Photographer and Filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders On 'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am'

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which recently screened at Sundance Film Festival and the Miami International Film Festival, is a story told by the icon herself—and her friends: Angela Davis, Hilton Als, the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Greenfield-Sanders, the documentary filmmaker and portrait photographer, has a storied legacy—he's photographed countless actors, supermodels, porn stars, nearly anyone with a public persona; his documentaries, The Black List (in three volumes), The Latino List (in two), The Out List, and 2016's The Trans List are series of interviews with famous figures from each of these communities, archiving and sharing their stories.

It is precisely because of his friendship with Morrison that The Pieces I Am—a candid portrait of the icon, with words from those near and dear to her—came to be. Morrison portrays her own legacy, relays her own stories, with candid tenderness, recalling how writing slowly, surely, became her medium. In one scene, she frankly discusses the shift from her birth name, Chloe Wofford, to the one the rest of us know: “It’s a way of dividing your life. One of those names is the person who is out there; and the other one, is the one who isn’t—who doesn’t do documentaries.”

The documentary screens later this fall on PBS, but Faena Rose members can catch it the Faena Hotel Screening Room on March 20. Faena Rose is an exclusive, art and culture-based private members club at the Faena District Miami Beach, bringing together a dynamic community through a year-round calendar of engaging, transformative cultural experiences. While Greenfield-Sanders was in his hometown of Miami Beach for the week, we caught up with him about his friendship with Morrison and how he makes his subjects feel comfortable with themselves.

Tell me about meeting Toni Morrison. What happened after you photographed her for Soho News—how did the two of you stay in touch, and how did your friendship grow into something so collaborative? I first met Toni Morrison in February 1981, just over 38 years ago. Toni arrived at my East Village studio for a portrait shoot for the Soho News. She smoked a pipe! Toni was promoting Tar Baby, her 4th novel. I was a young photographer, with no photo assistant and a lot of enthusiasm for her and her work. We hit it off immediately. I remember walking her to get a cab—the East Village in those days was rather sketchy, and I was concerned that it might not be easy for her. We stayed in touch and eventually I became her "go-to" photographer. There was a real trust that developed over the years, and the portraits of her show it. She allowed herself to be open to me and my camera—something photographers strive for.

Timothy Greeenfield-Sanders and Toni Morrison (2017). (c)Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Toni Morrison has talked about the multiple ways in which words have power. Though you work primarily with image, how has her work influenced your own? So many artists are influenced by Toni Morrison. She is a monumental, world-renowned figure. Her work speaks to all of us in so many different ways. I’m always struck by the sheer beauty of her writing, as well as the inventiveness of the language. I read her slowly, almost like sipping a great wine... to savor each word. There is also a profundity to her work and a relevance that is especially striking these days.

How do you foster trust with your subjects? In an interview with Hyperallergic, you told Hrag Vartanian that charm helps, which I'm sure it does. But you're also creating such an empathetic energetic exchange. The photographer / subject dynamic is a complicated one. Subjects are often nervous, insecure about their looks and rarely dress right for a portrait! So much of what I do as a photographer is about getting through those issues—calming down my subjects, assuring them that they look great—and keeping the clothing from being a distraction. These days, shooting digitally, I make a point of getting a wonderful image very quickly to show the sitter. It instantly changes the mood of the shoot. When my subject says, “Oh, that’s not bad,” I know it’s smooth sailing ahead.

How did you become a photographer? What led you to the practice, as well as filmmaking? In my teens, I was very interested in filmmaking, but there were very few college options back then for film school. That’s changed dramatically. For high school I attended Ransom Everglades in Coconut Grove and my great English teacher and guidance counselor, Dan Bowden, insisted that I get a well-rounded college education before I became “the next Alfred Hitchcock.” He told me that I needed to know more about everything before I could be an interesting director or an interesting person. He was right. I went to Columbia University and majored in Art History, which turned out to be an enormously valuable background for both filmmaking and photography.

It was in graduate film school at the American Film Institute in L.A. that I fell in love with photography. I had a part-time job shooting portraits of the dignitaries that came to the school to lecture us: Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, François Truffaut. When Bette Davis visited for a seminar, I leaned down to take her photograph and she said, “What the fuck are you doing shooting from below! It’s not a flattering angle.” I said that I was just learning about photography and didn’t know better. Bette then proposed that if I would drive her around Hollywood for a week, she would be teach me about photography. She was a fabulous person and a great star who knew so much about lighting and posing. I quickly got more interested in portraiture than filmmaking and when I graduated, I became a full-time photographer.

Toni Morrison with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (2008). (c)Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In an excerpt from the film, Toni talks about her birth name: “It’s a way of dividing your life. One of those names is the person who is out there; and the other one, is the one who isn’t—who doesn’t do documentaries.” What are the challenges of making a documentary about a private person, especially a friend? And on the other hand, what about it felt easy? From the start of the film, I respected Toni’s privacy, but truthfully, I wasn’t particularly interested in her private life. I wanted to make a film about her work, her writing, her accomplishments, her struggles and her monumental influence on so many of us. Certainly Toni, the single mother, is a subject that we do discuss in the film—the difficulty of balancing a career and raising two boys. But what I think really comes through in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is that Toni trusted me as a filmmaker. That’s quite clear from the way she presents herself on camera. She’s open, she’s relaxed, she’s funny and she’s insightful. You will see the Toni Morrison that few get to see… and that’s very special.