When photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders walked into a party honoring supermodels of the seventies and eighties, he walked out with an idea. The photographer, who has shot presidents, Nobel laureates, and just about every celebrity imaginable, rounded up the famous faces he met that night—Patti Hansen, Christie Brinkley, and Beverly Johnson among them—for a portrait. (It was published in Vanity Fair in 2010.) What emerged from the sitting, however, was bigger than any photograph. "I was smart enough to film all of them over two days when we created the shot," Greenfield-Sanders says, and 25 hours of footage later, he had the beginnings of his next documentary film. About Face: Supermodels Then and Now catches up with the top models of the forties through the eighties, touching on their lives and their careers with interviews, vintage video and film, archival photos, and more. (There was so much material, in fact, that "if we didn't get into Sundance," Greenfield-Sanders jokes, "I would be still making it.") About Face premieres July 30 on HBO. Before its debut, Style.com met with Greenfield-Sanders to discuss these iconic women, as well as fashion, Photoshop, and the one who got away.
Why did you choose to revisit these women on film?
I got very excited by the material I had and thought this could be a fascinating film. It could be so much more than a photo shoot, or the making of a photo shoot, which is not that interesting. The film explores issues I find interesting, like aging, insecurity, race, drugs, and the great fun of being beautiful and having the world at your fingertips. It's easy to look at the world of these women and pull it apart and say how terrible it is. But there's also a lot of excitement and beauty and artistic endeavor. These are such smart women. You had to be more than just beautiful to have survived all that.
They are among the first ever to be given the tag "supermodels." What does that designation mean to you?
It's a funny word. I come out of the Warhol era. He created the word "superstar," which was a joke about drag queens. These women he surrounded himself with—as well as misfit socialites—he made them bigger than life by calling them superstars. But what we have here are actual superstars. These women are extraordinary. Five-hundred magazine covers, and not just one of them—several have that. They lead incredible lives and have had such influence. You can look at the beauty and the way we see beauty in America, and it's not just designers and clothing. There are also certain faces that define it and these are the faces that have defined beauty in America for a long period of time. They are the ideal of beauty.
The term "supermodel" is often thrown around today, but is there something in your mind that distinguishes these women from the models of today?
There are supermodels today, but it's different. The life span of a model is different; the importance of a model is different. They're not on the cover of magazines anymore; they're not in ads anymore. Those all go to movie stars. This was the golden era of modeling. Their faces were in our home every day on the coffee table—they were in all the ads we saw. We knew these women. They were bigger than life. I don't think that can be said of too many people today. The opportunities for the women in my film don't exist today. Magazine covers and ads were huge. Magazines were so important, and they're not important anymore. Photos have become less important because so there are so many photos out there now, and because of the Web, photos are less meaningful. It used to be about the big campaigns by Versace and Calvin Klein and it was a big deal and it would be everywhere and talked about. I don't think it exists today because media is so broad. It's not just magazines—it's television, the Web, Twitter. There are so many ways to disseminate information, and it's harder to have an impact.
You explore the negative sides of modeling in the film, like drug use, sexual harassment, and racism. Did you encounter resistance from the women about discussing these undersides of the industry?
I think they were very open and honest in the film. I would think that at a certain age, what are you hiding? If you're in your sixties and your life as a supermodel was many years ago, why not talk about these things? It's not easy to do it, but I think it's important to do it. They needed to tell the stories, about being a black model in the South at the Ebony Fashion Fair, for example. People forget, but these were very important events in the black community.
Were there any models you wanted to include that you didn't or couldn't get?
Veruschka. I love her and I wanted her in the film and she wouldn't do it. I grew up watching Blow-Up as a teenager—what a gorgeous woman and so extraordinary. I thought, wouldn't it be great to hear what she's done with her life? She answered, "I'm an artist, I don't care about the past and I'm not interested in talking about it." It saddened me. I would have loved to have her point of view especially because she is an artist and that's my world. I would have loved to hear what her mind-set was. She was the one loss.
You've shot many non-models as well as models in your long career. What do models bring to aphotographic shoot that celebrities or "regular" people do not?
When we went to Sundance, I took China [Machado], Carol [Alt], and Beverly [Johnson]. As a filmmaker, you spend all day going from Getty to Corbis to Entertainment Weekly and all these photo ops in ugly little spaces with little studios set up. And every photographer there said to me afterward, "Wow, what a thrill it was to shoot these women. Actors just don't know what to do. They just stand there and they're waiting for us to tell them to do something. These models know their angles and turns and poses and they just know what to do." When I shot them, I did my iconic, simple portraiture, but it was so fun to see these ladies working it with the photography. They're pros. They can walk into a room and look at the lighting and know if it's OK or if it needs to be moved.
You've been quoted as saying, "I don't really like to retouch." But retouching has become a major part of magazine photography. How do you feel about this development? Do you insist on no retouching of your own work?
Retouching has become so part of our lives. People retouch their own photo albums. It's so false to me. It's kind of the way I feel about plastic surgery. Unless you're in some way hurt or scarred in an accident or something, I just don't believe in it. That's my personal view. I'm not a model and I don't depend on my looks for my well-being and income like some of these women, so it's a different story, and I understand that. But the trend toward retouching is horrific. The reality of people's faces compared to what you see on a magazine cover or inside is so stark. Retouching is so easy now. Everyone has Photoshop, so everyone can do it. And there are times when I do retouch things but mostly because I'd rather shoot that moment because the expression is right but oh, the clothes don't work, there's a wrinkle here. I'd rather say, "Oh, we'll do it later," because technically you can do it later. I don't want to lose the moment of the shot. So there's a place for it, but to take every wrinkle away and smooth it out and pretend it doesn't exist and that's the person. It's another world. I'm not going to win this battle. I'm on the losing side. It's about vanity.