Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is no stranger to big assignments. The New York City-based photographer and filmmaker has photographed some of the 20th century’s most important cultural figures, including five U.S. presidents. Though his work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art and The National Portrait Gallery, convincing his longtime friend Toni Morrison to allow him to make a documentary about her proved challenging. The Nobel Prize-winning author, who died last month at 88, was a private person who became increasingly press-shy in recent years. That Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which plays Cinematique this week, manages to cut deep is nothing short of remarkable.
Greenfield-Sanders met Morrison in 1981, when the novelist came to his East Village studio to sit for a portrait promoting her fourth novel, “Tar Baby.” “She came in smoking a pipe, very confident,” Greenfield-Sanders recalls. The two became fast friends, and Greenfield-Sanders became Morrison’s photographer of choice for everything, from book-jacket photos to magazine features. When the photographer-director began work on his groundbreaking documentary series, “The Black List,” in 2006, Morrison was the first subject to sit for an interview.“That made it a lot easier [to get others to say ‘yes’],” he says.
Those connections came in handy when he began conducting interviews for “Pieces I Am.” The film mixes archival footage, with testimony from a number of Morrison’s closest friends and collaborators, including fellow writers Sonia Sanchez, Hilton Als and Fran Lebowitz, former Alfred A. Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey especially was eager to discuss her friend and invited the film’s crew to her home in Montecito.
encore spoke with Greenfield-Sanders by phone last month.
encore (e): I’m very sorry for your loss. I only knew Toni Morrison through her books, but, nevertheless, I felt a great sense of loss when I heard about her death.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (TGS): Well, I think the person you’re seeing in the film is the Toni I knew. That’s the one that came through. You can imagine the loss of that person. She was such a remarkable personality and wonderful human being.
e: Why do you think Toni was so hesitant to write a biography or have a documentary made about her?
TGS: I don’t think it interested her. I don’t think [her own life story] meant much to her, whereas the work she did, the books she wrote, was where the meaning was. Toni said she would never do a biography and would never write an autobiography—and in a strange way the film really is her biography.
e: Did she need to be persuaded?
TGS: What I like to say is she didn’t say “no” [laughs]. I took it as a “yes” and pursued it; I think when we started she enjoyed it. You could see her enjoyment in the interviews. You could see it in the way she’s presenting herself.
e: Getting someone to sit for a portrait is one thing, but asking them to be the subject of a documentary is another. Why do you think she trusted you with this?
TGS: I wish I knew the answer to that. I do think though that one’s skills as a portrait artist are very translatable into film. So that what I do when someone walks in the door to my studio, what I’m sensitive to on that journey from the door to the set, is very much the same whether it’s a portrait shoot or whether it’s a filmed interview. I’m try to get that person comfortable. I’m sensing, you know, anxiety. That’s what I do, that’s what photographers do. They read their subjects that way. So in a way I’m very suited to be a director.
e: How did you decide which subjects to interview for the film?
TGS: I had a big list. Toni took a red editing pencil, crossed off a lot of names, and just left it very clean and concise. I’m thrilled she did because I don’t like interviewing people and not using them in the film. Toni’s predominantly the voice of the film. So if I added another five, six, seven people I don’t think it would have helped. You love being with Toni on camera. It’s hard to cut away.
e: Was it a deliberate decision to focus on career achievements rather than Toni’s personal life?
TGS: Well, I’m not particularly interested in her personal life. This is a film about why she’s so brilliant and why we care about her. She didn’t really want to go into her marriage, and I left that to her. I mean, she does say, “I got married, I had two children, and got divorced.” And I think that’s rather concise.
e: Do you have a favorite Toni Morrison book?
TGS: The best answer to that question came from Fran Lebowitz: “No! I do not have a favorite and I won’t answer the question.” I agree with her.
People ask me what’s my favorite portrait I ever took. Each is a special time with someone, and I don’t compare one with the other. I think Toni felt “Jazz” was her favorite book. Or her best one, at least.
e: When was the last time you saw her?
TGS: I saw her about a month and a half ago.
e: Do you think Toni was thinking about her legacy at all when she agreed to the film?
TGS: You know, I think when you’re in your late 80s … [death is] closer than it was 10 years earlier. It’s hard to know. I look back now and think maybe she really wanted me to do the film. She understood, certainly, the power of film, and it was a way to tell her story accurately, and she trusted me. I hope that’s true.
e: How many interviews did she sit for?
TGS: Toni sat for four days at different times.
e: Did she have other input?
TGS: No. She never saw it until it was finished. I did occasionally go see her and show her some images to confirm, “Is that definitely your grandfather? Is that your great-grandfather?” You know, making sure we had it right. But other than that, no.
e: What was her reaction when you showed it to her?
TGS: She turned to me and said, “I like her.”