The portrait photographer spoke to TIME about his new film, About Face: Supermodels Then and Now (HBO), which explores how aging has influenced some of history’s most famous models
When did you first get the idea for this film, and what inspired it?
I went to a party two-and-a-half years ago that [hairstylist] Harry King and [model] Nancy Donahue were giving for their model friends. I double parked my car out front and went in, thinking I’d be in and out. But I was struck by all these women who were so beautiful and fascinating — I’d walked in with this ridiculous cliché that models didn’t have anything to say. In the back of my head, I was thinking about how we never hear models talk. These are people we knew as faces and names — not for their voices or minds. I saw this film as a great metaphor for aging, but also as a way to talk about other things that interest me, like race, drugs, celebrity.
How did you get a bunch of supermodels to talk about aging?
It was a matter of trust, and a lot of them were at a point in their lives that they were ready to be open. It wasn’t easy but that’s what I do for a living — I put people in front of a camera and make them feel comfortable.
You’ve said this film is a “hyper look” at aging. Can you elaborate on that?
I thought this film would be a perfect paradigm for viewing aging. Models are a group of people who are overly beautiful and dealing with aging in an exaggerated way. The rest of us get older and it’s not so terrible — we deal with it, we live with it and we understand how it marginalizes people. But here were a group of people whose livelihood depended on their looks.
As someone who has made a name photographing politicians and porn stars, what were you able to bring to this film that a traditional fashion photographer may not have been able to?
I don’t think a traditional fashion photographer would have ever talked about race — if you’re in a business where your next job could come from a client that has only white models on their runway, you’re not going to go there. I wasn’t worried about pleasing the fashion world — that didn’t occur to me once. I didn’t have any agenda, so the film was able to be about these women, and not the fashion industry.
Had you thought a lot about aging before making About Face?
I think everyone, as they get older, thinks about it. As a photographer, you kind of reinvent yourself as you move along. I’ve been a photographer for 30 years, and the photography world has changed so enormously that I have to continue to make myself relevant.
With teen models like Karlie Kloss and Lindsey Wixson becoming the industry’s latest superstars, is the obsession with youth getting worse these days?
It’s absolutely getting worse. I think Isabella Rossellini said in the film — and I’m paraphrasing, she said it much better — that it used to be when you got older, you were revered and appreciated for your wisdom. That’s not the case anymore — older people are marginalized, and the marketing is really focused on younger people because they’re easier to sell to.
What has been the response to the film?
This morning at 8:30 a.m., I was at the building department handling a fire department violation that they needed to see some paperwork for — basically the furthest you could get from About Face. As I’m leaving, a guy behind the desk says, “Goodbye, Mr. Greenfield-Sanders.” I thought he just had a really great memory from when I signed in, but he’d seen the film earlier this week. I thought that really showed how pervasive this film was, and what a broad audience could relate to it.