At what point does an advertising campaign transcend its goal of selling a product and become a piece of art? Perusing the pages of Greg Gorman’s new book FRAMED (Damiani, 2011), it’s obvious that the California-based photographer has the answer. For more than 30 years, he has been creating iconic portraits of movie stars, performance artists, musicians, painters, illustrators and others wearing l.a.Eyeworks glasses designed by the company’s founders Barbara McReynolds and Gai Gherardi. Gorman’s photographs graphically illustrate the l.a.Eyeworks cornerstone tagline: "A face is like a work of art. It deserves a great frame."
The ongoing advertising campaign has not only thrived, but it has, like all great art, stood the test of time. One of Gorman’s subjects, Jodie Foster, sums it up well, "Greg Gorman and l.a.Eyeworks make wearing glasses high art." John Waters adds, "Greg Gorman is the only person I’d let photograph my corpse."
DPP: How did your involvement with the l.a.Eyeworks campaign develop?
Greg Gorman: The campaign came about because of my cousin Jeff Gorman and his creative director at ChiatDay, Gary Johns. Gary’s wife was working at l.a.Eyeworks, and she suggested that it might be fun to do a campaign with celebrities. They had started the campaign with another photographer, but his style of lighting wasn’t quite what they were looking for. They felt I was a good choice to take over the campaign because of my connections with celebrities and my style of lighting—my use of strong highlights and dark shadows lent itself more to the campaign. The previous photographer’s style was more open, and mine is a little more dramatic.
DPP: Have you ever been doing a shoot for another project and asked one of your celebrity sitters, "Can you put one of these pairs of glasses on?"
Gorman: That’s how probably 60 percent of these images have come about. They had already had their hair and make-up done and were already styled. All I had to do is have l.a.Eyeworks run over to the studio with some glasses from their store on Melrose Avenue, which was a couple of blocks away from my former studio on Beverly Boulevard.
DPP: Wouldn’t the celebrities’ handlers, their PR folks, go apoplectic by that impromptu suggestion?
Gorman: Today, they’d go ballistic, but in those days [the 1980s] they saw it as great exposure for their client—a full-page ad in Interview magazine. Today, it’s much more difficult to get PR people to let their clients participate in something like this, but it does happen. They understand the value of the exposure.
DPP: Advertising shoots have always been more controlled than editorial shoots. How much creative control do you have?
Gorman: It’s one of the rare advertising clients that I’ve had during the course of my career where I pretty much have creative rein. From the beginning, Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds from l.a.Eyeworks would show up with a box of glasses that they wanted to promote. Because I feel motherly or fatherly to the talent, I’m very discriminating about the type of glasses, as well as wardrobe, I’m comfortable with them wearing for the shoot. I also have tight control over which final image will run. That client/artist relationship really has given me the freedom to pursue my personal expression. This is exceptional in the advertising world. I thinks it’s part of what has made this such a wonderful 30-year run that continues to this day.
DPP: You’ve kept the look consistent over the course of a campaign that has bridged the digital revolution.
Gorman: I’m shooting everything digitally now with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Earlier, I was using a Hasselblad loaded with Panatomic-X; then when that film was discontinued I went to Plus-X. I’ve always liked very sharp and fine-grained images. That’s very much my style. This campaign has been a great avenue for me, not only in terms of creative expression, but also in terms of getting a large body of work out there—a full-page ad in Interview every month to go along with the other work I was shooting for that magazine back then.
DPP: To have a recognizable style and a body of work with that look are the most important aspects of a successful photography career no matter in which genre of photography a person works. How do you light the portraits?
Gorman: Everything is lit with a spot grid, usually a 20º on the person, sometimes a 30º, depending on their face, and a low spot grid angling up on
the thunder gray seamless. Occasionally, I’ll have a grid on the hair, as well. Because of the very narrow spectrum of the spot grid, we need the separation from the background. I’ve always been a single-point light source kind of guy.
DPP:You’re very giving in terms of sharing your technical knowledge and "trade secrets" with others. How are you continuing that tradition with your own set of workshops?
Gorman: I teach four workshops a year at my home in Mendocino, in Northern California’s wine country. It combines my love of food and wine and teaching. We work on portraits and figure studies in the landscape. The first day of the workshop is in the studio. We focus on the relationship between key light and fill light, and how to work with reflectors and simple fills, bringing in black, as well as silver and white, to either add or subtract light. I work with negative fill as much as with positive fill. I use white or silver fill to open up the shadows a little bit and black to subtract light, to pull light out of a picture. I use foamcore and a lot of the big reflectors from Sunbounce. The two keys I want to get across to my students are how to see and interpret light and how to communicate with the talent. We also drink a lot of great wine and eat a lot of great food.
DPP: I think most photographers understand and work with positive fill to kick in light, but far fewer take advantage of black to create strong shadows. Your images have always had strong shadows, and your style and look have been an inspiration to countless photographers. Who has inspired you?
Gorman: I’ve always loved the early George Hurrell portraits, with their very strong, powerful key lighting. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. The first photographer who really inspired me—though our styles are radically different—is Helmut Newton. I saw his first show in Los Angeles, and it motivated me to the point where I thought, "Wow, photography is really cool." We went on to become very good friends later in his life.
DPP: It’s interesting that you’ve named the photographers whose work has truly transcended the editorial and advertising worlds to become iconic fine-art pieces. You’ve done the same with the l.a.Eyeworks campaign. How do you get the most out of your subjects to create such timeless portraits?
Gorman: I try and spend time with them; I involve the people I photograph in the process. They play a very big part in the photo sessions. I’m very conscientious about making sure they have as much to say about what I’m doing as I do. It’s both of our time we’re investing in the shoot. I want the results to represent something we’re both proud of.
DPP: What was it like to work with Andy Warhol?
Gorman: Andy called me up right at the time he had signed with Ford Models and asked if it would be okay if I used him for the campaign. That shot has become probably the most iconic image of the campaign and my most iconic image. When shooting advertising, you usually don’t think you’re going to create an image that you’re going to be best known for. That’s the magic of this campaign.
DPP: Warhol was such a visionary. Did he try to direct the shoot?
Gorman: He barely said a word. Andy was very quiet and shy, and liked to watch things behind the scenes. It turned out to be one of his favorite images, and his foundation uses that photo to this day. We looked at the glass choices together and decided on the pair that worked for his face and matched the motorcycle jacket he brought.
DPP: Why do you think the campaign has withstood the test of time?
Gorman:Because Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds have been such progressive leaders in the eyeglass industry. They have given me the room to run creatively, and we’ve been able to get cutting-edge people that reach a broad market. We’ve done mainstream actors like Pierce Brosnan, Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the flip side of the coin with some of the great performance artists like John Kelly, drag queen RuPaul, actor, writer and director John Waters, and musicians Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa. I photographed my dear friend Patty Hearst for one of the ads. Both my French bulldogs are from her. I met her through John Waters when he was shooting Cry-Baby, and she was in the film. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge to photograph clear glasses on people who have never worn glasses. The glasses that l.a.Eyeworks are best known for are very progressive, sometimes kind of askew and quirky. That sometimes requires a little bit of a handholding—someone like Rob Lowe when he was a teenager, putting quirky glasses on such a handsome face.
DPP: Is there any truth to the statement that people look smarter when they wear glasses?
Gorman: I think they look cooler with sunglasses and smarter with clear glasses. It definitely adds an intellectual layer to the pictures. Wearing a pair of glasses for those who need them means they care enough to see what they’re doing.