Greg Gorman

The evolution of an artist

By Jeff Kent
Images By Greg Gorman
First Published in January 2006

You can always hang a light over someone’s head and get an image that looks like the person. To me, the more interesting images are ones that leave something to the imagination.”

Acclaimed photographer Greg Gorman is a premier figure in modern photography. If representing the human form is an art, then Gorman is certainly a master. We won’t bother listing all the famous faces who’ve paused before his lens; suffice to say that Gorman has probably photographed most everyone you’ve seen on the silver screen.

His who’s-who clientele isn’t the most fascinating thing about Gorman, anyway. Neither is his amazing studio tucked among the gold-paved avenues of Beverly Hills. It’s what got him there, what keeps him there, his dedication as a constantly evolving artist to set his own creative terms.

As a college and grad school student, Gorman’s focus was photojournalism. He began doing portraiture in the early 1970s, and never really looked back. Taking a straightforward approach, he produced work that he now describes as “over-lit and possessing very little awareness of situation.” These early works were, he says, essentially “big block head shots that looked like postage stamps and were completely interchangeable.”

Moving forward takes that kind of unflinching self-assessment. Gorman grew more aware of his subjects’ individual nuances, and of the power of lighting to create impact. His images became less about producing exact likenesses of the subject than about creating a selectively artistic representation. Light became a tool for illuminating certain elements while concealing others. He learned how to create a sense of drama and mystery through carefully placed shadow and highlight.

“My work started to acknowledge certain traits…while leaving the rest in mystery,” says Gorman. “I dissected each person’s face individually with different techniques,” such as lighting, camera angle, the focal range of various lenses. “You can always hang a light over someone’s head and get an image that looks like the person. To me, the more interesting images are ones that leave something to the imagination.”

By the mid 1980s, Gorman’s photography had become up-close and confrontational. That’s when he decided to pull back the camera and literally strip people down for his personal artwork. Gorman’s nudes have brought him international acclaim, with numerous published books and countless gallery exhibitions. These studies of the human form are a marriage of sensuality with the mystery he brought to his portraiture. Through the ’90s and into the new millennium, Gorman continued to create these personal projects, working primarily in black-and-white and using natural light.

“As we hit the millennium, I fell into the game of digital,” says Gorman. Seeing that Photoshop had become ubiquitous, he says, “I was initially against it because I thought Photoshop was a good excuse for bad photography. But I also realized that my film work was being scanned and retouched in Photoshop, so I started to open up to it.”

As the technology, efficiency and quality of digital imaging improved, Gorman came to make the inevitable digital transition. He chose the Canon EOS-1Ds system, and for certain projects, Imacon digital backs. He started working with Epson to achieve museum-quality reproduction with inkjet printers. It’s been almost four years since Gorman shot anything on film.

He certainly has the resources to pawn off his post-capture work to someone else, but, says Gorman, “I think it’s essential for an image-maker to be involved at all stages of production; otherwise it’s too easy for something to be taken out of context. I’m very hands-on from capture to output. I’ve worked with my retoucher, Robb Carr, for 30 years. We collaborate closely on all the images, going back and forth and discussing every aspect of the image and how it should be approached.”

Staying intimately involved in the process, Gorman is delving deeper into his work, returning now to re-explore the acutely personal portraiture he was doing before the nudes.

“I focus primarily on the eyes of the person,” says Gorman. “Dealing so much in the movie business, it’s about trying to capture the essence of who these people are when they’re not hiding behind a character. That is more difficult to capture than people realize.” Actors are accustomed to being directed in one way or another, he says. Bereft of a character to portray, they often feel vulnerable.

“It takes as much hand-holding with some of these [famous actors] as it does with anyone else,” says Gorman “It’s important to guide them and make them part of the process.”

Collaborating with the subject is one of Gorman’s most effective techniques. He spends a lot of time talking with his subjects, sharing ideas, getting them onboard with his vision. “My subjects can’t see what I’m doing because they’re on the other side of the camera. That’s why it’s so important to…bring them around and show them what I’m doing.”

Technically, Gorman has had to adjust his shooting techniques to the digital age, albeit with the mindset of working in black and white. “Shooting digital for black and white, I often have less regard for my shadows than my highlights,” he says. “All the information is in the highlights. If I have noise in my shadows, I just go to pure black. Often, there’s no information in my shadows at all, because I don’t care about those. I’m trying to channel your eye into the highlights or transitional areas because that’s where the focus of the image is.”

With Hollywood’s most recognizable figures lining up to work with him, Gorman can pick and choose his subjects. He’s less concerned with fame than in continuing to progress artistically. He feels he’s on the brink of a transition, but he doesn’t know exactly where it will take him. He mentions book projects on the performers of the Cirque du Soleil, and also on famous winemakers. He speaks of teaching, of revisiting the ad work of his past.

The common denominator, of course, is that Gorman’s muse continues to guide him to the human form. What he does each time he arrives is what defines him as a true artist of his generation.

Home schooling
Greg Gorman has launched his own series of seminars held at his Mendocino, Calif., home. Four times a year, Gorman combines eight students with four instructors for a week-long, intensive study of photography, food and wine. A great lover of haute cuisine and fine wine, Gorman will host special wine dinners prepared by his personal chef. The seminars include location shoots with models, as well as studio sessions that concentrate on lighting techniques. Gorman also delves into Photoshop work, digital post-production and output on high-end Epson printers. Students can concentrate in portraits or nudes, and they’ll leave with a collection of portfolio-building images. “Sometimes workshops get too generic and have too many rules,” says Gorman. “I wanted to tailor these seminars to more hands-on, personal instruction. Let’s attack what you want to attack —all the elements of color management, what you need out of Photoshop, how to make a fine art print, whatever you need.” For more information, visit www.gormanphotography.com.

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