Greg Gorman: Beyond The Frame

Performance artist John Sex

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.

Singer, model and actress Grace Jones

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.

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