Like everything else today, it started with Facebook. The award-winning photographer and documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders stopped by hairstylist Harry King's Facebook party for his supermodel friends, many of whom had booked countless magazine covers in the seventies and eighties. By the end of the night, he was convinced he'd hit on something special. "I knew there was a photograph here," Greenfield-Sanders says, "but when I started to talk to the women more, it was so clear that it was a film as well."
The resulting portrait (above) was an updated take on Irving Penn's "The 12 Most Photographed Models of 1947." The film, About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, premieres on HBO on Monday, July 30.
Over the course of shooting, Greenfield-Sanders spoke to famous models of decades past, including Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, and Paulina Porizkova (who is pictured below with Greenfield-Sanders), along with industry insiders like Calvin Klein and Eileen Ford. The film makes no attempt to conceal the uglier parts of the modeling world—from plastic surgery to drug abuse to sexual harassment—while also celebrating the poise and intellect of a group of women most of us have seen but not heard.
Details spoke to the director about his artistic process, his interest in models, and whether there's any connection between About Face and his 2004 documentary about the women of porn.
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DETAILS: You assembled a group of stunning women for your shoot. What inspired you to widen the lens beyond those 12 photographed when it came time to make the film?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I very quickly realized that it wasn't enough to just do the seventies and eighties, that there was a kind of great moment here to go further back and do the sixties, fifties, and forties. I began to imagine who would add to this film, and obviously Jerry Hall, Isabella Rossellini [pictured at bottom], Marisa Berenson, people like that, came to mind. And Carmen Dell'Orefice and China Machado, who were working in the forties, are actually still modeling.
DETAILS: Did you notice a marked difference between models of different generations?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Modeling was really looked down on in its early days, but by the seventies and eighties, it was a business. By then they weren't thought of as hookers, they weren't made fun of, and they weren't diminished. I think it was something that they could be proud of. And today, it's insane. Mothers push their children to be models now. That was unheard of.
DETAILS: Were these women a big part of your life growing up?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I was more interested in what Lou Reed was doing. I certainly didn't read Vogue. As a teenager, I read Rolling Stone and things like that, but I did see some of these women on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Before that, fashion models really were for women. When they started putting them on the cover of Sports Illustrated, men became aware of who they were and what their names were, and I think that was a big turning point.
DETAILS: Was there any correlation between the making of About Face and your 2004 porn documentary, Thinking XXX?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: It's a very good question. Stylistically, the films are similar: They're more verite-style with traditional interviews. I think you could look at the porn industry, and you could look at the modeling industry—and you could certainly generalize and say these are both places where women have more control than men. In porn, the women were the stars and they got the big salaries—they decided who would be in the scene with them and who wouldn't. And modeling was certainly all about the women. I had a very funny conversation with [model] Beverly Johnson the other day in L.A, and I was talking about the men in the business and started asking who she knew, and Beverly said, "Honey, we didn't even know their names."
DETAILS: How did it feel watching the finished film?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I'm very proud of the interviews. I think I got these women to be very honest and open and revealing. If you imagined this film before you see it, you would probably think it's kind of fluffy—you wouldn't expect it to have depth, but there's so much to this film. I knew women and gay men would love it, and I think that straight men are loving it too. These women are so exceptional: They're beautiful to look at and they're glamorous and they're funny, but I think they're very smart as well. And every moviegoer wants that.
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—Jon Roth (@jonmroth), editorial assistant at Details