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Recently I had the opportunity to speak with photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders about The Black List: Volume III, his increasingly popular documentary series on the African American It-list, which premiered February 8, 2010, on HBO.
By coopting a play on words, the project deals with African Americans gaining newfound power status through embracing a long-held negatively construed phrase of the English language. Through the years Greenfield-Sanders has focused his lens on a multitude of sources, including everyone from Jenna Jamison to Iraqi war vet amputees, but here his usual clinical and sparse sets fade into the background, giving way to his subjects’ grandiose personalities and first-hand experiences that lay before us with nothing to hide.
With A-list talent such as comedian Whoopi Goldberg, musician John Legend, Precious director Lee Daniels, and supermodel Beverly Johnson, I came into the screening fully expecting to:
- be bored to tears at the thought of listening to celebrities and their navel gazing; or
- to be made to feel guilty, sorry, or angry given the subject material.
Instead I walked away feeling nothing less than triumphant, for as a director and an artist, Greenfield-Sanders, along with journalist and co-producer Elvis Mitchell, has allowed his subjects to dictate the focus of the work. Their account of what it means to be black in 2010 emote joy, sadness and laughter, all combining into a melting pot of what it’s like to revel in the American dream only 145 years from the grasp of slavery.
In many aspects, the traditional contemporary art circuit is one of the more light-skinned inner sanctums, barring the country club circuit. With only a smattering of success stories in comparison to other career fields (Kara Walker, William Pope L., Martin Puryear to name a few), contemporary art still has a long journey ahead to true equality. But as I started to fully consider the project and its spotlight of race in America, I realized there, too, must be a letting go on my part. There can be no blame assigned to the fact I am white, nor Sanders, nor his subjects’ race. In fact, perhaps it’s not an institutionally based issue at all, but one of a sheer numbers game. Is this due to a conscious effort by those in authority, or are there simply less artists of color working in contemporary art, and less collectors of their work? It’s something I’m now trying to figure out myself. And as the documentary shows, analysis of issues of race cannot be owned by either side, for we all play a role in the common American experience.
Of course, I’ll never be able to share the exact feeling of triumph that Whoopi Goldberg refers to when she so succinctly states, “I love science fiction. In watching sci-fi as a kid, there was never any black people. Anything you saw in the future never had any black people ever. Ever! But Star Trek comes on the air, and then this beautiful woman … [Uhura appears]. I watched and I thought, ‘Not only are we gonna be in the future, but we gonna be fly.’” Or when Beverly Johnson says after her school swim team would compete against neighboring white schools, “They would actually drain the pool after we left.” What I can take away as a viewer from these personal accounts is shared compassion, and a renewed sense of community as we continue on a journey that is far from completing the dream of post-MLK America.
Below are some questions that Greenfield-Sanders answered in person during his screening and talk at the Paley Center for Media , and via email.
* * *
Olympia Lambert: Hi, Timothy. I wanted to ask you some specific art world questions. One, your subject material over the years has been very diverse, ranging from celebrities, to porn stars, to politicians. I wanted to know how you found this project, what inspired you to take it on, given your past experiences. Second part of the question, the art world is one of the final glass walls to fall, and maybe you can talk a little about that in specific — especially the current Chelsea art scene for African Americans. As a white artist, how have you related to your subjects directly?
Greenfield-Sanders: That’s five questions! [audience laughs] I had been thinking after during the course of our project, I was sort of looking for another project that would be interesting to me and I started to think about the people I knew who were black, as I thought that might be an interesting subject for me in some way. Elvis [Mitchell] and I were friends, we lived on the same block, and I thought, you know, I’ve always been very good at looking into the future. I’m somehow able to see what’s coming. And I thought it’s a fascinating group of portraits. I think it’s his [Elvis’] book, I think it’s all these things. Obviously I can’t do it alone. Elvis and I sat down to lunch, and that’s really how it developed. So we got excited about it.
And the moment I reached out to Thelma Golden, who was the director of the Studio Museum [in Harlem] and said, “Could you come sit for us? Elvis is going to interview you. I’m going to take your portrait. We don’t really know what it is exactly, but you’re going to sit in front of a plain background and you’re going to talk to the camera.” And we did that, and then Toni Morrison agreed to do it. And after we looked at these, we knew we had something gold here, just knew it was different and special.
In terms of relating to my subjects, that’s what I do as a photographer. I’m very good at meeting someone very quickly, making him or her feel comfortable, setting up that atmosphere. And that’s what Elvis does brilliantly as an interviewer. So I think the team was so perfect, really.
In terms of your question about the art world, you know, we were very excited to get Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson and people like that into the project, because as wide as we wanted to make it, the art world is still a very tough place, and those are two women who were … who’ve made it, I guess, as artists. So we were thrilled to have them.
And Lorna I were friends for many years, and Kara I knew very peripherally. But Lorna just told her to do it. [audience laughs]
*** email interview portion now below ***
OL: Racism, though not exclusive to the United States, seems to be more openly discussed here than in other countries. I was wondering if being exposed to your subjects’ stories of direct experience with racism has brought about any changes in your own thinking with stereotypes, etc.? Take, for instance, the recent Kentucky Fried Chicken advertisement controvery overseas.
G-S: I think the Kentucky Fried Chicken incident in Australia is EXACTLY in line with what Debra Lee [President and CEO of BET] discusses in The Black List: Volume Three. She talks about how networks don’t have blacks, Asians, latinos, etc., in the upper executive offices, and as a result there is no one around to say that something like, “This is inappropriate.” Same goes for ad agencies … who don’t have minority representation on a high level … to point out crap like this. Or to at least question it.
OL: I know you use large format cameras in your work. I was hoping you could tell me a bit more about how you’re embracing new technology in your work, and where you may see your future endeavors going.
G-S: I love large format and have for 30 years shot that way. That said, digital photography is amazing and I don’t reject. But at this point, while film is still around … I will continue to use it, the special lens I have and create e unique images that way. Truth is that in 10 years I probably won’t be able to get film for my 8×10 camera. (My 11×14 camera is now filmless).
OL: Lastly, I was hoping you could tell me a bit about your own views of the boundaries between fine art and commercial endeavors, especially given the continued success of the Black List project. In your opinion, is there a blending between the two with this project, or does it fall more on either side?
G-S: As an artist I have been fortunate. My portraits are viewed not only in museums and galleries but also in ads and in editorials. That’s rare. I started out taking a certain kind of portrait and stuck with it … and eventually everyone came to me for what I did. I’m not asked to shoot still life or landscapes or interiors … I don’t want to. I like taking portraits.
With The Black List Project I took portraits that I hoped would hang in museums. Fortunately, these same images were ideal for press, for use in the film, for the web, for PR, etc.
** The Black List will screen on HBO throughout the month of February. Check local listings.