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Scholarship Tuesday

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Hank Willis Thomas and Cindy Sherman

Not your typical pairing, I realize. But this week I learned more about Thomas’ long-term projects (Branded and Unbranded) and Sherman’s film stills (more specifically, her artistic practice before, during and after that work). 

First, let me just say that I think Hank Willis Thomas is a genius. In case you are unfamiliar, his work deals with race in advertising and popular culture. His project “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America” appropriates ads targeting African American consumers from 1968-2008 and removes all logos and product references. The aim of this work is to reveal cultural stereotypes that are created and sustained by mass media. 

Basically, he takes an existing print ad and removes the logo on the coke bottle, the McDonald’s symbol off the sleeve of fries, etc. (See image below.) And as the viewer, what you are left with is the stripped-down inanity of these constructions.

Hank Willis Thomas showing an original ad and his appropriated version with the Salem logo removed.

Hank Willis Thomas showing an original ad and his appropriated version with the Salem logo removed.

It’s so smart. One of the things I read said that Thomas “wants his work to force viewers to think critically about the ways corporate and media imagery mediates and shapes our experience of the world.” The brilliance is how the work absolutely does this, without being obtuse or overly academic. But it’s also not heavy-handed. The whole concept just seems so purposeful, direct and well-thought out.

And then I was reading about Cindy Sherman’s film stills. I knew about them, of course, but I read an introduction she wrote for her book of film stills that talked about her art-making and how she ended up creating the series. Sherman is an icon and a goddess, I know this, but it was really interesting to read someone else talking about the work and then her talking about the work. 

All of the talk about the stills make note of the cataloging of different female stereotypes, like she set out to create a feminist encyclopedia of how women are portrayed in the world. She did that, and it was powerful and new and brilliant. But the way she talks about the process, it seems less proscribed than that. She says, “I know I was not consciously aware of this thing the ‘male gaze’. It was the way I was shooting, the mimicry of the style of black and white grade-Z motion pictures that produced the self-consciousness of these characters, not my knowledge of feminist theory.”

Does it matter whether you have a clear intention from the outset or whether you let the process of art-making shape the output? Honestly, I have no idea. But personally, I’m super impressed with a well-executed brilliant nut of an idea. #justsaying

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Nicholas Nixon: More Than Just A Pretty Face (or 4 Pretty Faces)

In my ongoing quest for scholarship, I often skim over people who I feel confident I know enough about. For example, Atget = Paris (but the ghosts!). Because there is so much to know, and I feel like I should focus on people I know nothing about, instead of diving deeper into semi-known territory.

So Nicholas Nixon photographed the Brown sisters - his wife and her three sisters, every year, in the same order, all looking at the camera, starting in 1975 and still going strong. I always kind of put that in the category of “wish I had thought of that”. Damn, it’s good. Simple, elegant, showing the passage of time.

I always forget that he was part of the seminal 1975 New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House. Shame on me. But still. Peter Galassi (he’s not John Szarkowski…) says the photographers in that exhibit went one of two ways in their (respectful) treatment of subject - they either admired the inherent beauty, at the risk of prettiness, or they represented straight facts, at the risk of banality. Galassi says Nixon’s work after this seems like an attempt to reconcile these two attitudes.

The main thing I took away from this week’s reading on Nixon was his mastery of the 8x10 camera - an unwieldy thing that takes patience I don’t have. As he moved from his topographic work toward portraits, he did not abandon the 8x10, even though this contemporaries were all jet-setting with the Leica. He began making work along the Charles River, and his landscapes gradually began to be about groups of people and their social interactions. He moved closer in, but still with the 8x10 beast. He switched out lenses, began photographing groups of people on their porches.

Galassi says his style seemed to “annex advanced hand-camera style to the old-fashioned, intractable view camera, and thus to merge the spontaneity and suppleness of the former with the deliberateness and descriptive abundance of the latter”.

Ok, ok. I’m impressed. Damn. 

Nicholas Nixon photographs the Brown Sisters every year, starting in 1975

Nicholas Nixon photographs the Brown Sisters every year, starting in 1975

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