getting to know the enemy: Hank Willis Thomas

I find it gratifying when someone I’ve met & liked finds recognition for their hard work and talent. It’s like a Win for the Team – Nice Guys Vs. The Machine and we just scored a point! Woo!

A million years ago I had the good fortune to work as a lab technician at CCA at their campuses in both Oakland and San Francisco (and was incredibly fortunate to take some photography classes, too). Hank Willis Thomas was working on his MFA at the time & when our paths crossed we would talk about our photographs. I always found him to be thoughtful, insightful and more than a little otherworldly. It still strikes me as unusual that a postgrad student would be interested to talk photography with a lab monkey, but he was. I often wished I had enough confidence to ask more about his work.
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As many photography enthusiasts do, I follow the latest news form the Aperture Foundation. A few years ago Hank’s name started appearing in the Aperture press releases as Hot New Talent. Go Team! Recently they have been publicising an article written by Hank as the introduction to his monograph Pitch Blackness & republished online with the title What’s at the Heart of Black Cool?. It’s engaging, humble, interesting, personal & very well written and I highly recommend you spend the next few minutes reading it instead.

When I read it I can hear Hank’s candid voice and thoughtful manner. I surmise much of the knowledge and reflection it contains is a side-effect of his MFA research, and I think it’s a shining endorsement for the cultural contribution postgraduate visual/fine arts research offers. It certainly got me thinking about my research ( because I see my thesis research absolutely everywhere!) particularly where he describes becoming aware of being Black at around age five. It seems like there are lots of changes upstairs for all homo-sapiens at that age – possibly the end of magical thinking is the beginning of all manner of bodily concerns and the mixed up confusion that is to follow.

fail cakes

Achieving the final photograph involving brainstorm took three photo shoots … each time purely because I made silly film-photography errors. (I use a 4×5 Horseman monorail camera and sheet film.) In the first shoot I forgot that the orange colour would turn out nearly the same shade of grey as the stairwell in a black and white photograph. On the second go I neglected to compensate adequately for the red filter I was using to bring the orange out from the stairs. Lucky for me third time was lucky and I achieved the image that had been floating around in my brain since 2010.

There were some images from the ‘fail’ shoots that I really like that weren’t quite right for the project, but are much too interesting to hide away in oblivion. I’m calling them ‘fail cakes’ because they are similar to baking mishaps -lopsided and not really fit for company, but delicious nevertheless.

The spooky factor was amplified in the fail cakes photo shoots. My sister Delana was helping me for the first attempt, that’s her in the foreground.

ghosts in the stairwell

I love the shallow depth of field. It’s pure photogeekery, but one of the things I adore about using a 4×5 camera is tilt – being able to make the plane of sharp focus run up the stairs – but having everything else out of focus. Unfortunately the optical illusion gets lost in all the photography tricks.

Underexposure in this instance looks spooky as all get out. Why is that boy reading on the stairs in the dark with bare feet? No amount of fiddling was going to get past that the shot is much too underexposed to make a good print at the enormous size I’m working with for this series.

reading in the dark

expanding realities

- from the series Honest Magic


Ta da! This is my latest in the Honest Magic series which forms part of the artefact component of my Masters of Visual Art by Research studies.

This image was the reason for my sudden divergence into art in public places with the optical illusion installation brainstorm. That’s a lot of work for a photograph, I know. It’s just the way I roll. In actual fact brainstorm took less time to make than hand embroidering the the illusion in the image world building (also part of Honest Magic).

There’s always a risk of “ruining the magic” of an artwork when the artist tries to explain what it’s about, and I’m really reluctant to tread that fine line. Because this work is part of my research project I really do need to explain myself. This as-yet-untitled photograph is my interpretation of the mind-altering effects of reading any kind of book as a pre-literate child. Luigi Serafini also attempted to recreate this feeling of the edges of understanding (for adults who learnt to read long ago) with his acclaimed Codex Seraphinianus.

Many, many thanks to my very patient and helpful son Orlando for continuing to be good natured about appearing in my photographs, my husband Brian for the one hundred million ways in which he is helpful, and James Jean for the inspiration behind the image.

working with illusions

Radio interview! Saturday the 24th of December, 2011 @ 10:30am on Radio Adelaide Arts Breakfast (digital radio & 101.5fm)

anamorphosis installation in Kaurna Building, University of South Australia

anamorphosis installation views in Kaurna Building, University of South Australia


Nikki Marcel of Radio Adelaide has invited me to speak about my current optical illusion installation brainstorm in the Kaurna Building, City West Campus @ the University of South Australia on her Art’s Breakfast radio program.

Pretty exciting/terrifying! Last time I was asked to do a radio interview I really messed it up. It’s pretty keen to be invited to talk about my research though! Nikki saw the anamorphic stairwell installation and was intrigued enough to check out my website. She thinks people will be interested to hear about my project and the idea of photographic truth (and all kinds of truth too) being dependent on viewpoint – which is (a part of) what my Masters research is about, and what this installation is intended to illustrate. I think that means my work is working :sun: :duck:

installation view from the "sweet spot"

"brainstorm" optical illusion installation

This is the installation when viewed from the right position, which is outside the lifts on Level 4. The images up at the beginning of this entry show you how the installation looks very different if you approach it from other angles – along the hallways or even from the top of the stairs on Level 5.

I won’t talk about the how and why here, but if you listened to the broadcast and/or have some questions or comments please leave me a note below. I’d love to hear from you 🙂