Like most photographers whose job it is to make the famous look beautiful or intriguing, Greg Gorman is a control freak. For close to half a century he has honed the studio environment into a perfectly calibrated instrument of light and shadow to monetize the face, style, and anatomy of A-list entertainers. But he recently ventured far outside his sphere of comfort when invited by Epson on promotional trips around Asia. Of all the places he visited, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and China, Gorman was most taken with India. It was there, most of all, that he joined the ranks of street photographers who are able to adapt to capricious light conditions and seize fleeting images from unconstrainable movement. In the resulting book, Outside the Studio, Gorman has handpicked the best of his various journeys’ pictures. The strongest bear his professional signature: close-ups of people, in virtuoso black-and-white, that possess great psychological depth and drama. But his subjects often inhabit the starkest opposite of his accustomed glamorous world: society’s poor and dispossessed — prostitutes, beggars, the blind, the homeless. It’s a body of work, which he refers to as “environmental portraiture,” in which one can sense the liberation and euphoric reinvention of a master grown weary of his usual occupation.
Gorman’s first gig was shooting a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1968, in his hometown of Kansas City. He migrated to Los Angeles after spending summers there with his divorced father and becoming immersed in the trippy Sunset Strip scene of the early 1970s, eventually shooting album covers for local rockers. His first Sunset billboard, a shot of Leon Russell he took in his apartment, convinced him to devote his life to photography. His heroes were Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and George Hurrell, with whom he would later become friends and colleagues. Dancing in the arena of fame came naturally to Gorman, as he developed an undaunted manner of communicating with celebrities to dig into what made them human. In the early 1980s he became what he refers to as “the flavor of the month” — shooting poster campaigns for the top films of the era (including Tootsie, The Big Chill, and Scarface). But when a friend asked him what he was working on for himself, he realized he was just a hired gun without a personal legacy. So he set his mastery of light and persona to the task of capturing male and female nudes in dynamic poses, a classic path that transcended the compulsion to be a vehicle for the latest thing.
I’m a very staid photographer in many ways. I shoot a very structured image. I spent 40 years trying to figure out who Greg Gorman was so I don’t feel like trying to become hip and trendy, but I see that the style today has become more editorial, a lot looser, a little more relaxed, more going on within the framework of the image — as opposed to locking that barrel down and looking for that one specific angle, which is what I’ve become known for.
While waiting in a bar at LAX for his flight to India, Gorman met a man who asked if he’d ever been there before. He had not. “It’s like going to Mars,” said the man. And indeed Gorman found the place a constant shock. “Going through customs and security was like something out of Key Largo, really bizarre, and on the road into Mumbai it was like a whole other world flipped upside down.” Unlike his street photographer friends, he chose to approach people not in a clandestine manner but “immediate, up front, close-up and personal, very confrontational.” Traversing Asia on a tight schedule, he did not have the luxury of waiting for perfect moments to erupt in his viewfinder; he went hunting for shots more aggressively to make the most prolific use of his time there — “shooting in color but seeing in black-and-white.” Unencumbered by the usual apparatus, Gorman would circle the targeted person to analyze the natural light’s optimal vantage for showcasing their personality and conjuring an unforgettable image. From Mumbai’s infamous Tulsi Pipe Road to the slum camps of the Muay Thai boxing world to the fishing ports of Vietnam, the series is, above all, a family-of-man celebration of the human face that is humbly inclusive and exhilaratingly observed.
Greg Gorman, Outside the Studio (Damiani Books), with an introduction by James Nachtwey.
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