Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has solidified himself as one of the most important portrait photographers of our time. He has translated his signature style of portraiture to create compelling and award-winning documentary films. Spending the past four decades working intimately with some of the most influential artists, writers, politicians, musicians and other notables of the 20th and 21st centuries, Greenfield-Sanders knows how to capture the true essence of his subjects and tell one hell of a story. In his newest film, Toni Morrison;The Pieces I Am, we get an intimate look into the life and epic career of Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison.
The director and author have been close friends since the early 80s, allowing Morrison to come alive on screen as truly herself, detailing the events and inspirations that have made her the incomparable literary voice she is. With the use of art from over 25 black artists, interviews with Morrison, her peers, colleagues, and friends, Greenfield-Sanders provides a stage for Morrison to reveal herself and her life like never before.
Greenfield-Sanders sits down with AS IF to discuss the film and his friend.
AS IF: You’ve made an impressive career out of interviewing and documenting some of the most influential people in the world. What about Toni motivated you to do a film solely about her?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Toni Morrison is a national treasure, a worldwide treasure, for that matter. Amazingly, there did not exist a thorough documentary on her life. When I suggested the idea to her, she didn’t say no.
How was interviewing Toni as a subject?
Toni and I have been friends for 38 years. I first met her in ’81 when I was just starting out as a photographer. I was 29 years old, she was 50. She came to my little East Village studio, smoking a pipe. Someone asked me recently what I remembered from that shoot, and I said I remember how confident she was as a subject. When you shoot people, you’re looking for ways to make them feel comfortable because photo sessions are often awkward. Not everyone loves being photographed. But Toni was really cool and relaxed. I remember distinctly. Our friendship developed over the years. I became her photographer of choice, shooting book covers and press photos, etc. My HBO series, The Black List, was inspired by Toni in my kitchen in 2005 during a lunch break for a photo session tied to the opera, Margaret Garner, for which she had written the libretto. An idea for a book on “Black Divas” became a film, The Black List: Volume 1. Toni was the first to sit for it.
Did you learn anything surprising about your friend during the making of this film?
I learned so much. When you know someone on a social and professional level you don’t dig deeply into that person’s personal archive and history. But filmmaking requires extensive research. Johanna Giebelhaus, our editor and researcher, examined in detail Toni’s huge career at Random House as an editor, her years as a teacher at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Howard University, and her roll publishing the scholarship that supported the Black Studies curriculum in schools.