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Greg Gorman: Perusing New Possibilities
By Lynne Eodice
May 5, 2011

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© Greg Gorman

For almost four decades, Greg Gorman has become one of the most sought-after celebrity and advertising photographers in the Los Angeles area. In addition to the portraiture that has become his trademark, he loves teaching and currently offers workshops at his country home in Mendocino, California. Not one to stand still, he is always seeking new avenues of expression, and recent projects include photographing people in Asia and "ordinary, extraordinary" folks across the U.S.

Double Exposure: How did you first become interested in photography?

Greg Gorman: I borrowed a friend's camera in 1968 to photograph a rock concert in Kansas City, my hometown.  The next morning I processed the pictures in a friend's darkroom, and when I saw them coming up in the developer, I was hooked.

DE: Did you take classes or were you self-taught?

GG: I enrolled in a photojournalism course at the University of Kansas and declared that as my major.  However, I realized that my real interest was in portraiture so I transferred to the University of Southern California where I got a Master of Fine Arts degree in Cinematography.

DE: Are you from the Los Angeles area originally?

GG: No, I moved here from Kansas City in 1970 to finish my education at USC. But I felt that too many people in cinematography had their hands in the decision-making process, so consequently I decided to go back to doing stills. Today ironically, still photography has gotten out of the hands of the photographer in many ways, particularly with what I do. There are just too many people involved in the decision-making process, from makeup artists who use their own line of makeup to the stylist who will only dress the talent in one kind of clothing because they're being sponsored by Prada, Gucci or Armani. The publicists of today also have much more control than they used to. Basically, everything is taken out of the photographer's corner and the shoots become more like a catalogue shoot than a real photo session. This has made it all less interesting for me.

DE: How did you begin photographing celebrities? Who is your clientele?

GG: I began doing headshots for actors for $35 a day, which included film and processing, which I bulk loaded in my kitchen-turned-darkroom. I was very fortunate early on in my career to get such people as Dustin Hoffman, David Bowie, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand as clients. For nearly the past 40 years, I've spent my career shooting motion picture and advertising campaigns. I've been involved more in the world of celebrity than in fashion.

© Greg Gorman

DE: What are your other favorite subjects?

GG: Today I am focusing more on personalities outside of the film world. I am pursuing more journalistic work in other areas that hold my interest, such as the wine industry and travel across the U.S. and the Far East.

DE: How has your work evolved over the years?

GG: My style has started to free up a lot, moving outside of the studio with its fixed portraiture lighting. I have been shooting more natural light in people's respective environments. I'm known predominately for my strong black-and-white capture and my strong highlights and harsh shadows, as well as for my male and female nudes.

DE: What workshops are you offering currently?

GG: I have been teaching my own personal workshops four times a year at my country home in Mendocino, California. Basically, I bring in an Adobe instructor, two to three models depending on the size of the class, which I restrict to nine students. We do the gamut of the complete workflow from capture to output. In the setting of Mendocino, we spend three days shooting, and cover color management, Photoshop and fine-art printmaking, coupled with food, wine and a good time.

It's a very hands-on workshop and isn't restricted to a lot of generalities like so many are. My program is tailored to the needs of each individual. Some people come in who are weak in color management, other people want to learn how I shoot and light a subject. Some people want to learn how to print and to leave with the knowledge of making a great print. I spend more time with them, focusing on whatever aspect of the digital or photographic process they're most concerned with. So I guess one could say the entire experience encompasses who I am as a photographer, as well as my personal interests.

© Greg Gorman

DE: What special projects have you been working on?

GG: I feel that going out and doing my own work and personal projects is where I see myself at this stage in my life. Also, having been very passionate about wine since the mid-'70s, I find myself spending more time up in the wine country and my home in Mendocino, which allows me to explore different avenues.

I have spent a good amount of time over the past two years in Southeast Asia. When I've been there on assignment, I've spent time doing personal work and taking pictures. My main interest is people, not scenics or landscape. I was also invited to participate in a project where 55 world-class photographers were brought to Bangkok to produce a book in celebration of the King's 80th anniversary, which is entitled, "9 Days in the Kingdom."

In the beginning, I felt like a fish out of water because I'm basically known as a studio and portrait photographer. It was interesting when I got a job to do something different, and it was fun. A lot of the big photojournalists who were involved with the project like Jim Nachtwey, David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry are all friends of mine. It was great that we were all working on projects and had our specific subjects to cover. I was asked to shoot kickboxing--Muay Thai and Katoey, the 'Lady Boys'--two interesting stories that I got to spend a week exploring and photographing. That was a wonderful chance to do something out of the realm of celebrity and personality photography, but still dealing with people.

© Greg Gorman

I also did a large project for Disney, photographing ordinary and extraordinary people while traveling across the U.S., and shooting people from every state. It was a big road trip that took place this past summer, and the client was actually the Department of Travel and Tourism. It was an amazing project, just traveling around and photographing people I had never met. I had the opportunity to hear their stories and figure out what image would best represent who they were as individuals.

I find myself doing more personal work that's outside the realm of the movies, although I still pursue quite a bit of this movie work with my friends whom I've worked with over the years.   

DE: What camera equipment and software are you using?

GG: I shoot with the Canon EOS 1DS Mark III, as I find that it gives me the spontaneity of a 35mm camera with the quality of a medium- format capture. I work with Adobe Photoshop and Light Room and X-rite for all my color management issues, and I output to the Epson Stylus Pro printers utilizing Macs.

DE: Have any recent books of your work been published?

GG: The Journal of the 21st Century recently published my seventh book, a limited edition Monograph of 11 platinum prints, entitled "The Odes To Pindar".

DE: I understand you've moved your studio location last year.

GG: I had a studio in my home for many years. When I was working so much and shooting every day, it became a bit much being up in the hills and having so many people coming to the house. So I built a big studio in L.A. and worked there since 1994. Interestingly enough, I've come full circle and I'm back shooting at home. I don't shoot every day and a lot of my work is done on location. It's great having everything under one roof, and being in charge of processing and printing my own pictures. I'm back in control of my own art and not relying on other people to interpret my vision.

DE: Where do you see yourself going from here?

GG: Up north! (He laughs). I may ultimately get a place up in Napa.

DE: What are your future plans?

GG: I just completed work on a book of my L.A. Eye Works ads spanning more than 25 years of imagery. I am currently editing two other book projects, one focusing on my journalistic imagery from Southeast Asia and the other a retrospective portraiture book of previously unpublished imagery.  My next endeavor will be a project on winemaking.

At this stage of my life, I've spent almost 40 years photographing celebrities, and I'm anxious to peruse some other possibilities. I also love teaching, and have doing this since the early '80s. I enjoy doing my own workshops, and I do a workshop with Mac Holbert in Anderson Ranch in Aspen once a year.

Greg Gorman

Learn more about Greg Gorman.

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