Conversation with Greg Gorman, Hollywood Portrait Legend


This time last year we were crammed into a fishbowl of a recording studio with Hollywood portrait photography legend Greg Gorman, who was the keynote speaker at the 2020 Depth of Field Conference. Blissfully unaware of the coming shutdown, we laughed and shared stories with Gorman while recording an episode of the B&H Photography Podcast. What can be said a year later? But on the eve of the free, virtually held 2021 Depth of Field Conference, we are still here and still celebrating photography. And once again, I am lucky to be joined in conversation with Greg Gorman as he celebrates the recent publication of his monumental new book, It’s Not About Me, and makes prints for a related exhibit at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, in Los Angeles, to open on March 25, 2021.

Photographs © Greg Gorman

Greg Gorman’s monumental new book, It’s Not About Me: A Retrospective, with cover photograph of his longtime friend and subject, Grace Jones

In preparation for this interview, I tried to come up with a question for Gorman that would open the heart of portraiture and reveal how to establish intimacy and create the legacy-making celebrity images for which he is best known.

Frankly, it was a waste of time. Seconds into my Zoom conversation with Gorman, the how becomes obvious—he’s just the most personable, frank yet funny, accessible, professional, loves-what-he’s-doing type of guy you could ever want to meet. There are no mysteries; he thrives on creative collaboration and open conversation and is genuinely curious about what makes people who they are, whether they’re a superstar or just a super. And then there are the stories that spice every conversation—of dinner parties with Bowie, limos with Mick and Midler, young Leo DiCaprio, and his long friendship with Divine. I’m not alone in hoping he writes a memoir one day, but for a taste of his photographic life and work, this new book is a place to start. The portraiture is stunning and the sheer number of artists, actors, and musicians he has photographed is a lesson on the culture makers from the 1970s through the 2000s.

Alfred Hitchcock, 1972
Steven Spielberg, 1994

Gorman’s book, this self-described “career retrospective,” has an afterword by his dear friend and repeat subject, filmmaker John Waters, who writes that a subject, especially a celebrity subject, “has to give so he can take” and I ask Gorman, “What it is exactly a subject must give so he can take a portrait?”

His response: “Trust and openness. It’s really a game of trust and confidence, and if I don’t win their trust it’s difficult to get a good portrait. Similarly, if they close down and have a strict version of how they’re to be perceived, that can obstruct a great photo session. And that’s why Leonardo DiCaprio, even from the early days, was extraordinary in front of the camera, because he didn’t care if he personified his male or female side. He was never effeminate, but he was open to playing and having fun and it makes a big difference when taking a portrait if someone will put themselves in your hands.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, 1997

And when a subject comes in with a preconceived idea of what is expected, do you try to change their mind, and how?

“Sometimes it’s about having a glass of wine and talking, but most important is to share your vision with your subject, and I have always done that, showing Polaroids, back in the day, or digital captures now. And letting them know that you are playing on their team rather than against their team. I grew up in the Midwest, I’m a fairly level-headed guy, and I can be charming and honest and direct if I have to. That helped, especially in the beginning, but once I had a portfolio, it became ‘guilt by association’ and ‘mutual respect,’ and that goes a long way in gaining the trust of clients.

“I also try to go into a photo session with a totally open mind in terms of what I expect from the person and who I think they are. I’d rather go in this way because a preconceived notion of someone only colors your vision and dampens the communicative relationship. And I never ask people to do stupid things; humorous pictures are not in my repertoire, I rarely ask people to smile. I’m as close to ‘still life’ as a personality photographer can be. I generally tell people to sit down and (bleepin’) hold still.”

In the afterword, Waters also writes of the “People Magazine-style” portrait that Gorman made of Waters’ parents when they visited the set of the 1990 film Cry-Baby. Gorman was doing the poster art portraits for the film and asked if he could make a picture of his friend’s parents. Portraiture can be many things, but at its best it is a gift of love and memory, and that simple portrait remained on the mantle of the Waters’ home throughout their lives.

