Pitch Blackness [book]

[2-day liberatormagazine.com featured story]

I wrote this review for 81 Press, photographer and author Carla Williams' online journal and digital library. I figured I should share it here too.

Pitch Blackness: On February 2, 2000, Songha Thomas Willis was shot to death outside a Philadelphia nightclub. He was 27 years old. The takeaway? A $400 gold chain. It’s the story that lies at the heart of Pitch Blackness, the first monograph by photographer and inaugural Aperture West Book Prize recipient Hank Willis Thomas, Songha’s cousin. It’s also a story that, sadly, occurs all too frequently across America. What makes Pitch Blackness so affecting is that Thomas explores not only the immediate effect of his cousin’s death on his family and friends but also the skewed perceptions of race, sexuality, gender roles, and economic empowerment that contribute to a cycle of violence.

The book consists of six distinct, yet cohesive parts, giving it a novel-like quality. It also includes two illuminating essays on the historical context of Thomas’ work from RenĂ© de Guzman and Robin D. G. Kelley.

We start with pages from the Thomas-Willis family photo album, which are some of the most powerful images. They set a nostalgic, wistful tone, as they show Hank and Songha transform from babies to toddlers to handsome young men with easy smiles, constantly surrounded by various aunts, cousins, uncles, brothers and sisters. The wistful tone ends abruptly, replaced first by a newspaper clipping reporting Songha’s murder and then images of coffins, graves, tears, furrowed brows, mouths hardened into grim lines, scans of the autopsy report and the medical examiner’s photo of Songha, post-autopsy. It brought tears to my eyes and made me wonder how Hank was able to compose himself enough to take photos throughout that period. Or perhaps taking photos was the only way he could begin to process where he was and why.

The next segment of the book consists of stills from “Winter in America,” a stop-motion animated film that re-enacts the events leading up to Songha’s murder using GI Joe dolls. It’s a creepy and absurd set of images; it shows us how children are taught to normalize violence before they can count to 20, and asks us “What are we teaching ourselves about the value of life?”

This leads us to the sobering “Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake,” a set of portraits of the people affected by Songha’s life and untimely death. As Hank points out himself, “the impossibility of this task becomes the point” of this project. The truly diverse group of people–young, old, black, white, etc.–are presented as a pair, then a grid of four, then six, then eight, with black squares standing in for the people he couldn’t find and include.

Branded, Priceless #1, 2004 © Hank Willis Thomas from Pitch Blackness (Aperture, October 2008)

The other sets of images, from “Branded,” “Studio X,” and “Unbranded” puts Songha’s death within a larger context about how Black men have been perceived and portrayed in mass media. In “Branded,” he appropriates images, brands, logos and techniques from popular ads to critique a culture that values material wealth above human beings. He illustrates this through images such as “Timberland and Johnnie Walker,” which shows the Air Jordan symbol as a lynching victim, swinging from the Timberland tree logo while the Johnnie Walker mascot stays true to his motto and keeps walking.

There’s also his take on those ubiquitous “Priceless” MasterCard commercials, using a photo from Songha’s funeral and the following copy: “New socks: $2. 3-Piece Suit: $250. Gold chain: $400. 9mm pistol: $79. bullet: ¢69. Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless.”

He also appropriates and manipulates ads from Absolut, American Express, the NBA and Chase, combining modern-day ads with images from 19th-century literature depicting slaves. “Branded” is filled with a potent combination of pathos and gallows humor. (”The Original Slam Dunk” is the Air Jordan logo, Jumpman, diving from a slave ship. See what I mean?)

The same combination appears in “Unbranded,” a collection of ads geared toward Black people dating from 1968, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and symbolic death of the civil rights movement to the present day, 2008.

Hank strips away all logos and copy, leaving the reader with some very disquieting images. The one that stood out to me the most was “OJ Dingo,” depicting O.J. Simpson with a literal third leg, for a boot ad from the 1970s. Incredible. Of course this was created before terms such as “politically correct” entered the lexicon but I also wonder how advertisers were able to get away with the idea that Simpson’s phallus was so huge it needed its own boot.

These images serve to either reinforce ugly stereotypes or undermine the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement to sell goods no one really needs. One example is a photo of tires rolling through the desert in the shape of the iconic Black Power fist. It is completely perverse and Thomas highlights that perversion again and again, in an engaging and darkly humorous way.

What makes these series so fascinating is Thomas’ argument that not much has changed from the times of slavery and now regarding the way Black people, Black males in particular, are perceived, which is mostly as commodities instead of complex, sentient human beings. During the centuries-long slave trade, propagating the myth that Black people aren’t, in fact, people, made it easier to buy and sell them and keep the system in place. He argues that Black men in 20th- and 21st-century society are still portrayed as 2-D objects, commodities to be bought and sold. He also argues that this perception, along with equating consumerism as a means of empowerment can have dire consequences, such as young men being killed over Air Jordan tennis shoes or cheap gold chains.

The book also includes the series “Studio X,” portraits of young black men and women wearing t-shirts emblazoned with airbrushed photos of their dead friends and family members. While it’s a way to pay tribute to the fallen, you wish that those kind of t-shirt businesses didn’t have so many sales, that their business wasn’t dependent on so many lives being cut short. While I feel “Branded” and “Unbranded” are stronger collectively, and his portraits for “Bearing Witness” are more emotionally resonant, these portraits still probe a tragic subject manner with sensitivity and straightforwardness.

Pitch Blackness runs the risk of appearing maudlin or polemical but Hank Willis Thomas manages to avoid those pitfalls. What comes through loud, clear and strong is a powerful, intimate tribute to a life lost much too soon and a refusal to fall victim to complacency.