Greg Gorman is a celebrity and portrait photographer with numerous iconic images to his credit. He does not “shoot anything that can’t talk back” to him.
In a career stretching over five decades, he has photographed Leonardo DiCaprio, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Michael Jordan, Robert De Niro, Barbara Streisand, Orson Wells, Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Al Pacino, Grace Jones, Mark Wahlberg, Brad Pitt, Marina Abramović, and many more.
A Photograph Should Not Answer All the Questions
Gorman does not want to reveal everything in his photographs.
“When I first started shooting pictures,” says Gorman, “I used to put the lights right over the camera, and everything looked like an interchangeable postage stamp. Everything was lit. There was nothing left to the imagination.
“I sometimes look at a photograph that strikes me or pictures that maybe don’t answer all the questions and leave me wanting to know more. So, I find that intriguing element, and that’s also what I do with many of my photographs that interplay between light and shadow. More mystery lurks in the shadows than it does in the highlights.”
Gorman (born 1949) has never been impressed with Ansel Adam’s Zone System, where 11 zones were defined to represent the gradation of all the different tonal values you would see in a black and white print, with zone 5 being middle gray, zone 0 being pure black (with no detail), and zone 10 being pure white (with no detail).
“I never gave a s**t about the Zone System,” says the master, “Because I use black to frame my subjects, so the Zone System is right out the door. The Zone System doesn’t apply as much to my pictures.
“I said I’m not looking for that Kodak moment. I’m looking for a certain style, a certain look in my pictures that becomes inherent in my work and in what people see in my photography.
“[Similarly] I don’t play with the Zone System. I’ve never been too much by the book or specific rules and regulations. I just pretty much go for the throat. What I want to shoot in a person, and I see, is I want to play up in the highlights and play down in the shadows. So, it’s a different game for me.”
People Photography with a Passion
Gorman has always photographed people — no landscapes, no products, and no objects.
“I don’t shoot anything that can’t talk back to me until recently. My latest book is not about people [Homage is photographs of his collection of African tribal art shot during COVID-19 when he could not bring people into the studio], but all my books [13 in total] have pretty much been about people.
“I always shot people. I mean, I’m a people person. I’m very gregarious, and I love people and the communication that goes on and goes down between myself and my subjects and the challenge of getting inside their heads to get the right picture.
“Working in the movie business, you come up against some tough characters from time to time, and breaking through that psyche and getting them to play for your team is a nice challenge. It’s one of the reasons I never really pursued fashion, where I would have people getting paid to do what I tell them. I have to challenge the people I’m shooting to get inside their heads and get that connected portrait.
“You have to be a psychologist to do what I do for a living—no question about it. I always share my vision with the people I shoot in front of the camera. I always would show them the Polaroids or [more recently] the digital captures so that we work together as a team, and that way, they think that you’re playing for their team.
“If I’m shooting them for a movie where they need them in character, I’ll talk about the character because I always read the script for the movies I worked on. I was pretty familiar with who they were and the persona in that movie, but I don’t like to do a lot of shticky directing, so when I’m shooting, it’s more about angle your head this way, bring your chin down, turn this way.
“If I want them to lighten up a little bit, I’ll tell them a joke or something, and then generally they’ll laugh big, and that’s never the picture. The smiling picture is when the big smile is kind of coming down.
“[With] Djimon Hounsou, I had him scream,” says the photographer and winemaker [under his own label, GKG Cellars, receiving high scores from the Wine Spectator]. “That picture was personal, not a commercial job.
“I get what I want through body language, lighting, and constant banter. I talk throughout the shoot and don’t overdo it, but I’ll talk until I get them to where I want it. And then I’ll have them kind of not move, to hold still, and I’ll shoot a little bit.
“I always have music playing in the background, so the studio has no big void. It depends on the artist because the artists I’m shooting usually have their specific tastes. I like to listen to kind of freeform jazz.”
Gorman finds digital shooting more rushed than in the film days.
