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Cover Story: Between Shadows & Highlights – Celebrity Photographer Greg Gorman

A #tbt cover story interview with celebrity photographer Greg Gorman; article originally published in A&U Magazine.

Between Shadows & Highlights
Photographer Greg Gorman Talks Candidly About Celebrities, Photography & the AIDS Pandemic
by Alina Oswald

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black

The other day I came across not one, but two inspiring quotes by celebrity photographer Greg Gorman. “For me, a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions, but leaves something to the imagination,” says the first quote. It’s followed closely by a second quote, which adds, “It’s not always what you say in the highlights, but what you don’t say in the shadows that make the picture more successful.”

“The two quotes are pretty intertwined,” Gorman explains over the phone, as he’s preparing large, thirty-by-forty prints of celebrity portraits for a show that opened in Berlin, Germany, this past December. “Back when I started [out as a photographer], my pictures were really broadly lit,” he further comments. “The people looked good, the pictures were pretty and very clear, and you could see everything that was going on. But there wasn’t any mystique.” That mystique came through only once he started creating a relationship between the highlights and shadows in his work. As a result, his images started creating more intrigue, leaving viewers wanting to know more about the subjects. And that’s a good thing, because, he adds, “I don’t think you have to spell everything out.”

A Kansas City native now […] living in California, Greg Gorman has spent the last four decades of his life photographing celebrities. “I’ve shot so many people over the years, from David Bowie to Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Hoffman [A&U, October 2004], Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro. I had the chance to work one on one with some of my [big screen] icons. I’ve made a lot of friendships over the years looking through my lens.”

Greg Gorman’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums across the country and around the world. He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Professional Photographers of America, and of the Achievement in Portraiture Award from The Lucie Foundation, among many others. He has also done charitable work for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other AIDS nonprofits, and has authored several books, including Framed, Inside Life, Perspectives, As I See It, and Just Between Us. But Greg Gorman is not only a celebrity photographer and award-winning photographer, but also a mentor. A decade or so ago, he changed directions. After almost a lifetime of photographing celebrities, he became interested in making wine and teaching photography. In addition to teaching photography workshops, he is also on the board of the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, where he teaches large-format printing.

And yet, looking back at his remarkable career in photography, Greg Gorman points out that he did not, necessarily, seek out to become a photographer. It was the other way around. “I think photography chose me,” he explains, “because, never having taken a picture before in my life, I borrowed a friend’s camera in 1968 to shoot a Jimi Hendrix concert.” He adds, “I asked my friend what I should set the camera at, and what I should do.”

Gorman remembers going to the concert and shooting a few images, and then going to his friend’s home. The friend had a darkroom in his basement, where they developed the film. “And when I saw the images coming up on this mysterious piece of paper, I was totally hooked,” the photographer says. “And my very first image [was] pretty much out of focus. I don’t know if I had too much camera shake or smoked too much dope in those days, because this was back in ‘68….And that’s kind of how it all began.”

He attended school at the University of Kansas, where he studied photojournalism, the only photography course offered there at the time. After graduation, he moved to California, to get a master’s degree in film. “I realized that I was too much of a control freak to pursue film,” he comments, “because they were always going for the great acting gig over the great camera gig. And so I went back to my roots, which was basically still photography.”

The early seventies found Gorman living in Los Angeles. So, he started doing headshots for thirty-five dollars a day, including film and processing. “I would start shooting young actors and actresses,” he says. “And that slowly snowballed into what ultimately became my career.”

A few years later, in the late seventies, he started to get some cover work. Through mutual friends he met the sister of the renowned fashion photographer, Bruce Weber. “She trusted me and loved my work, and early on hooked me up with the likes of David Bowie, and some of the stars and pretty well-known people that I had the good fortune to photograph.” Then Gorman started working on the sets of films like Tootsie, The Big Chill, Scarface, and, later on, Under the Tuscan Sun, The Italian Job, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Hurt Locker.

He credits part of his success to his Midwestern upbringing and his personality that “melded well with the celebrities” and that helped him get along with just about anybody, famous or not. Speaking of dealing with and photographing celebrities, he explains that, “It’s just about human nature, and dealing with people as human beings. I think the problem with celebrities is that too many people treat them as celebrities, when, at the end of the day they are just like everybody else.” And then he adds, “You know, with a lot of celebrities there are a lot of egos involved, and I kind of checked mine at the door, and made sure [the celebrities] were comfortable.”

