Meet the Photographer: Hank Willis Thomas


Hank Willis Thomas


Hank Willis Thomas received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in Photography, along with an MA in Visual Criticism, from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. His work was published in his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport and The Oakland Museum of California. He is currently a Spring 2012 Fellow with the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago and is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Thomas shot new images exclusively for Musée’s Breaking Tradition issue.

Thomas’ work is in numerous public collections including The Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and Museum of Modern Art. His work has been exhibited prevalently in the United States as well as other parts of the world, including Trade Dress: Value Judgments at Diaspora Vibe Gallery in Miami, Black is Beautiful at Roberts and Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles, and All Things Being Equal… at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. Thomas has also collaborated with other artists in group exhibitions such as Day Labor at P.S. 1 in New York City, The Black Alphabet at Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, Poland, and Making History at Museum für Modern Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany. 




Interview with Hank Willis Thomas


Where did you go to school?

I went to NYU for undergrad and got a BFA in Photography and Africana Studies. After, I went to CCA (California College of the Arts) in San Francisco and Oakland, where I received my MFA in Photography and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies.

Coming from a creative family, did you feel any pressure while growing up to create?

Not growing up, but when it came time to go to college. I would say they just kind of forced me. I didn’t really want to be an artist. I didn’t really want to go to art school, but I had already taken up an interest in photography, and it was my mother’s dream to go to NYU. We were living in D.C., so she kind of forced me into going there. Three years after I graduated, she got hired, and soon became chair of the department.

What’s one word that would describe you?


What’s one word that would describe your work?


What advice would you give for emerging artists or photographers?

Do. Keep doing. Embrace failure; embrace rejection. Enjoy it because those are the most useful lessons that you could have as an artist. If you never fail or acknowledge that you have failed, you can never be good. No one steps on stage and is the best actor; you have to start somewhere. Recognize where you falter or where you have challenges, and be open to some sort of degree of criticism. At least until you are confident in your own voice, or once you’ve had a wide range of criticism from a variety of people who you respect and admire. You can take what you want and leave the things that you don’t think are helpful as you master what it is you’re trying to do.

Do you think you’ve mastered what you’re trying to do?

No, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

Do you think you’ll continue this exploration?

Until someone better picks it up! I don’t think I’m the best and I don’t think that I have everything to say, but there’s not enough people in fine art who are engaging with popular culture and advertising in a critical way.

How did you feel when using the iPhone for a project?

Well, I got really into it. The images I gave you were all images that I took in the past six months, so it’s not my oeuvre. This shows what I could do with the camera, as well as what it means to take an image and share it with the world, theoretically, within seconds. When I started using Instagram, I began to really look at photographs because the social media site becomes an exhibiting venue to your “followers”. It’s like curating an exhibition of your life experiences. I wanted to look at what was happening in 2012 in terms of important moments and highlights.

Aesthetically, did you find that there were any obstacles or challenges using it?

I always feel a little cheap when I use digital media for making photographs because if I don’t like it, I can delete it immediately. There’s no consequence to it. The real challenge is trying to pay real attention to it or as I recall at least when there was no digital media. Now when I shoot film, I don’t care as much, because I know that I can take a better or faster picture easier with digital. When I look back at the time that I was shooting a lot of medium-format film with only twelve exposures, I realize that I was very, very cautious and careful about how I exposed the film and what I chose to take a photograph of. I wasn’t really going to take a photograph unless I was thinking about printing it. I never just took photographs for the heck of it, so when I shoot with my iPhone or even just point a digital camera, I’m blindly recording. I’ve probably taken more photographs in the past seven years than in my entire fifteen just because I can do it without accountability.

You’re not really a reportage photographer?