“Absolutely, absolutely, there’s no question about it,” emphasizes Gorman. “And it’s because people know that digital doesn’t take so much time. The digital era is excellent for many people and just as destructive because once the digital scene happened, people knew they could get the pictures instantaneously.
“So that was one thing, and the other thing was it was very difficult for a lot of photographers that had made their name on their work myself, Herb [Herb Ritts], Matthew [Matthew Rolston] and a lot of people. It got to the point that producers didn’t want to spend the money that we commanded, and they’d hire Joe Schmoe, who could do a cheap knockoff of Greg Gorman, and they really wouldn’t fu**ing worry about it because they could fix it in post.
“Those photographers didn’t have the personality, didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to deal with the talent, but the studios didn’t care because they were saving money and the picture looked like the celebrity, so that was good enough, and they could easily fix whatever wasn’t good in post compared to the old days with film, where it was much more difficult.”
In the digital era, Gorman found the workflow faster by not having to load Polaroids on his Hasselblad and shooting proofs. In the film era, many commercial photographers shooting in medium or large format would shoot a Polaroid to check the lighting and look of the photograph or to show it to the art director/client before exposing the same on film.
“Yeah, definitely, that’s faster,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s always better. The better side is if you got a good capture, you did great because I got a killer Polaroid many times and could never match it [on film afterward]. I’d kill myself trying to match [the expression on] a great Polaroid, and I would get close, but I would never get the same one.
“That was always a frustrating part of that, but also, you’re seeing the capture on the back of the camera, and it’s small compared to a Polaroid, so also you don’t know if you’ve got as good of the detail [yes, you can expand, but it is not convenient] of what you see on the back of the camera.
The Canon Explorers of Light Saga
In the 2000s, Gorman moved to digital photography.
“I think the very first digital camera that I owned, and I was, of course, in those days looking for people that wanted to give me a camera, but you’ll be shocked, was a medium format [digital back] from Kodak,” says Gorman.
“[Also, another early] digital camera I had was a Foveon — a PC laptop with a Canon lens attached in the front with a different color matrix system. The files were incredible. I mean, they were unbelievable.
“Talking about [early] digital, it was a Canon 1Ds, the very first professional digital 35 mm camera I owned, and I shot through all their cameras. They were fantastic cameras.”
Gorman was also a Canon Explorers of Light, but things did not work out well.
“[I was with them till] just a few years ago. I just got f**king aggravated with them because it was such bulls**t. They wanted me to shoot [with their cameras and also use] their printers and other stuff. I told them, ‘Look when I’m dead and pushing up daisies.’ I’m a damn good printer, but I don’t prefer to be known as a printer.
“They had all those great [photo] shows all over, whatever it’s called PhotoPlus in New York and all the great shows they had up in San Francisco, those wonderful digital shows when all the new products were coming out.
I have a decent Instagram following, but I don’t spend my life on social media, and they [Canon] wanted the numbers, and I remember one time going to PhotoPlus. I remember sitting in on some of those crackers sponsored by Canon getting lectures that were big Instagram numbers guys. They didn’t have a f**king clue of what they were talking about, and the people in the audience were asking them questions they couldn’t f**king answer.
“I thought this is where it’s gone to, but they’ve got a quarter of a million followers, so Canon’s going to put their eggs in that basket. When I started talking for them in the early days, I didn’t know s**t, which made me nervous. I was one of the first people to speak digital when I was barely using a computer and a camera, and if someone asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to, I just said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.’ But I didn’t bulls**t my way through the answers, which is where it’s gone now.”
David Bowie and Other Memorable Shoots
Gorman has had many memorable shoots in his over 50 years career.
“I think probably the first time I shot David Bowie was a great experience,” says Gorman. “And the first time I shot Betty Davis and, of course, honestly in the early days Leonardo DiCaprio, because you know he was great, and we ended up having a long run together, which was great.
