Creating Yet Another Beautiful “Black List”.
By Omar P.L. Moore

Thursday, February 4, 2010

“I looked at the time and I knew: 7:30 – this guy wasn’t going to get up that early.”

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who is on the telephone from New York, has just said this to an interviewer situated on the west coast. His prediction came true.

Blame it on the after effects of the previous day’s early-morning Oscar nominations.

Another truth is that Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, a photographer and artist, has been chronicling people, professions and cultivating portraits for more than 30 years.

What gives him the motivation to keep going?

“I live an exciting life and I enjoy it. All the work I’ve done, from the art world to porn stars (the book XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits) to the injured soldiers project to “The Black List” — you get the best of people. And I get to do what I want,” Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said.

That last project, “The Black List”, has been a big success for the photographer, who with good friend and neighbor Elvis Mitchell, former film critic for The New York Times, barnstormed to create a series of clear, direct portfolio interviews (by Mr. Mitchell) of black philanthropists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, politicians, artists and executives. The initial series debuted on HBO cable television in 2008. The third installment in as many years premieres on HBO this Monday (Feb. 8).

Newly-minted Oscar nominee “Precious” filmmaker Lee Daniels is one of eight new subjects participating in “The Black List Vol. 3”. Other film people — actors like Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, LaTanya Richardson and Hill Harper — speak about growing up, culture, color, their experiences being black in a racist environment and how such events in America and their own upbringings shaped them.

Still strikingly beautiful supermodel Beverly Johnson, for example, talks about a swimming pool being drained in the 1960s after she and other members of her Buffalo, New York YMCA all-black swimming team had finished swimming in it. John Legend talks about his efforts to make a difference to help some of the less fortunate people in the African continent.

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, who currently has an installation of pictures he shot last year of American supermodels (including Ms. Johnson) from the 1970s and 80s on display at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City (through February 27), acknowledged a remark made about The Black List series becoming progressively shorter. (Vol. 1 was 91 minutes long, Vol. 2 was 60 minutes in length; Vol. 3 is 28 minutes long.)

“It’s the economy. Times are tough”, he replied with a laugh.

At first it may have been difficult to get people to lay bare their souls on camera. (Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, who is white, later stated that there was something about him that made his subjects no matter their race, always feel at ease.) After the success of “The Black List Volume One”, however, things came together. “Now everyone knows what it is, and they want to be a part of it,” the photographer commented.

“The disadvantage is that they want to talk like a Black List person does, so they end up becoming scripted and not spontaneous.”

The artist, who has photographed and collaborated with rock legend Lou Reed and countless other entertainers and major public figures, employs a simple gray-silver background and a candid camera that captures expression without visual kinetics. Few deny its effectiveness. So much so that Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, a charismatic and engaging personality, bristles at copy-cats.

“It’s still annoying when people imitate us. When I see Gap commercials, I think, ‘why didn’t you just hire us?'”

For “The Black List” the photographer spent two hours with each interview subject filming while Mr. Mitchell, who now hosts a weekly talk radio show at KCRW on Wednesdays, would interview them. Each would then spend another 30 minutes having coffee or a drink with the director and interviewer.

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders spoke of being happy to get the filmmaker Mr. Daniels to talk on camera for the latest Black List.

“It’s not easy to find a black man who is gay and who is willing to talk about his personal life,” the artist said. Mr. Daniels is famously candid about his life, including aspects of his sex life, his current relationship with his partner Billy Hopkins, who is white, and about discussing the contradictions within the black community, particularly the church community, about attitudes towards gay black men.

The “Black List” director talked about some of the people he wanted to get for interviews. “We were close to getting Michael,” he said of the late Mr. Jackson. “But things just didn’t come together. We would have been thrilled to have him.” Almost ruefully Mr. Greenfield-Sanders adds: “He’s such a mythic figure now.” (Mr. Legend and Debra L. Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television both reference Mr. Jackson during the latest volume of “Black List”.)

“I’m sure there’s something that Elvis would have found out about him that no-one else would have known or discussed with him,” the photographer said of the ever-prepared and thoroughly-researched Mr. Mitchell and his what-if? conversation with Mr. Jackson. (“He has such an encyclopedic knowledge of the people that he’s interviewing,” the director stated.)

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders also came close to getting then-Senator Barack Obama as well as now-First Lady Michelle Obama.

In getting ideas for “The Black List” Mr. Mitchell and the photographer had written down hundreds of names on napkins four years ago.

“And we were raring to go.”

Of all the interviews in the series the director’s favorite is former Secretary of State Colin Powell (in vol. 1), whom he said “really opened up” and shared a lot in a way he hadn’t expected the retired U.S. general to. Mr. Greenfield-Sanders also lauded Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, his dear friend of 30 years, as his all-time favorite subject (vol. 1)*. (“I love every time she talks.”) He pointed to United Negro College Fund president Michael Lomax as a figure of fascination in the latest installment.

As for surprises, former Planned Parenthood head Faye Wattleton, another good friend, threw the photographer-artist for a loop when in Vol. 1 she said that she regretted that her daughter hadn’t grown up in the segregated environment she did. “That was shocking to me,” he said, adding, “I never saw integration as anything but a plus.” (Ms. Wattleton had commented that she grew up among doctors, lawyers and other professionals in a segregated town and such company dissipated in an integrated environment.)

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said that as a white man he learned much more about the black friends he directed for “The Black List” when he heard their intimate stories about their hardships and triumphs despite the obstacles American racism provide. “You know them but you really get to know them after watching them talk about their everyday lives.”

Asked if he would direct a series called The White List given the countless exposes done on being black in America, the photographer didn’t address the question — since another question was immediately asked: what did the Black List teach him?

“I think it opened up my eyes and opened up a lot of eyes of white Americans,” Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said. “It makes them see that there’s not just Barack and Oprah out there,” he continued, paraphrasing what Mr. Daniels says in Vol. 3. “There are doctors, scientists and business people out there too — lots of different people.”

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, who got a degree in artistic history from Columbia University and was surrounded by a family of artists, said he wasn’t sure about whether The Black List Volume Four would definitely happen. He did however, talk about the secret to his long-time success.

“I’ve been able to reinvent myself over and over again. With the porn star project, the injured soldiers project, The Black List. The timing was right every time. I have been very privileged as an artist. I have a blessed life.”

“The Black List Volume Three” debuts on Monday, February 8 on HBO cable television.