Johnny Depp from the film Cry-Baby, 1990
John Waters, Sr., and Pat Waters, 1989

Gorman sifted through 50 years of material for this book, his first edit was 10,000 photos, then down to a thousand, and he was intent on finding images not previously published. He also admits that the book was meant to highlight the biggest stars, the most noteworthy people he has photographed over the years, and that when he was younger, he didn’t always “take my own advice. I shot forgivingly, taking ‘good pictures’ of my subjects,” he says, “but not the ‘powerful images’ I made as my style developed.”

Orson Welles, 1970
Marlon Brando, 1994

However, when it came to selecting images of subjects he had photographed many times, he gave himself the freedom to select outtakes. “When I was editing for this book, I looked for the ‘moments in between.’ I did not select the staid portrait, but perhaps a glance this way or a less obvious gesture. And of course, I included my ‘main players’ who I photographed many times over the years—Bette Midler, David Bowie, Elton John.”

David Bowie, 1984
Tom Waits, 1980

The sequencing and pairing of portraits in the book are also a treat. Al Pacino next to Marlon Brando, and Evander Holyfield paired with Muhammad Ali make sense, but Betty White on the page across from Barry White brings a smile and a nod to folks who know Gorman’s humor. He told me that his friend and collaborator, artist Gary Johns, played a huge hand in sequencing the images.

Betty White and Barry White from It’s Not About Me

Gorman has also made images for some of the best recognized film campaigns in history. Dustin Hoffman in the red sequin dress as Tootsie, Pacino as Scarface, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. These images were not only extremely successful advertising campaigns, but have been copied, satirized, made into T-shirts and countless memes. I asked him if he thought much about how these images have become part of the visual fabric of our culture.

“The only thing I cared about when I got a movie poster is that I got a buyout and a little extra dough. I never thought too much about it, it was just part of the job. Occasionally, I would look at the giant billboard if there was one—I remember a giant Heath Ledger as Casanova on Hollywood Boulevard—but in general, I respected the work, but did not have much personal attachment to the final products. Actually, the image that became hundreds of memes was the poster I did for the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival. Google it.”

Dustin Hoffman, “Tootsie” poster art, 1982

Reading Gorman’s own introduction to his book, one comes to understand the amount of work that it takes to build such a career—the less-than-glamorous jobs completed with professionalism and the contacts maintained throughout the editorial, advertising, and gallery worlds. In addition to celebrity portraiture, his nudes continue to sell in the fine art market and are commissioned for advertising.

He also mentioned a new series born during the COVID-19 shutdown, for which he teamed with FUJIFILM and is using the GFX-100 Medium Format Mirrorless Camera and GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR lens, along with the Rotolight Titan X1 LED Light Panel. The project is still under wraps; however, he hinted, “They are still-life, but…,” and that he shoots every day and “it feels like the first totally new thing I’ve done since the ’90s. I’ve finally found a medium format I can work with again!”

FUJIFILM GFX 100 Medium Format Mirrorless Camera

Gorman also spoke highly of the Epson SureColor P9570 44" Wide-Format Inkjet Printer with which he self-printed the images for his upcoming exhibit. He laughed about how an exhibit can be put together and printed so quickly nowadays and how easily the P9570 handled large prints.

On Gorman’s website there is a section called “We The People,” which features a series of portraits taken for the Transportation Security Administration. Yes, that TSA, and he traveled the country in an RV photographing “everyday people and occupations.” It’s a far cry from his dramatic Hollywood work, so I asked him what it is that he gets out of portraiture, why he enjoys it so much?

From the “We The People” series

“I love faces, I don’t care if it’s a celebrity or a cabbie, but I need to be engaged with either an aesthetic physical attraction or a mental attraction, a respect, for the subject. And the challenge for portraiture is to get inside the subject’s head and break down the barriers to really get a communicative art. It’s really just a means of connecting with people.”

Follow the links to Greg Gorman’s latest book, It’s Not About Me: A Retrospective, as well as the gear he now uses. For more enjoyment, watch his presentation from the 2020 Depth of Field Conference and, of course, tune in to the 2021 Depth of Field Conference, hosted by B&H.

1 Comment

I just did some Indoor Studio Portraiture of my different people at Wichita State University such as Crime Scene Portraits and just Portraitures, as a different Classes, indeed!!! Finally, however, it was not preferred to Hollywood Famous People as a Portraiture!!!