I tried but I wasn’t the best. I went to school with a number of really great photojournalists, as well as reportage, and documentary photographers. I would probably give myself a solid B! I’m sure that if I were more courageous and more invested, I could probably have improved. I recognized from the feedback that I was getting that it wasn’t really the direction that I wanted to go in anyway. However, I’ve always had great admiration and respect for people who photograph that way. Now we see so many images on a daily basis. I believe that there are more images taken in a single second than any of us know what to do with in our entire life and I’m not so confident that was true even thirty years ago. There are ten times more photographers now than when I got into photography. It calls for a little bit of an identity crisis; should I really try to be the best photographer or should I be looking at the images society creates and try to understand what they mean in the present moment? You could do that or wait for art history to look at the plethora of images created and understand what they might be saying about our values today.

What do you think is the difference between your personal art and your other art? I have never made a distinction.

The one thing that has always made me uncomfortable is when friends who are editorial or commercial photographers have sections titled “personal work” or “personal projects” on their websites. It’s like saying “I know you really care about this, but this is what I care about”. Even though I understand the importance of separating it, it does make an omission that what you believe personally isn’t as valuable as a picture of John Cougar Mellencamp or something. The benefit of being an “artist” is that everything you do is personal.

Forgive me, I don’t mean to offend you, but if you woke up white, what do you think your art would be like?

If I woke up white, it would probably be the same. If I woke up white and was still myself, I would probably make the same work. One of my best friends is John Davidson. He’s Jewish and does this thing that cracks everyone up. He says, “I feel like a failure. I’m a poor Upper West Side Jew”. It’s partially because he’s creatively interested in conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, and other complex issues. I think it’s because he and I grew up listening to people like Eddie Murphy, centered on comedy, who influenced the way we look at the world. That’s my closest reference to someone who has a relationship to the world similar to mine because we’ve known each other for almost thirty years. I would say that some of my “white” peers don’t have the burden of having to deal with their identity so to speak. There are some white, male artists who make work about that. I’m actually curating a show next year called White Boys at Haverford College. I’m interested in making work about “whiteness” and “white maleness.” The discourse is different. A lot of the ideas that come out of my work have been influenced by my white peers and that’s heavily taken for granted. A lot of successful black artists have non-black partners, so you can’t suggest that it doesn’t influence the work they make. I really feel like race is a fabrication that we choose to believe and because we choose to believe it, we now look at the world in a way that is limiting to our perspectives. That’s why I do a lot of collaborative projects. There’s a website,, where you can see all of my collaborative work including a project that we did in Ireland last year.

Do you think your work will always be in some way politically influenced?

Until I master it, yes.

In your opinion, how important is grad school?

I think it’s really important, but only to those people who aren’t afraid of wasting their time. Part of being a successful artist is getting comfortable with wasting your time because you can never tell what’s going to be worth it and what’s not. If you’re in the process of growing, sometimes looking at a wall for two months is going to be more useful than someone coming in and talking to you. There is a process that you’re going through intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally that you have to submit to. It’s really hard to do when you don’t have the privilege of having people around whose job it is to care about what you do. When you graduate high school as an artist, no one cares about whether or not you’re going to make it. If you go to art school, people are paid to care about it. If you go to grad school, even more people are paid to care even more about it. It’s the investment in yourself that is really fruitful for a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s for everybody.

What inspired you to start experimenting with conceptual photography?

In undergrad I did conceptual photography where I took photographs, but I was really trying to make a comment on the lie that is photography. We look at the photograph as a document, but it’s really a split-second in time and a two-dimensional space where basically only one of the senses is triggered. Even that is distorted because it’s a thirtieth of a second and it’s in a narrow frame.

So your advertising, branding, and un-branding – is that collage?

The branded is all pictures I’ve taken, while the unbranded is all Photoshopped.

What influences you in the art world now, or what artists influence your work?


How did you get your first break?

I didn’t… I guess I was just born. My first break was getting into college and then into grad school. My peers in grad school really helped me to get my first shows and one of my friends from grad school got me my first gallery.

What would you say is the high point of your career up to now?

I had the most fun at Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. I’d like to say the high point is everyday, but it’s also the low point (laughs).

What haven’t you done that you would like to do?

Save the planet.

When is your next show?

My next major show is at the Jack Shainman Gallery in October 2013.

Would you ever consider curating one of Musée’s issues?




Image Brief

Musée Presents: B. Charles Johnson, Emerging Photographer