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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.