Gorman clearly remembers the person who gave him the first break in the business. It was Robert Hayes, executive editor of Interview Magazine who helped him launch his career. “Without Robert Hayes I don’t think any of this might have been possible,” he says. “I remember one day calling the Interview Magazine, up in New York City, [to] speak with Robert Hayes, and they said that he was out sick. I called back a few days later, and they said ‘he’s out with the flu.’ And this went on for a few weeks. And I finally [called the magazine again and] said, no one has the flu for weeks.”

And that’s when the photographer was told that Hayes didn’t actually have the flu, but that he had AIDS. After further inquiries, the photographer learned that Hayes was in the hospital in New York City, but that not many people were going to visit him. At the time, people didn’t know much about how one would contract the virus, and hence, many were worried that they would get infected. “If you were in the same room with a person [who had HIV] you presumed that you could possibly get the virus, too,” Gorman explains.

But learning about Robert Hayes, Gorman decided to fly to New York and visit Hayes in the hospital. “He was in a quarantine room,” the photographer recalls. “I had to put on a mask, a gown, gloves, and a little hat over my head, to go in the room.” He pauses for a moment, as if reliving the experience. “And at that point, when I went to see him, he almost looked like a little child. He reverted….It was so horrible in those days. But I went to see him, because people [in this stage of the disease] they need your love, and they need your attention, your compassion.”

That hospital visit marked the beginning of Greg Gorman’s awareness of the epidemic, and of his relationships with people living with the virus. He recalls an older picture showing him and four or five other men who were younger than he was. At the time the picture was taken, he didn’t know that they were HIV-positive. He found out only later that the virus had taken the lives of all these younger men in that group picture.

“I’m an openly gay person,” he says. “And I was certainly greatly affected by the epidemic. In the early days, in the early eighties, I was losing friends…they were dropping like flies. It left me with a big vacuum in my life.”

He goes on to say that a lot of people have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. They were not living wild or promiscuous lives. They were good and respectful people, great human beings, and a lot of them meaningful to the photographer’s life. “And no one really knew in the beginning what the hell was going on, how you got it, what was happening,” he says, talking about the early days of the epidemic. “I was losing friends left and right, almost everybody whom I knew in the eighties.” There were not only personal friends or acquaintances, but also almost the entire creative world. “Watching them go through the hideous death associated with the earlier days of AIDS, before they came up with [life-saving] medications, it was of tremendous concern to me,” he adds.

And so, when charities and foundations came about, the photographer became actively involved in the work of many organizations, using his images to help raise HIV and AIDS awareness. Gorman has done charitable work for many AIDS foundations, including Focus on AIDS, AIDS Healthcare Foundation—he photographed medical professionals involved with the foundation—and PAWS/LA, an organization “dedicated to preserving the loving bond between people and their companion animals, founded in 1989 in response to the companion animal-related crises faced by residents of Los Angeles county who were financially and physically debilitated by HIV/AIDS.”

Gorman is also an important part of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Founded in 1992, EJAF is now “one of the world’s largest HIV grant-makers,” and has offices located on both sides of the Pond, in New York City and London. “Elton John is a good friend,” the photographer explains. “He asked me to be on his board of advisors, so I’ve been on his board for a long period of time.”

Over the years, Greg Gorman has had the opportunity to photograph many actors who played in movies inspired by the epidemic—Tom Hanks (in Philadelphia) and Al Pacino (in Angels in America) first come to mind. “There’ve never been big discussions [about HIV, with these celebrities] but all of us in the entertainment business, particularly being the industry that’s been most affected, I know that we all share the same love of humanity, and our concern and care for people that we’ve lost. And, trust me, there’s no one in Hollywood that hasn’t lost numerous people to HIV/AIDS.”

As our chat continues, Gorman brings up the role of arts in telling the story of the pandemic. He points out the importance, even today, of being educated and informed about HIV and AIDS. “I think a big part of it is what Elton’s organization is so focused on,” he says, “and that is educating people [about] AIDS awareness. [HIV/AIDS] is not over by any stretch of imagination. Just because there are good meds [available] and you’re seeing statistics in many areas drop, it does not mean that this is the time for people to be clueless or careless.”

