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A Masterful 'American Masters': Engaging Portraits of 15 Fascinating People in an Hour
September 25, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

TV watchers who can look over the following list and discover at least one person about whom they would like to know more owe themselves an hour of top-notch viewing Sept. 25 when American Masters premieres “The Women's List” (PBS, 9 p.m. -- check local listings).

Those who appear in this very inclusive, informative and expertly edited special are:

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State

Gloria Allred, lawyer

Laurie Anderson, artist

Sara Blakely, entrepreneur

Margaret Cho, comedian

Edie Falco, actor

Elizabeth Holmes, scientist, entrepreneur

Betsey Johnson, fashion designer

Alicia Keys, singer-songwriter

Aimee Mullins, athlete, fashion model

Nancy Pelosi, member of Congress

Rosie Perez, actor

Shonda Rhimes (right), writer-producer

Wendy Williams, talk show host

Nia Wordlaw, pilot

Some names may be familiar, others maybe not. They all have distinguished themselves in highly different ways, and the interviews, at best, will cause some who see them to want to learn more. Others will serve as sort of index cards to be mentally filed away as people worth knowing of. It will be an hour of fulfilling television for those who look to public broadcasting for way-above-average ways to learn more about the world and the people who affect its spinning.

It's an impressive accomplishment to include 15 different interviews in an hour-long program and get them all right. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (below), who produced and directed this American Masters installment, has done it before: In “The Boomer List,” which ran on PBS last year, and The Out List, which was seen on HBO a year earlier. He has been a respected still photographer even longer than he has produced programs, and one suspects composing the best still portrait and then editing and printing that work with an artist's eye has taught him much about producing compressed interviews that deliver in a large way.

In a recent phone interview, Greenfield-Sanders told how selecting subjects for his programs isn't so much a scientific survey as it is reliant on what used to be called a power-packed Rolodex.

"The other producers and I usually start with a sort of a wish list," he said.

That list is largely made up of people who meet the show's criteria and whom one of the list-makers knows. Madeleine Albright, whom he said he had photographed in her State Department days and whom he calls a friend, was his first contact. When someone of her stature agreed, Greenfield-Sanders said, it made getting commitments from others on the list easier when the other "producers with connections" made their calls.

He said he spent no more than two hours with each interviewee -- the second of which he used for shooting still photos after the interview ended. Greenfield-Sanders' work is known around the world for its ability to capture an important aspect of the subject. He said his list programs "are very much my portraits come to life."

The video editing that follows the sessions, he said, is "very difficult. The ideal case is that you have too much good material. You want people to want more."

Another major factor that almost certainly may have helped him to achieve dramatic equity with both still and motion pictures is the people who took an interest in him. Following undergraduate work at Columbia University, he switched coasts and received a master's degree from the American Film Institute. When noted film figures would address its classes, Greenfield-Sanders (left) said he would photograph the sessions. He shared two encounters of note.

Alfred Hitchcock, while he was being photographed, told him his lighting was wrong. It was an encounter that led to more contact with the legendary director, times in which Hitchcock taught him much.

Bette Davis was another great who took an interest in him. He said that while he was photographing her, she questioned why he was shooting from below and up at his subject. She next asked if he could drive.

"Drive me around and I'll teach you about photography," she offered.

He did not turn her down, and he said the stint as a chauffeur resulted in his learning much about all forms of photography.

Getting the confidence of such luminaries takes special skills. These skills are evident in the ways the persons appearing in “The Women's List” open up and share their lives.

His photo portraits and short descriptions of the people interviewed for this program can be found at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/womens-list-portrait-gallery/5339/

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