This past September, “Identity: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, The List Portraits,” an exhibition of 151 photographic portraits, opened at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The large-format images, shot on an antique Deardorff view camera against a simple gray background, portrayed accomplished members of society’s more marginalized communities: women, Latinos, blacks, gays and trans subjects. Shot during a period of more than 10 years, the sets known as the List Portraits are now being shown en masse for the first time. Yet the artist — as the Los Angeles Times was quick to point out — was a “straight white male” who would fit on none of his own lists: celebrated portraitist Timothy Greenfield-Sanders ’74.
For the Annenberg exhibition, Greenfield-Sanders also produced a book of all 40 transgender subjects that includes his large-format master portraits, behind-the-scenes images and personal interviews. The Trans List is excerpted in the four pages that follow. As he did for his previous “List” projects, Greenfield-Sanders chose subjects he felt could inspire and appeal to mainstream audiences while also challenging their assumptions. The Trans List includes energetic activists, tattooed soldiers, and dedicated lawyers and students, as well as celebrities Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner.
Long known as one of America’s most accomplished photographers, Greenfield-Sanders added “filmmaker” to his resume with his 1998 Grammy award-winning documentary, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart. Now, 12 films later, his HBO and PBS’ American Masters documentaries include Thinking XXX, and multiple versions of The Black List and The Latino List, as well as The Out List, The Women’s List, The Boomer List and About Face: Supermodels Then and Now.
For the HBO documentary, which Greenfield-Sanders produced and directed, 11 of the 40 trans subjects were filmed and interviewed by trans activist Janet Mock. “I consider the ‘List’ style films to be talking portraits, my portraiture come to life. Same backdrop, single light source and direct to camera stare. It’s always about the subject, never about fancy lighting or about me,” he says.
Greenfield-Sanders first became recognized for his portraits of artists and the art world. Full sets of his 1999 exhibition of 700 artists, dealers, critics, collectors and curators are now in the collections of MOMA and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But his interest in marginalized groups dates to his childhood in segregated Miami, and included his Columbia years. For many CC students in the downbeat ’70s, the flamboyant underground scene — drag queens and disco, punks and artists — was a source of fascination. Greenfield-Sanders had a smoother intro to the scene than most: A local friend, actress Tally Brown, took him straight to downtown’s white-hot epicenter. “I called Tally to say hello and to let her know I was now at Columbia. I also mentioned I had a car.” ... She said, ‘Babe ... pick me up at 11 p.m. and we’ll go to some parties!’ That first night I met Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Viva [Hoffman] at the Chelsea Hotel. I quickly shifted my morning classes to the afternoon,” he says.
“Warhol is my great influence,” Greenfield-Sanders said years later, in a KCRW radio interview. He talked about admiring Warhol’s early screen tests films and about the then-novel idea of “letting people be themselves.” Now, he’ll watch his subjects, always searching for ways to get them to become relaxed as he works with them in his studio. “I always try to find something in common with the sitter. Sometimes it’s art, or music, or even politics.” Greenfield-Sanders says he studiously stays away from strange poses or gimmickry. “It’s all very neutral and Warholian. Simple camera, simple light ... there’s not much to it.” Except when there is. Against the gray backdrops, in diffused lighting, his subjects — trans or cis, famous or unknown — glow with that “celebrity shine” Warhol gave everyone.
— Rose Kernochan BC’82
Published quarterly by the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs and Development for alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends of Columbia College.