“Greg Gorman is the only person I’d let photograph my corpse,” John Waters, director of outrageous underground films once wrote of the legendary lensman. Over the course of his storied career spanning for over fifty years, Greg Gorman has photographed everyone from Michael Jackson to Leonardo DiCaprio, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Michael Jordan, David Bowie, Marina Abramović, Divine and many, many others. Published by teNeues, the American photographer’s new retrospective monograph It’s Not About Me bounds together his unseen body of work – you can pre-order it here.
Now, the story of how Greg Gorman became Greg Gorman has become a legendary tale. He discovered his calling in 1968, after taking a borrowed camera to a Jimi Hendrix concert in Kansas City. “I virtually had no intention of pursuing a career in photography when I borrowed my friend’s camera that day,” he reminisces. It was only when he developed the photographs that Gorman decided to enrol in a photojournalism course at the University of Kansas, marking the beginning of his famed career as one of the most revered photographers of our time.

From portraits of Hollywood idols and iconic advertising campaigns, to editorials and sensuous nudes, Gorman has done it all. Be it his legendary l.a.Eyeworks campaigns, his poetic study of a human body or alluring and intimate celebrity portraits, it’s a potent, dynamic interplay between highlights and shadows that makes Gorman’s work stand out and withstand the test of time. “When I began shooting pictures, all my images looked like interchangeable postage stamps – tremendously over-lit – leaving nothing to the imagination,” he recalls. In the 1970s, Gorman shifted his light off the centre, developing his stylistically unmistakable approach to image-making.

Erotic, glamorous and utterly intriguing; Gorman’s black and white portraits “strip everything bare of any artifice” and manifest the mutual trust between the photographer and his subject. “I don’t have the patience or desire to ever photograph an inanimate object,” he declares. “I enjoy the personal interaction of coming up or down to someone’s level, being able to break through and capture at times one’s own inner soul!”

