Hank Willis Thomas sheds light in ‘What We Ask Is Simple’ | AspenTimes.com

Hank Willis Thomas sheds light in ‘What We Ask Is Simple’

Hank Willis Thomas's exhibition "What We Ask Is Simple" uses "photo-reflective" materials that are activated by flash photography.
Andrew Travers/The Aspen Times

When there’s a message painted on the glass door of an art gallery announcing “Flash Photography Encouraged,” you know you are in for something out of the ordinary.

Flash photography is essential, in fact, to seeing Hank Willis Thomas’ indeed extraordinary “What We Ask Is Simple,” which is spread across two Jack Shaiman Gallery locations in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. I took in the exhibition, which runs through May 12, on a recent visit to the city.

Thomas has printed historical images on “retro-reflective” surfaces, meaning that to be seen fully they must be activated by a flash of light. They depict scenes of protest and civil disobedience in Africa, North America and Europe. Some are iconic photos that will be instantly familiar; some less so.

Just a portion of each piece is visible in the dim light of the galleries. When you snap a flash photo, the latent image emerges briefly before your eyes (and is saved on your camera phone). In many, Thomas has printed the images on mirrors so that the photo in your phone not only shows the hidden image but also puts you, the viewer, inside of these historic scenes of resistance.

This kind of participatory, device-friendly exhibition easily could be brushed off as a gimmick or a stunt to generate traffic on Instagram. And in lesser hands, it might be just that. But in Thomas’ hands it is brilliantly and powerfully executed.

The proliferation of camera phones and social media are often seen as cheapening the artform of photography. But here, the camera phone is used to produce a frisson of discovery reminiscent of that long-lost feeling of watching an image emerge during dark room processing.

In a work titled “All Deliberate Speed,” all you see at first is a sideways American flag. A light flash reveals the iconic image of a counter-protester attempting to stab a protester with the flag, shot by Stanley Forman during the demonstrations seeking to desegregate Boston’s public schools in 1976.

Another appears to show a single small silhouette on an otherwise blank canvas. When you snap a photo, it reveals a massive crowd in Germany doing a Nazi salute, with one man — that silhouette — refusing to do so.

The pieces printed on mirrors have a yet more jarring effect.

When you snap your photos to view these works, it not only brings them to full life for a brief revelatory moment but, of course, saves them in your phone. There they sit beside baby pictures, selfies and the voluminous digital photo archives we all carry in our pockets these days. The mirror works, photographed straight on, place you inside the artwork. So, a week after my visit to Thomas’ show, scrolling though these photos, I find a shot of myself holding up a phone next to two police officers dragging away a protester in a vintage black-and-white image. You’re implicated in these frames and you’re forced to ask which side you’re on.

These kinds of framings — historical, cultural and very personal — have been a career-long inquiry for Thomas.

“The question that I am in pursuit of is, ‘How are the frames that we are given about ourselves, about the world and about history — how do they affect our understanding of the truth and reality?’” Thomas said during a 2015 lecture at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village.

His earliest work, he explained in a slideshow presentation, used literal frames and viewer participation not unlike “What We Ask Is Simple.” He would approach strangers on the streets of New York, hand them empty frames and then photograph them holding the frame — examining how the frame changed a viewer’s perspective on the surroundings.

He has also manipulated photography used in advertising, reframing ways that the bodies of black men and white women have been used by corporations throughout American history. Thomas also works in sculpture and in video — and in recent years he has traveled the world with his “Truth Booth,” a portable tent in which he records messages from people about their idea of truth — but photography is the backbone of his practice.

“I look at images and try to find new ways to present them,” he said at Anderson Ranch.

In his newest exhibition, like so much of his work and even in his artist-run political action committee For Freedoms, Thomas finds ways to remind us that history is personal — that we are all playing an active part in shaping it, and hopefully improving on it. His work is rooted in morality. As Thomas put it at Anderson Ranch: “An artist’s pursuit is akin to the pursuit of all of us as human beings. What I’m trying to do is be a better person everyday.”