“The Latino men all seem to cry at a moment’s notice—you mention their mothers and they all cry.” That was the experience of photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders as he shot The Latino List, a sparkling new show of portraits of Hispanics at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m sure he is right about tearful Latinos, but the best thing about Greenfield-Sanders’ show is that you won’t find a single such ethnic generalization—accurate or not—anywhere in it.
The 25 shots in the exhibition, all taken over the last 16 months, barely let you guess what unites them; rather than standing for what’s “Latin” in general, their subjects stand for themselves, in all their variety. There’s astronaut José Hernández, looking poised to Boldly Go, and an elegant Eva Longoria, seeming neither desperate nor housewife-ish. The supermodel Christy Turlington Burns looks as gorgeous—and “un-ethnic”—as ever. (Her mother is a Salvadoran of English descent.) And Marta Moreno Vega, an Afro-Caribbean expert on Yoruba philosophy, seems to dare you to sum up her ethnicity. “Marta is my favorite—she’s just amazing, so self-assured,” said Greenfield-Sanders, who is best known as one of the country’s leading magazine photographers. The soft-spoken 59-year-old, dressed all in black but with a halo of white frizz around his bald head, was rushing to install his Brooklyn show, which will be partnered by an HBO documentary, also shot by the artist and airing on Sept. 29.
“The hardest thing for me—because you know it’s going to be 25 pictures in the end—is that you have to find a way to make everyone look good, without always using the same pose,” said Greenfield-Sanders. If anything, he has gone too far in the other direction, making the pictures look so varied—some are half-length, others are head shots; some sitters are poised, others mug—that a sense of straight-ahead inventory gets lost. The shots can look more like two years’ worth of splashy magazine covers than like serious and sober contemporary art. (I’m thinking of the water-tower photos of the German masters Bernd and Hilla Becher and of un-glitzy portraits by their star students Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.)
The Latino List is a sequel to Greenfield-Sanders’ 2008 Black List Project, which garnered huge attention as an exhibition, also at the Brooklyn Museum, and a book and TV special. (The photographer is already working on two other “lists,” of women and gays, groups he feels are especially “in the zeitgeist” at the moment. A Jewish list is also possible. “Is the Jewish list timely? Maybe not right now,” says a man who is half-Jewish himself.) Greenfield-Sanders explained that the issue of Latino nationality made choosing a balanced roster of subjects even more complex than when he shot his Black List, since Hispanics tend to have a less uniform identity than African-Americans. “For me, growing up [in Miami], Cubans were Latinos; and when I went to Columbia [University], Puerto Ricans were Latinos, and when I went to the American Film Institute in California, Mexicans were Latinos.” For his Latino List, Greenfield-Sanders says he did the extra work of making sure that all those groups were represented, across both sexes and a range of professions. Once a figure was chosen and a visit to Greenfield-Sanders’ studio arranged, the photographer got only a bare few minutes to take a half-dozen shots, on an antique sheet-film camera. He couldn’t really get to know his sitters, he said, beyond what they had revealed in the video interviews at the beginning of each session. (Only one prominent Latino, an unnamed contemporary artist, refused his invitation; one famous one, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, made Greenfield-Sanders go to her.)
But in the end, the very superficiality of the images is a good thing. These huge, eerily crisp color photos, working almost as windows cut into the gallery wall, do not really let us deep inside their subjects. And that helps us recognize that recording ethnic and national identities, which is the backbone of this entire project, doesn’t yield much in the way of profundity. Greenfield-Sanders’ grandly superficial portraits help reveal that a Latino identity—or a Puerto Rican or Cuban or Mexican one—is just one of the surface features of who anyone is. It’s enough to get a list going, but that’s almost all.
“The truth of the matter is that I’m many things, like every one of us,” says businessman and politician Henry Cisneros in the Latino List documentary. “I’m a Democrat, I’m a Catholic, I’m a Texas Aggie, I’m a lot of things—I’m a mexicano.”
“Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: The Latino List” runs through Dec. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. Call 718-638-5000 or visit brooklynmuseum.org. For a full visual archive of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.