Behind the XXX Door

Famed portraitist Timothy Greenfield-Sanders uncovers the truth about our newest celebrities -- porn stars.

Behind-the-XXX-Door

Behind-the-XXX-Door

Timothy Greenfield-sanders

To capture the noted and elite of our culture-he has famously photographed artists, critics, actors, and writers-relies on photography's ability to isolate, objectify, and glamorize. But his latest project presented particular artistic challenges. Two years ago he began photographing a different type of cultural figure-porn actors, in states of dress and undress. It meant shooting nudes, something he'd never done. It also meant photographing subjects already famous for baring all for public consumption. What power would a portraitist have to reveal more? "They f--- on film," says the photographer, "so there are not a lot of secrets left." Nonetheless, Greenfield-Sanders has produced a collection of images that intriguingly unites high and low culture-he describes the project as "class meets ass." The result is the most-talked-about photo book of the year, XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits (Bulfinch Press, $35). Its release this fall coincided with a major exhibition at New York City's Mary Boone Gallery, a behind-the-scenes film airing on HBO, and even a soundtrack CD from the film, attesting to the modern cultural allure of porn. Here, Greenfield-Sanders talks with AP about the creative decisions behind the project.

© TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS/COURTESY BULFINCH (2)
Actor/Director Sean Michaels.
© TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS/COURTESY BULFINCH (2)
Christy Canyon
© TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS/COURTESY BULFINCH (2)
Sander's Book

For Greenfield-sanders, getting the money shot meant making his nude subjects comfortable on set. Here he tells AP how he did it.

You've shot many notable people in America. How did the idea of shooting porn stars occur to you?
It really goes back to 1997 when I saw the film Boogie Nights. That inspired me to think about porn stars as a group. My first idea was to photograph them clothed, not naked, because I thought, from watching the film, that they might be interesting as people. I'd never thought of them as people before that-you objectify them, because that's what porn does. I didn't do much with the idea, though, until 1999, when I actually met a male porn star. He came here and posed for me, clothed, and then he said, "Let's do a nude now." I was taken aback and immediately thought of doing it in the same pose as he'd done with clothes.
In your HBO film about the project, you say you'd never shot nudes before, and that shooting porn stars made it relatively easy for you, because they were used to taking their clothes off.
Right. That's important to all this. I was so uncomfortable, and they were so comfortable, that I quickly learned to be comfortable with nudity. My goal as a photographer is always to make my subject feel comfortable. I do that in a million different ways, with little tricks. From the moment someone walks into my studio I'm watching everything, every gesture.
The juxtaposition of the nudes and the clothed shots seems to reveal a lot about the individuals.
I think it's interesting that these people almost all look more relaxed without clothes than with. It's who they are, what they do.
How does this project fit into your entire body of work?
In a number of ways. For one thing, it's a series. A lot of my work-at least my exhibition work-has been series. I did a series on artists from the 1950s, a series on art critics, a series on the East Village art scene. I always think that way, inclusively.
It's interesting to think about when you did this-the Bush administration had come in, the religious right was in ascendency, yet porn was never bigger. Is porn mainstream now?
I don't think porn will ever be mainstream, but porn stars as celebrities are. I have a theory about how that happened: It's because of Howard Stern. His whole thing is talking to people outside the mainstream and making them celebrities. And once you're a celebrity, you're part of the pop culture. At the same time, artists were beginning to use porn and pornographic imagery in their own work. Boogie Nights came out with mainstream actors like Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore playing porn stars. And of course publishers began to see the potential of porn stars. Now Jenna's autobiography is on the bestseller list.
You interview the actors for your film and for the book. And many of them are very articulate and interesting.
I don't know how to say this without being condescending, but my preconceptions about porn stars were very clichéd when I started. But I found them to be exceptionally smart, some intellectually, but all of them smart in the sense that they're driven and know what they want. And they're very open-there's no spin with them, which I loved.
Let's talk about the actual photo sessions. Did that openness affect how you worked with them as a portraitist?
Very much. A lot of factors caused these pictures to end up looking the way they do. For instance, you want to vary the poses, to be interesting. So a session would start out with a conversation with the star about what they considered their best feature-butt, breasts. That would help dictate a pose-let's come in closer, or let's be full length because your legs are great. For the men, of course, it was about their penises. And most of them insisted on not being shot totally flacid-they didn't want to let down their audience.
Something occurs to me. Do you know the TV show Nip/Tuck? It's about plastic surgeons, and each episode begins with them asking a client, "What don't you like about yourself?" But you were asking these people, "What do you like about yourself?" It's about esteem.
I love that show. You know, I always try to make people look the way they wished they looked, the way they want to see themselves. It's not that I'm trying to glamorize them; these are not glamour portraits. They're very real, very dignified, and powerful. It's almost like these porn stars were looking into a mirror and seeing themselves and saying, "Hey, I look pretty good today." That's the point I'm trying to get to.
You shot everyone all in color...
In the beginning I also did some black and white, but it looked arty to me.The color is more real, a little more porny. And going with the light gray background in each shot was a great decision. I've usually gone with dark backgrounds, because the subject pops out. This background is almost like a skin tone. It's very cool.
You shot them in your New York City studio with your antique Deardorff, and also in L.A.?
Yes. I have an 8x10 portable Deardorff for traveling. In my New York studio I used my 70-year-old Deardorff 11x14 camera with an 8x10 reducing back. I shot on EPP Kodak color transparency film. It's my usual lighting-no backlight, just a single giant Elinchrom softbox with two heads powered with two Profoto 2,400-watt-second packs. Normally we shoot at f/32, but depending on the bellows factor we might open it up a stop. The portraits are beautiful, but they're not just pretty. With this big camera you use, you also exposed all the the little flaws. The photographs, really, are a combination of reality and gloss. The key is to get just the right mix, and I think we did it.
-jeffrey elbies