“Timothy is just a very warm and generous person,” says Lou Reed. “Plus, he has no hair. He’s not threatening. You know you won’t get savaged by him. He’s no Nazi.”
It makes perverse sense that when Reed, that least media-friendly of rock stars, finally agreed to authorize a documentary about his life – Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival, will air nationally on PBS April 29 – he chose Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a director who had never done an interview before, much less a film.
For twenty years one of New York’s premiere magazine portrait photographers, Greenfield-Sanders, 46, is a well-known charmer whose golden Rolodex is filled with celebrity subjects who often become his friends. After he shot the leathery rock legend for a magazine several years ago, Reed followed suit – and even let his new buddy follow him around with a video camera. Soon Greenfield-Sanders had a trove of footage but no idea what to do with it.
A year later, Greenfield-Sanders ran into Susan Lacy, the executive producer of Thirteen-WNET’s “American Masters” series, whom he’d known since their children started school together. “I don’t want to give the impression that anyone with a Hi-8 camera can walk into my office,” says Lacy. “But with a series called ‘American Masters,’ it’s hard to come up with subjects who have a body of work and can appeal to a younger audience. So when Timothy said he had this footage of Lou, I told him to call the next day.”
Not that he was totally unqualified. After getting an art-history degree at Columbia in 1974, Greenfield – he changed his name after marrying Karin Sanders – went to Hollywood to study directing at the American Film Institute. He found himself taking portraits of the visiting directors: Hitchcock, Truffaut, Bergman. “I was 23, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he says, “and these great directors would tell me to move a light or change lenses. It was the best training you could get.”
Back in New York, through Karin, daughter of the Abstract Expressionist painter Joop Sanders, Timothy met and photographed virtually every living artist in the city, and by 1985, his delicately deadpan portraits had become a signature style. He got a big break when Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons asked him to photograph the art world wearing her clothes. “I was really lucky,” he says. “The only reason I got De Kooning, Noguchi, and even Hilton Kramer is because they really respected the clothes. This wasn’t Benetton.” Soon he was shooting John Malkovich, Jodie Foster, and Reed – all now friends, of course.
“Most people are single chessboards with one or two strategies, but Timothy is a series of multiple chessboards,” says art critic Robert Pincus-Witten. “He has Hollywood, the art world, the magazine world, his family. It’s remarkable how he moves these chess pieces around with such keen strategy but also such a sense of fun. He’s not out to win the game, just to play.”
Will Rock and Roll Heart, with its edgy, staccato pace and interviews with the surviving Velvets and Sonic Youth and Vaclav Havel, play in Peoria? “Everybody seems to have a Lou Reed fantasy,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “What makes me happy is that people who see the film, whether they’re 75 or 16, want to play the music. Everything sort of connects.”