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Interview with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

China Machado

HBO

What brought you to this topic?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I went to a party in September of 2009 that Harry King, the hair guru [who appears in the film], was giving. I walked into a room that smelled like Charlie the perfume and I met a number of women who were supermodels. I immediately thought it was a photograph, if not more.

HBO

The participants run the gamut. How did you select who was included?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In the beginning it was this core group of '70s and '80s models that I photographed. You see the making of the photograph in the film; it was a curated selection of legendary models. Then I realized that the film needed to be broader. It needed to go further back, into the '60s, the '50s, and the '40s because Carmen [Dell'Orefice] and China [Machado] were working in the '40s.

HBO

Were you trying to cover the history of the business?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

It's not a history of modeling-that'd be a 10-part series. It's really a look at reinvention, a look at beauty as it ages, a look at success and achievement and failure, through the eyes of especially beautiful women.

HBO

What's your definition of a supermodel?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Someone who's tall. I'm not a fashion photographer. I'm not a part of the fashion word. I think you have to love clothing and fashion and hair to really be a part of that world. I'm more interested in grammar than I am in fashion.

HBO

Can you discuss the logistics of your filming? You have the models in the studio, at home, in their curlers...

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The initial group portrait was the core of the film. When we were putting that together in New York and L.A., I filmed everyone individually as they came out of hair and makeup, or when they were in their curlers, and got certain amount of material. From there I sat down and thought about who else I wanted and reached out to a wide range of women.

HBO

Did you have an idea of what topics you'd cover?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

There are certainly subjects that are of interest to me personally. Race is something I don't ever shy away from. I wanted to hear what Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and China Machado, the first non-Caucasian model, had to say. The women were very open to me. As a photographer, I know from the moment someone walks in my studio how to make that person feel at ease. I think I did that here. So by the time that Jerry Hall was on the set, sitting in front of the lights, the lights would be to her liking because I knew all these women would look at them and think, "is that going to make me look good?"

When you look at the history of modeling--from the point when it was considered like being a hooker, to the point where your mother is pushing you to model--it's only 50 years. How quickly our mores change.

HBO

It's remarkable that so many of the models remember the first photographer who shot them.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I've been thinking about that. I think part of that is they tell their story at lot. They get asked, "How did you start?" so they have that down. But certainly I don't remember the names of those photographers-they didn't start with Avedon. It was interesting.

 

HBO

When you have a moment like Pat Cleveland's, when her eyes well with tears, what do you do?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

You have to know how to be sensitive to the moment. You don't want to exploit it. I think it was very cathartic for her. She told my daughter the other night she was so happy to tell those stories she had been holding back. She felt she needed the world to know more about what she had gone through.

HBO

Do you think that was the case for other models?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

It's such a range of women. Some of them are so comfortable in front of the camera as talkers. Some of them are very, very shy; Karen Bjornson is a very private person, and you get that feeling from her. Lisa Taylor, I went out to see her in California. We had some tough things to talk about--drugs are not easy to talk about. But I love what she said: "I wouldn't have done it any other way. I did what I did, I learned from it. I'm lucky I'm alive."

HBO

We learn in the documentary that modeling wasn't taken seriously at first. What makes it so desirable now?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

We all want instant fame. It all goes back to that. When you look at the history of modeling--from the point when it was considered like being a hooker, to the point where your mother is pushing you to model--it's only 50 years. How quickly our mores change.

HBO

How have people been reacting to the film?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Everyone reads into it from their own personal experience... if you're getting older, interested in aging, or thought of yourself as a model at some point. Even straight men--a lot of men grew up with these women through Sports Illustrated. Men didn't read women's magazines, how would they know who they were? So the first time Sports Illustrated did the swimsuit issue, it was a historical change; it was the first time men became aware of these women.

HBO

Would you consider expanding any of these women's stories into a single-subject doc?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

They all deserve a feature. There's no doubt about that.

About Face: Supermodels Then and Now