Originally a photographer and self-described “visual culture archaeologist,” Hank Willis Thomas confronts the realities of racial violence in the United States by revisiting horrors that have become obfuscated with time. The formal qualities of these two prints emulate the mental process through which we absorb and digest difficult histories: both are grasped only when presented in a certain light.
Produced during a residency at the Lower East Side Printshop in New York, the prints use white ink on white retro-reflective vinyl mounted on aluminum—the same materials that cause street signs to glow when hit by a car’s headlights at night. The content of And I Can’t Run and Blow the Man Down only becomes fully legible when viewed from a certain angle or when a light is shone on them.
Thomas culled the images from postcards he found on eBay depicting public punishments inflicted upon African Americans (such postcards were in circulation well into the 1950s and ’60s). In ambient light, And I Can’t Run appears to show a muddle of onlookers; the scene they observe is too faint to make out. When illuminated by a flash, however, the formerly negative space becomes positive, revealing a silhouetted figure bound to a post with its back exposed. One figure in the crowd—probably a young boy, given his height—is also silhouetted. These are the only two African Americans in the original image; their similarity, reduced to their blackness, completely invisible in normal light and revealed simultaneously (but anonymously) in a flash of light, evokes a profound sympathy between the bystander and the central figure—the spectacle. Or perhaps Thomas is drawing our attention to the two individuals with whom we should be sympathizing: the man about to be whipped and the child perhaps brutalized by the sight.
In Blow the Man Down, two silhouetted figures, their heads and hands in stocks, stand on a gibbet-like platform, while a third is bound to the supporting post, back exposed once again. Flanking the scene with almost perfect symmetry are two hatted, suited white men who look at the camera with the assurance of people in power—one holds a whip. The positive-negative relationship is stronger in And I Can’t Run, where the silhouettes transform from entirely white to entirely black when lit; in Blow the Man Down, the silhouettes are black both in ambient light and with a flash of illumination. The image merely becomes bolder in bright light, the contrast between the black and white men clearer.
Such images, relegated to history books, have been dulled by the passage of time. Written explanations elucidate these acts of violence, but lack immediacy. The transience of Thomas’s images intensifies their reality. The viewer must choose to see the victims by shining a light, but even when the light is shone they remain faceless. They have distinguishing characteristics; we arrive at the connection between the literal blackness of the silhouettes and their race on our own, through learned historical associations. With a flash of light, we recall injustices we know but have forgotten. Just as quickly, the histories disappear again.