Serena Williams

*Whoopi Goldberg, John Legend, Sean Combs and Serena Williams are part of a new exhibit at Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery called “The Black List.”

The collection, opening today, also features other leading black figures among the 50 large-scale photographs from Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in a project that also included a 2008 HBO film.

After a conversation with his friend, the writer Toni Morrison, Greenfield-Sanders began thinking of all the successful black figures he knows — and how so many were unknown. He and collaborator Elvis Mitchell scribbled down 200 names on napkins over lunch.

“I’ve done the art world, I’ve done the music world, I’ve done the porn world, I’ve done politics — I’ve done all these different worlds, and it’s all about accomplishment,” Greenfield-Sanders, who is white, told The Associated Press. “I thought it would be interesting: As a white guy, could I do this?”

Morrison, whose portrait is in the exhibit, and others encouraged him to pursue the idea.

His theme came from the historical term, “blacklist,” referring to a marginalized group. Greenfield-Sanders wanted to turn the phrase into a roll call of distinction to show the broad range of achievements of African Americans.

The project began in 2006 before most people had heard of the man who would become the first black president. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was on Greenfield-Sanders’ wish list, but he said his chances of photographing Obama became less and less as the 2008 campaign drew closer.

Between 2007 and 2009, Mitchell and Greenfield-Sanders arranged 50 interviews ranging from Laurence Fishburne and Tyler Perry to businessman Richard Parsons, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Gap fashion designer Patrick Robinson. Beyond celebrities, the project includes influential but lesser-known figures, such as playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and urban environmentalist Majora Carter.

“We knew we needed to have some celebrities,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “You sell it by having Fishburne and Chris Rock and the other people that draw them in, and then they learn something from these other people.”

After filming interviews with each subject, Greenfield-Sanders asked for a portrait sitting. Some gave him all the time he needed. In the case of music mogul Russell Simmons, he had 45 seconds.

Simmons, later a supporter of the project, was “difficult” at first, Greenfield-Sanders said.

“He had his cell phone in his hands throughout the interview,” the photographer said. “I’m not going to mince words here.”

The Smithsonian exhibit is the first to feature all 50 portraits and will be open through April 2012. A smaller version of “The Black List” has been shown in New York and Los Angeles. Greenfield-Sanders also created “The Latino List,” with a similar concept that is on view now at the Brooklyn Museum.

For the Portrait Gallery, the exhibition brings more diverse faces into a museum that once barred living subjects from its collection. Its bylaws had required that anyone in the permanent collection be dead for at least 10 years.

“It tended to be more of a backward look at history, rather than a forward-looking one,” said Ann Shumard, curator of photographs. “With the dropping of that prohibition, it has opened us up to addressing contemporary life and the individuals who are making American history as we speak.

“That’s a far more diverse and interesting group perhaps than some of the folks … in the past.”