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” at Sundance Film Festival in 2019. It screens Saturday at the opening night reception of the 9th Annual Honolulu African American Film Festival at the Doris Duke Theatre.
How did the Toni Morrison project happen?
The truth is that Toni trusted me to do it. I met her in 1981 when I was a young photographer. She liked my work, and over the years I became close to her — kind of her go-to photographer for her books and for her press. She was a huge part of my life.
In 2005 we were shooting portraits in my studio for “Margaret Garner,” the opera she had written the libretto for, and she said, “I’ve met so many black divas for the opera project we should do a book called ‘Black Divas.’ I’ll write it, you take the portraits.” That idea of concentrating on a group of African Americans for a portrait project eventually morphed into what became “The Black List” series I did on African Americans. I’d been thinking from the time of the first “Black List” book — 23 people — that all those people deserved a documentary but the first one would be Toni.
How involved was she in making the film?
She gave us access to her archives, she sat for the interviews, and she was very helpful with a list of people who should be in it.
The list of people who win a Grammy with their first project is a short one. What stands out about it for you?
Lou was a complicated person. We were very close friends, and at one point he said, “Why are they letting you do this? You haven’t made a film other than a student film.” When we won I was thrilled.
What inspired “Thinking XXX,” your series of clothed and nude portraits of porn stars that expanded into an HBO documentary in 2004?
I had seen “Boogie Nights” and just loved the movie. I thought about porn stars for the first time as people. I had never intended to shoot nudes but they couldn’t wait to take their clothes off, so it was very organic the way it worked out.
Who are the U.S. presidents you’ve done portraits of, and who was the most memorable for you?
Bush and Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Donald Trump and Obama. Hillary (Clinton) wouldn’t count, but I’ve shot her in the White House in ’94 as well. The most enjoyable experience was Jimmy Carter. I went down to Georgia to his church and we had lunch with his congregation and spent a lot of time together. And he was just a wonderful person to get to know that way.
Is there someone — celebrity, world leader — you would like to photograph?
The one that I always wanted to photograph was Marlon Brando. I talked to him on the phone, and when I look back I should have been pushier, but that’s not my way. I want people to want to be photographed. After reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography recently I’d like to photograph him.