Arts Desk

Reviewed: “The Black List” at the National Portrait Gallery

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” at the National Portrait Gallery stands solidly in the latter camp—a risky move, since relatively few artists beyond Avedon have managed to avoid becoming monotonous 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 solemnity was by request of the photographer or due to 50 individual decisions.) The membership of the Club of 50 will naturally be subject to much debate, and truth be told, the selection probably tilts too heavily toward pop culture—exactly half are in the entertainment business or sports, including not one but two CSI cast veterans (Lawrence Fishburne and Hill Harper). But ultimately, the art is what matters, and the 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 T.D. Jakes’ face. Still, only one portrait really stands out—Bill T. Jones’, because he’s shirtless.

The exhibition is on view 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to April 22 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW. (202) 633-8300. Free.

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