Getty Images

AT&T Celebrates "The Black List," a photography exhibition featuring 50 portraits of accomplished African Americans, recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery and will remain on display until April 22, 2012.

The Root caught up with the mastermind behind the "The Black List," photographer-filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, at a special reception held at the gallery.

Advertisement

The Root: How did you come up with the "Black List"?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: "The Black List" happened in my kitchen in the East Village in New York City, where Toni Morrison and I were talking about black achievement. For Morrison, it was the opera singers [and] black divas she had been working with, and I started thinking about it in terms of friends of mine — all these people I knew who were so extraordinary, and I thought there was something there that I could do as a photographer and filmmaker.

TR: So tell me about this project that upends the historic meaning of the term "blacklist."

Advertisement

TGS: When I sat down to talk with Elvis Mitchell, by the end he said we should call it "The Black List" because it's always been such a negative term and this is a chance to make it a good thing to be blacklisted.

TR: What would you like people to take away from seeing your portraits?

TGS: I think if you walk into this room in the National Portrait Gallery, which AT&T has made possible that I'm very grateful for, I think that the accomplishment in the black world is so extraordinary and diverse and so multileveled. It's not just Oprah and Barack Obama; it's Dr. Montgomery Rice, it's Suzan-Lori Parks, it's Thelma Golden, it's Faye Wattleton and it's all of these different people who've done extraordinary things. That's the takeaway.

Advertisement

TR: I'm very interested in this dynamic of black subjects being "blacklisted," in a different way, by a white photographer. How did you reconcile the two?

TGS: In the beginning, I thought: Here I was, this white photographer photographing black people. But on the other hand, I thought: I'm a photographer. I have photographed porn stars; I didn't have to be a porn star to photograph them. I've photographed presidents, and I'm not a president.

I look at the world around me and I capture it on film. And I've been doing it for 35 years. And if you look at my body of work, it's about accomplishment. So whether it's artists or musicians or presidents or architects or porn stars, they're the best at what they do. And this is a group of people who are the best at what they do. They're extraordinarily accomplished people and that's all I look for.

Advertisement

Abdul Ali frequently writes about culture for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.