It is generally understood that, “to blacklist can mean to deny someone work in a particular field, or to ostracize them from a certain social circle. Conversely, a whitelist is a list or compilation identifying persons or organizations that are accepted, recognized, or privileged. But with your “Black List” book and film, you seem to have turned the phrase radically upside down. Please explain.
From the first moment we met to discuss the project, Elvis wanted to call it “THE BLACK LIST”. He’s always hated the negative connotations associated with those words, and he wanted to bring new meaning to the phrase in the 21st Century. I loved the idea and felt it was a perfect name for the project.
What was the genesis of this project? The book and the film worked out rather seamlessly. The filmed interviews turned into text for the book and my portraits
About three years ago, I was sitting in my kitchen with Toni Morrison and some of the stars of her opera, Margaret Garner. Toni was talking about all the amazing black divas who had auditioned for the opera. She turned to me and said, “Timothy, we should do a book about all these talented women. We could call it Black Divas. I’ll write the text and you can photograph the stars”. To work with Toni Morrison would be an honor, but the problem was that I’m not really a huge opera fan. But, it did get me thinking about black achievement and all the people I knew or had photographed. I kept thinking about the idea and finally reached out to Elvis for his thoughts. Elvis and I are neighbors on second Street, so we got together for lunch around the corner at a Thai restaurant. 175 names on napkins later, we had the genesis of The Black List Project.
The book and the film worked out rather seamlessly. The filmed interviews turned into text for the book and my portraits
Is there any definitive, singular objective embodied in this project? If not, what are the other general outlines of the Black List?
From the start we saw The Black List Project as a film, a book, a photographic exhibition, and an educational outreach endeavor. We were very ambitious, but honestly, it made sense to us to do all of these things.
Obviously you’ve admirably collected some of the heavyweights, A-List names on the American cultural map. How did you go about doing it?
Elvis and I looked pulled out our rolodexes and got to work. He knew Chris Rock, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Slash and Suzan-Lori Parks. I called up Thelma Golden, Toni Morrison, Faye Wattleton, Richard Parson and Bill T. Jones. Those folks alone would have made an amazing film.
What difficulties did you encounter?
Something like this is an enormous effort. There were so many people to coordinate, not just the subject him or herself, but the crew as well. It’s a miracle that we got it all done in time for Sundance.
In particular, what was the security like when you photographed former secretary of state, Collin Powell?
The General walked alone from his office across the street from our hotel ballroom for his interview and photo session. I, of course, had my usual five-person security deal to protect me from jealous large-format photographers.
Timothy, you generally prefer to shoot in your wonderful studio, but some of the personages in Black List, obliged you to go to them. How did you negotiate their relatively foreign terrain and still manage to obtain a classic Greenfield-Sandersesque portrait?
I much prefer shooting in my studio. It’s a very warm and inviting place. As you know, I live in a former Rector, it’s a very interesting building and it always serves to loosen up the interviewees. We had to use rental spaces in L.A. and Philly, something that makes the job of creating a perfect mood, more difficult.
What were some of the overlapping ideas between you two, considering that Elvis conducted the interviews and you, Timothy directed?
I did all I could to make sure that Elvis and the subjects were comfortable and relaxed for the filmed interviews. That was key. Elvis is always prepared, so once the subject arrived, I worked at being a good host. And of course, I made sure that all the equipment worked perfectly. There’s nothing worse than waiting for technical fixes. Subjects hate that.
Black List: Volume One implies that there will be a Volume Two, Three, etc. Is that correct? If so, what are we to expect in the forthcoming volumes? When is the next installation, as it were?
We are working on making Volume 2 a reality. Ike, you will be the first to know when that happens.
Working in both book and film media, how do you compare the advantages and limitations of each medium?
The book and the film worked out rather seamlessly. The filmed interviews turned into text for the book and my portraits, which were shot initially for the museum exhibitions, became perfect illustrations for the book as well.
Have you ever literarily been black/white listed to one degree or another?