“I was very excited when a very close friend of mine that was David Bowie’s publicist [photographer Bruce Weber’s sister, Barbara DeWitt, who also got him shoots with Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop) asked me if I would like to shoot him and, of course, I said, ‘That’s amazing, I would love to shoot him,’ and he turned out to be a great guy, funny. I often had him at my home for dinner, and we often hung out. He was great, and he was a character. He came to dinner one night with a full face of makeup on, and I had a pretty good dinner table, Bette Midler, and a bunch of other personalities, and no one said anything.
“I shot part of [my first Bowie shoot] in Bruce Weber’s little daylight studio in the Flower District in New York. [It was both] daylight and studio lights around the time his album, what was it called…Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). And I went on to shoot half a dozen album covers for him, single sleeves, and stuff over the years.
“The first Leonardo DiCaprio shoot was in my studio in Los Angeles in 94. I was using strobes in that first shoot with David [Bowie]. I couldn’t afford HMI lights until later in my career. They were a little pricey, but I ultimately bought an Arri 6K HMI, which I still have in my studio. I remember paying $30,000 for it with the ballast. I mean, my God, you know the bulb was $2,500, it was a significant expense, and I had to put 220 volts of power in to run the light.
“I just shot with it this last weekend with James Balog, the photographer, and it’s just such a gorgeous light. You have that big [light], and then you put a Sunbounce silk [on a C-stand in front of it], you’ve got one hell of a beautiful light.
“Yes, it gets very hot; it’s a very impractical light. Today I shoot everything pretty much with my Rotolite LEDs which I love. I shot two-thirds with the LED lights and about a third with the HMI.
“James is a rugged kind of outdoor guy, and I wanted that. HMI gives you just a spectacular look.”
Style or No Style
Gorman’s latest book of portraits, It’s Not About Me: A Retrospective, a 400-page book, was published by teNeues in 2020.
“It’s about the person in front of my lens 100% [and not about me],” says Gorman. “I think one of the big problems with a lot of photographers…I think some photographers invoke more of their personal style in the image instead of focusing on the individual they’re shooting.
“It’s funny because Elton John is a good friend of mine and wrote something [foreword] for the book about the fact that I didn’t have a style, which I thought was quite funny. I never really confronted him with that, but I probably will one of these days as I see him regularly.
“I thought, well, that’s interesting because I believe I have a style, but I understood what he was saying as he’s very savvy about photography.
“I think what he was saying is I try to express the individuality of the person in front of my lens without stylizing too much like Annie Leibowitz… whose pictures are more styled, they’re more of a statement because the environment takes on quite a personification within the framework of her photographs.
“Whereas if you look at the majority of my work, it’s pretty simple, very minimal backgrounds, usually dark backgrounds, dark clothes. It’s definitely a different look.”
In the late 1970s, Gorman’s photographic style began to evolve.
“My style began to change around the time of my shoot with Tom Waits,” says Gorman. “Quite honestly, a lot of that is owed to my dear first assistant David Jacobson. He was working with me and showing me some things when I started taking the light off the center focal point of the camera.
“I did some pictures of Tom in front of a tattoo parlor which ended up being an album cover and became my most prolific image of Tom. When I started taking the light off the center focal point of the camera and creating a more dynamic range between my highlights and my shadows, I began to find my voice as a photographer.
“I had several big breaks early on in my career,” says Gorman. “Working for Interview magazine was a big plus that helped get my name out there. And the same with creating a campaign I did for l.a.Eyeworks, a signature advertising campaign that I’m still doing for more than 40 years. Those were two commercial things in terms of people that I think put me on the map. Certainly, my work with David Bowie, but I also shot the motion picture campaigns [which started when Barbra Streisand called out of the blue] in the early 80s for Tootsie, Big Chill, and Scarface. Those movie posters really helped launch my career for sure.
Color for Assignments, B&W for Personal Work
Every photographer has to shoot commercial work in color, but Gorman had a personal passion for B&W.
“I always had to shoot color for assignments,” says Gorman. “But for my personal work and my books, I’ve always shot black and white. In the day when everything was available, I always shot Kodak Panatomic-X. So, I shot a fine-grained film at 32 ISO for most of my career.
