FotoFest Exhibitions

Hank Willis Thomas

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Reflections in Black by Corporate America

Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America is a series of images that Hank Willis Thomas appropriated from magazine advertisements that were originally marketed towards an African American audience, or that simply featured Black subjects. The full project presents two ads for every year from 1968 to 2008, and this work attempts to explore the evolution of African-Americans in the corporate eye from then till now.

With the murder of Martin Luther King, 1968 became the symbolic end of the Civil Rights Movement. Thomas has “unbranded” or removed all aspects of the advertising information – e.g. the text and logos – to reveal what’s being sold by these images. No other part of the photographs have been altered or digitally manipulated. The photographers of most of these images are unknown, and Thomas believes that it is integral to the conceptual framework of the series to understand that these images are created by our society, and that he did not contribute to or claim any authorship of them.

“What I’m most interested in these ads”, Thomas explains, “is not only how other people see us but also how we see our selves; what we can learn about our own assumptions, as well as how we were/are ‘othered.’” Thomas believes that, in part, advertising’s success is based on its ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity, which can be sometimes entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but all in all are a reflection of the way a culture views itself and its aspirations. By “unbranding” advertisements, Thomas can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as the “what-goes-without saying” in their images, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.


Hank Willis Thomas, winner of the first Aperture West Book Prize for his monograph Pitch Blackness (New York: Aperture, 2008), received his B.F.A. from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his M.F.A. in photography—along with a M.A. in visual criticism—from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. His work was featured in the exhibition and accompanying catalog, 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American. He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and abroad including: Galway 126, Galway, Ireland; Annarumma 404, Milan, Italy; Studio Museum in Harlem; P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; the International Center of Photography, New York; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Jamaica, New York; Artists Space, New York; Leica Gallery, New York; Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University Oakland Museum of California; and the Smithsonian Institution’s, Anacostia Museum, National Museum of American History, and National Portrait Gallery, all in Washington, D.C. among others.