Having lived through and survived the dark years of the epidemic, and having lost many friends to the epidemic, Gorman is optimistic and hopeful that we will eventually find a cure. But he’s also very realistic regarding the reasons behind the long, too long time that it might take to find a solution—a cure or vaccine—to HIV/AIDS.

“It’s big business,” he says, commenting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry in finding a solution to the epidemic, once and for all. “You know…HIV keeps hospitals and pharmacies busy. As much as I don’t want to admit that, I think that’s a big part of it.”

When it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS, there is only so much that charities and foundations can do. Elton John’s AIDS foundation is a good example—every penny received goes toward AIDS awareness and eliminating the face of AIDS from the planet. But that’s a difficult task, mainly because the work done by so many dedicated charities is often affected by many factors. And a good part of the success of these organizations depends on available finances and funds.

And yet, when it comes to the AIDS epidemic, we find ourselves in a much better place today compared to where we were some three decades ago. In the U.S. and other developed countries, people living with HIV/AIDS are not dying the way they were dying at the onset of the epidemic, but HIV remains a devastating problem in other parts of the world.

“I think that everybody is hopeful [in finding a cure], and that we can see an end to [the epidemic],” Gorman says. “We’ve all been affected by it. We’ve lost too many people [to it]. I don’t think there’s anybody today that hasn’t been affected by HIV/AIDS. No one really wants to see [it] continue.

“The important thing is to follow your heart, and be generous and open to all of those [living] with HIV or AIDS, and reach out in any way that you can touch their lives, not only emotionally, but financially, in terms of helping them live a better life.”

Visit the Elton John AIDS Foundation at Learn more about Greg Gorman’s photography work, his books, and the photography workshops he offers, by visiting his website:

Shades of gray. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Shades of gray. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Frame by Frame
Alina Oswald Talks With Greg Gorman About Photography

What are your favorite subjects?
People who are not caught up in their own image. Often enough in Hollywood, people have this idea of who they’re supposed to be in front of the lens. Sometimes, breaking through barriers can be a complex situation.

Who would be one person you’d like to have the chance to photograph?
The person I’ve wanted to photograph most of my life, and I’ve been pretty open about that, is Brigitte Bardot. She’s someone that I used to love when I was growing up. For me, she was the ultimate sex symbol, and the hottest gal on the planet. She never really [had] any work [done], and she’s quite old now. I wanted to do a book with her as a contrast [between the way she used to look and the way she looks] right now. She’s very open and candid, but [that kind of project] is something that she doesn’t see the relevance of, which is really unfortunate. But it would have been a great project.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on?
Gosh! I’ve worked on a lot of great projects over the years. I think probably my favorite project is L.A.Eyeworks, which was an amazing campaign for which I’ve shot people from every walk of life, with very [few] issues from the creative side. They really pretty much let me do what I wanted. We’ve shot everything from drag queens to prolific authors, actors, musicians, and models. And the strong dichotomy in that project, I think, not only produced a great book [Framed], but also broke down a lot of barriers in a lot of ways.

What would be a photography project that you’d like to work on?
It’s funny…I think when you spend your whole life shooting people, you often look and admire people that you’re shooting outside the comfort zone. I think everything that I work on, it would have to be people-related. I’d like to do a project showing any aspects of humanity. It could be very interesting.

What would you tell someone who wants to become a celebrity photographer?
I think that the celebrity world has changed lately. I think the reason why I got out of the world of celebrity—I did it for forty years—is that creatives, today, have a different mindset, [and] are much younger. It’s totally contradictory to who I am, and who I am as an artist. The world today is a different world….It’s a completely different mindset.

What advice would you give young photographers?
Starting out today? Well, for young photographers starting out today I’d suggest finding another profession…because with the onset of [smart]phones, everybody considers himself to be the greatest photographer. So, that being said, for working photographers, and I think for most photographers, I would say, don’t ever feel like you’ve taken the perfect picture. There’s always room for improvement. Every time I look at my work, and at [recent work], I think of how to find a way to be much better, and I think that’s what pushes [the] drive of a creative person, and keeps an artist moving forward. ◊

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