With a foreword by Sir Elton John and an afterword by John Waters, more than four hundred pages of It’s Not About Me take a comprehensive look at Gorman’s extremely wide-ranging career and his contribution to camerawork and art. Still shooting, the photographer has recently ventured into winemaking and slightly turned his passion from photography towards teaching his craft to others. To this day, Greg Gorman remains an unabashed perfectionist. “Satisfaction breeds complacency which distracts from striving for perfection,” he says.
5 Tom Cruise Los Angeles 1983 Copyright Greg Gorman.jpg
Tom Cruise, Los Angeles, 1983 © Greg Gorman
You borrowed your friend’s camera in 1968 to shoot Jimi Hendrix at a concert in Kansas City. Had you considered a career in photography before that, and what was it about image-making that, in your own words “hooked” you?
I virtually had no intention of pursuing a career in photography when I borrowed my friend’s camera that day. It wasn’t until I saw the image of Jimi coming up on that blank white sheet of paper in the developer, that I decided to take a photography class. However, after enrolling in a photojournalism class at the University of Kansas in 1968 and enjoying it tremendously, did I find my way!
Your photographs are stylistically unmistakable for their distinctive, intense relationship between stark lighting and darkness. When and how did you discover your signature style?
When I began shooting pictures, all my images looked like interchangeable postage stamps – tremendously over-lit – leaving nothing to the imagination. It wasn’t until I started taking the light off the center focal point of the camera with Tom Waits for an album cover, in the late 1970s, did I began to develop my style with my work for Interview Magazine and campaigns like l.a. Eyeworks.
You have mentioned that a perfect picture will never be taken. Which of your photographs comes close to perfect in your opinion, and how do you know when you have a good picture?
I think a good photographer is never totally satisfied with their work. Satisfaction breeds complacency which distracts from striving for perfection. I almost always can find something that can be improved upon. Some of my portraits such as Andy Warhol for l.a. Eyeworks and my close-up of Leonardo DiCaprio are a couple of my favourites.
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Robert Redford, Pacific Palisades, 1986 © Greg Gorman
You have said that the most important thing for a photographer is to develop “their own and unique and discriminating style so that the work looks inheritably like their own.” Your work spans from celebrity portraits to film posters, campaigns, editorials and album covers. How do you ensure to maintain ‘unique and discriminating style’ throughout all your work?
There is often a difference between commercial work as such a ‘work for hire’, where you often are at the mercy of a controlling art director who has his mind set on a specific idea. In those cases you are often acting as a prostitute as you are being paid by someone else to create ‘their’ vision. When I work on my fine art nudes or other personal work, I have only myself to satisfy and that becomes a different story.
You have mentioned that the reason your work is mainly in black and white is that it ‘strips everything bare of any artifice.’ Is it authenticity that you are searching for or do you disdain artifice?
With this book, I am publishing many of my shots in color for the first time, and I feel they work quite well. But there is no denying that color can be a distraction, and having learned to shoot originally in B&W with my very first photography class, I have always clung to that medium as my medium of choice.
You have said that you “never could take a photograph of anything that couldn’t talk back to me.” Why not?
I don’t have the patience or desire to ever photograph an inanimate object. I enjoy the personal interaction of coming up or down to someone’s level, being able to break through and capture at times one’s own inner soul! That is oftentimes my challenge and one that keeps me going.
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Leonardo DiCaprio, Hollywood, 1994 © Greg Gorman
You have worked with Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, producing some of the most striking covers for the magazine as well as the photograph that has become arguably the most iconic portrait of Warhol. What was it like working with him, and why has it been such a fruitful relationship?
The interesting thing about Interview Magazine was the fact that you had complete creative control – something you rarely find in today’s world of editorial. I would be given a celebrity to photograph and they would request six or seven images plus a few choices against white for the cover that Richard Bernstein so beautifully illustrated with his exceptional talent. And that is what they got! MY CHOICE of the six/seven images that I preferred and a few cover options. The layouts became the photographer’s work – not the selection of an art director who perhaps doesn’t understand your intention.
To answer the second part of your question regarding the portrait of Andy, that is an interesting story! I was the photographer (and still am!) for the l.a.Eyeworks campaign. Each month, the images for the campaign appeared as a full page in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. After signing with Ford Models in the mid ‘80s, Andy phoned me up one day to ask if I thought he would be a good candidate for one of their ads and in this instance, my commercial work melded with my style and fine art perfectly.
I might add here though, that the Art Director in this case, Gary Johns, was open and free and gave me free artistic freedom – something very rare and what makes him the great art director that he is. On a side note, Gary has done the art direction on many of my books – this one included, and our friendship and creative collaboration dates back to the mid ‘70s!
How do you feel about the present times – times of social media, of virtual reality, etc.? What is the role of traditional photography in today’s imagery-led culture?
I guess I am very old school in these changing times. I enjoy Facebook because I see it as a means to stay in touch with good friends on a more social level. I maintain a bit of an Instagram presence more out of necessity than enjoyment. I find so many people are so obsessed with spending their every waking moment capturing moments in time that should be enjoyed for just that. I realise that is not the general consensus but sometimes I feel it would be nice to enjoy a dinner or a drink or a moment in time (to be remembered) without the artifice of a selfie. On the other hand, Instagram has created a stunning visual awareness and created some great talents. My general feeling is, however, that I prefer to stay true to the old school regime!
Drawing on your experience working with major titles such as Interview, Life, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Time or Vanity Fair, what do you think about imagery in publications today?
I feel for the most part, that the classic style of photography has gone by the wayside for a more free editorial style. I think this is fine but it certainly isn’t part of my repertoire. With the onset of Photoshop and other graphic apps today, traditional photography as we knew it has certainly changed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has changed the face of traditional photography as has digital. I enjoy digital and only shoot that these days, but in reviewing much of the analogue imagery for my new book, what I loved about it was its lack of precision. With digital, everything can often be a bit glossed over. You lose the real capture and purity of the image.
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Alfred Hitchcock, Los Angeles, 1970 © Greg Gorman
What is the story behind the astounding photograph of Grace Jones on the cover of your new book, It’s Not About Me?
Grace and I have a relationship dating back almost forty years. When she is in town, we almost always make pictures. There is an inherent trust and understanding and we just play. No boundaries, no restrictions – just the love of creating fun pictures. Without any restraints, we are able to produce the art we care about. We have no one to please but ourselves, and that makes for interesting art. In my eyes.
After more than fifty years as a photographer, working with everyone from David Bowie to Michael Jackson, how do you keep alive the excitement that you felt developing your first picture when you get behind the camera today?
(Laughs) I don’t actually! Kinda feel I have been there/done that. I have lost a great deal of my passion and drive for something I held so dear to my heart for so many years. That is not to say that from time to time, I am not excited by the prospect of certain shoots. It is just not as frequent or passionately driven as in the old days. And that is ok. I have turned my passion for photography towards education and teaching others. That is why I got into the realm of teaching workshops – to keep my passion alive and it certainly has.
Most of my fine art work today comes during the teaching of my classes internationally. I cast models that I want to shoot and that represent my style so, in presenting my classes, I am often very inspired to shoot stemming many times from watching what my students produce. That is what inspires me today!
We are experiencing an unprecedented health crisis. How has the current situation affected your creative process and how do you think the world will change post-pandemic?
This has been a very interesting time. I feel very fortunate to be in the position to have a wonderful home, two great dogs and a terrific assistant. This certainly has been a time of reflection. A time to recognise how fortunate many of us have been and to work within. A time for self-awareness and growth. I have slowed down from the hectic pace of a life well lived in Los Angeles and taken the time to more closely observe the world imminently surrounding me. That all being said, I continue with my teaching (beginning with a virtual class for the School of Visual Arts in NYC). Virtual communication through apps like Zoom with creative sharing being over cocktails or shared lectures, it is becoming the new norm.
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David Bowie, Los Angeles, 1987 © Greg Gorman
3 Jody Foster Los Angeles 1999 Copyright Greg Gorman.jpg
Jodie Foster, Los Angeles, 1999 © Greg Gorman
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Antonio Banderas, Los Angeles, 1994 © Greg Gorman
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Sharon Stone, Los Angeles, 1981 © Greg Gorman
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Andy Warhol, Los Angeles, 1986 © Greg Gorman