“I always shot color because color was part of my commercial work. I worked in the movie business, and very little of that was black and white. Same with my nudes. I could only really use the nudes that I would shoot when I would do advertising for Europe because the United States was too hypocritical to use a nude.
“I’ve always shot color alongside black and white even if I was doing a commercial job, and if it was a color job, I would usually sometimes shoot a couple of rolls of black and white for me.
35mm vs. Medium Format
As digital quality improved, with increased sensor resolutions, 35mm cameras started to come close to medium format film images.
“When we got into the digital realm, I liked that the 35mm digital captures had the spontaneity of a 35mm camera with the quality of a medium format capture. I shoot now mostly with a Sony a7R IV or V. A lot of my personal work I shoot with the Fujifilm GFX 100 and GFX 100S. When I just went to the Middle East for a 10-day cruise in Egypt, I took their new little Fujifilm X-H2, which I love because the camera’s about the same size as a 35mm, but it’s an APS-C sensor, so the lenses are quite a bit smaller.”
Gorman is not a fan of the shorter focal lengths in lenses.
“Because of being a portrait photographer, I use long lenses,” says Gorman. “I mean not that long, but my go-to length for my whole career, if I had to pick one lens that I’ve used pretty exclusively with good depth of field, is a 70-200mm. I just got the new Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM II, that’s slightly lighter than the older version. I also have the ZEISS Batis 85mm f/1.8 lens for Sony, which I like. I’ve never been a big prime guy, mainly because of what I have done in my career. I also have the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G, Sony 85mm, and the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM. With my Fuji GFX, I’ve got all great primes.”
Gorman does not like shooting tethered.
“I hate shooting tethered,” says the portraitist. “I probably shot tethered half a dozen times in my life. Why? Because I don’t want some a**hole telling me what my picture should look like or what they want. It breaks the flow and continuity of a photo session, making it extremely difficult to keep a rapport with the person in front of your lens. It just makes me crazy. I’ve done it when I’ve had to or if I’ve shot overseas and had to have a connection, and they’re looking at the pictures, but rare.
“I think it makes the person self-conscious. I wouldn’t get what I’m looking for. He’d give me what he thinks I want, and that’s not what I want. I want my pictures to be expressive of me, not what they think I want. If they have a secondary source to look at, that screws up what I’m going for.
Film Cameras and Film
“I shot a lot of cameras. I shot a 67 Fuji [film camera] for a long time, and I liked that camera. The only box [boxy] camera I ever shot with was the twin lens; I think it was a Yashica.
“I might have had a Mamiya version, also. I had a couple of those, but mostly I shot the Fuji 67 for a long time, which I liked a lot. And Hasselblad, obviously, for a long time. I had a brief stint in the middle with Contax. I shot the Contax medium format camera, but it wasn’t very reliable.
Gorman started photography in 1968 on Kodak Tri-X B&W film and stuck to it for much of his work until the coming of digital.
“For many, many years, I shot Ektachrome 100 [in medium format],” says Gorman. “Later on, I moved to Fujifilm, like Velvia and Provia, which I liked better.
“I would buy blocks of film as I was shooting so much. I was shooting six-seven days a week and sometimes a couple of times a day and going back and forth between LA and New York. I would buy blocks of film, 250 or whatever those big cases were that you’d get from Kodak, and then I would run film tests to get my filtration down.
“Because I always liked warm pictures, and the film batches would vary. I’d buy cases of that film if I’d got a batch I liked. I usually used an 81A and an 025 magenta filter pack or something like that, sometimes an 81B and a 05 magenta or whatever to get those skin tones where I wanted them.
Lighting the Portrait
“The first lights that I owned were DynaLite and then went on to Comets, and I still have my Comets from the 70s and 80s in my studio,” says Gorman. “I still shoot Comet but rarely because I don’t do that many commercial shoots anymore. I also shoot with Briese.
Gorman, who has been influenced by the work of George Hurrell, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton, prefers to shoot with LED lights these days.
