"The Black List" at National Portrait Gallery Wednesday, Dec. 21

There are at least two contrasting schools of photographic portraiture. In one, a photographer (most famously Arnold Newman) places subjects within their natural environments, like the workplace or some other meaningful spot. In the other, the photographer seeks to visually isolate their subject from all outside influences (as Richard Avedon famously did with his stark, all-white backgrounds). “The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders” stands solidly in the latter camp—a risky move, since relatively few artists beyond Avedon have managed to avoid monotony with that approach. And indeed, the series—50 portraits of highly accomplished African-Americans, most of them famous, a few of them not—suffers somewhat in this regard, particularly because the subjects come off as so darn serious. (It’s not clear whether this was by request of the photographer or the product of 50 individual decisions.) The Club of 50’s membership will probably spark debate; the selection tilts heavily toward pop culture—exactly half are in the entertainment business or sports, including not one but two CSI cast veterans (Laurence Fishburne and Hill Harper). That uniformity is leavened mostly by the large format, which allows viewers to pick out individual strands in Chris Rock’s beard or every pore on Bishop T.D. Jakes’ face. Still, only one portrait really stands out—Bill T. Jones’, because he’s shirtless.

“The Black List” is on view 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to April 22 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest. Free. 202-633-8300.

Our Readers Say

Was the CSI reference tongue-in-cheek? Laurence Fishburne's roles in Cornbread, Earl, and Me, Boyz in the Hood, and even Akeela and the Bee, are influences (perhaps seminal) in African-American culture and definitely American culture. Certainly, Fishburne's roles in Apocalypse Now and the Matrix series gives him credence beyond pop culture. While I am not a fan of Hill Harper, his books speaking to young Black boys and girls expands his role beyond the pop culture box.

Overall, I think this write-up does a disservice. Too often "Black-oriented" exhibits aren't explored by other ethnicities because they feel they couldn't relate. Who knew Slash was British and Black (mixed)?! The review neglects to mention the accompanying video interviews. The interviews along with the narratives next to the portraits give context to the contributions of these subjects to American culture and art.
Wow - I really feel like this article over-simplifies and dismisses what, to me, was a very beautiful, diverse and complex exhibit. How can you possibly say that all the subjects were "so darn serious" in light of the luminous smile on Suzan-Lori Parks's face or the charmingly quizzical expression on Whoopi Goldberg's? And I take issue with this author's snobby dismissal of 50% of the subjects being from pop culture, especially since figures in pop culture can be some of the most influential of all public figures in our society. Please don't let this pathetic review prevent you from seeing a truly fantastic exhibit!

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