“I like to use Rotolights, [especially] the LEDs that they produce in the AEOS 2 Pro and the new Rotolight Titan X1, I love. I have the X1 and the X2, the little and the big one.
“For all my light modifiers, I work with Sunbounce. I use their silks, and I use all their reflectors.
“I like a single-point light source and additive and subtractive light. I mean, I’ll use a single light and one of Peter’s [Peter Geller is the inventor of Sunbounce] reflectors, and that’s about it.
“I like to work with the single point light source. I always start with my subjects up close because I achieve several things if I’m on top of them. One, I find out what I want to play up in the highlights and play down in the shadows, and two, I establish a level of intimacy. If I start taking a picture and you are clear across the room, I don’t pick up you or your energy.
“I establish a personal relationship by starting in close. That way, when I pull the camera back, I have a better idea of which angle I want to play up or down, and I don’t have to go in and analyze a face.”
Getting Into Photography with Jimi Hendrix
The year was 1968, and young Gorman, at 18 years borrowed his friend’s Honeywell Pentax (probably a Spotmatic, which was introduced in 1964) with screw mount (before they introduced the bayonet K-mount in 1975) to photograph a Jimi Hendrix concert in Kansas City. He bought a ticket in the third row and was close to the stage.
“Knowing nothing about photography or film or anything, I borrowed a camera from a dear friend of mine Buzz Gher who was one of my hunting and fishing buddies and also an avid photographer at the time,” says Gorman. “He told me to shoot Tri-X at 1/60 sec at f/5.6 and ‘You’ll probably get a picture.’
“The following day, I went to his home, and in his basement, he had 11×14 inch trays set up with the chemicals. We processed the film, and when I saw that first print on a white piece of paper, I was hooked.
“They were published, yeah, you know, in a little local rag…I mean, they weren’t very good, they were a little bit soft on the focus, and I don’t know whether that was from me shooting too slow [shutter speed] or smoking too much dope. Back then, in the 60s, everybody was a hippie with long hair and all that stuff…”
“I only had a 50mm [probably the Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4, a marvel of fast optics then despite the narrow throat of the M42 screw mount] lens, so sadly, the pictures weren’t that amazing, but it was enough to get me interested in becoming a photographer.
“I was in college [University of Kansas] in my, I think, second semester [freshman] in Liberal Arts and Sciences, and then the only course they offered in photography was in photojournalism, so I changed my major to photojournalism.”
One of Gorman’s earliest celebrity shoots was of Alfred Hitchcock on a Minolta SR-T 101 [with “contrast-light-compensation,” an early Matrix metering], the first camera he bought in college.
“I did two years of schooling at the University of Kansas before transferring to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for an MFA in Cinematography,” says the celebrity shooter. “I was going to film school at that point to finish my degree, and we had a class called Thursday Night at the Movies run by the late film critic Arthur Knight and in every class, he would bring in a movie star or a producer or director to present their film.
“On a special night, he brought Alfred Hitchcock to present Frenzy, and I just took my camera to class and banged off some pictures.”
Digital never really interested Gorman in the early days owing to the low quality.
“I always thought digital was a good excuse for poor photography,” says Gorman. “And because of shooting medium format and Hasselblads in those days, I pretty much gave up 35mm in the early days when I was shooting film.
“As digital came along, I always loved the little point-and-shoot cameras. I had every one of them…but I never felt like the digital cameras, the 35mm digital cameras, were of any interest. They had three megapixels and then up to five or six megapixels. There wasn’t enough information to make a print.
“I don’t shoot commercially so much anymore,” says Gorman with a sigh of relief. “I do more personal work. I’ve got a couple of just personal shoots coming up that are not well-known people but people I like to photograph.”
And it’s still not about him, just like on a fateful day in 1968 when he borrowed his first camera and took a photo!
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos Greg Gorman, courtesy of teNeues. Header photo Greg Gorman; Mendo Workshop OCT 2014; Albion; CA. © 2014 TeevonTeePhoto