Close Look: Hank Willis Thomas
We continue our 'Close Look' series with another thoughtful essay by University of Texas art history PhD student, Nicole Smythe-Johnson. Her close look of Hank Willis Thomas' Branded Chest, prompts us to consider notions of commodification, slavery, race, and sport— through a photographer's lens. As the U.S. contends with a new spate of racial uprisings, this timely essay draws critical connections between the past and present, while encouraging us to think about what might come next.
The works of art featured in Close Look are found in some of our favorite private-collections—providing a rare opportunity to peak at some of the collectors who inspire us, while taking a closer look…
Branded Chest, Hank Willis Thomas.
2003, platinum print, 10 in H x 6.5 in W
Branded Bodies: Hank Willis Thomas’ Branded Chest
By Nicole Smythe-Johnson
When I came across Hank Willis Thomas’s 2003 photograph, Branded Chest from the B®anded Series in Dr. Cherise Smith’s collection, I knew it was the next work I wanted to give a close look to. There seems no better time to engage this iconic work. At time of writing, it’s been less than a week since N.B.A. team the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magics. The team issued a statement demanding justice for Jacob Blake, a young Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin a few days before. The issue was especially keen for the Bucks since Milwaukee police tasered and arrested one of their own teammates, Sterling Brown, over an alleged parking violation in 2018. The Bucks’ refusal to play was followed by players pulling out of six other NBA games, as well as similar actions by players in the W.N.B.A., Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer. In tennis, Naomi Osaka, the highest paid female athlete in the world, wore a face mask with Breonna Taylor’s name printed on it to her first-round match at the US Open. Taylor was fatally shot in her home by Louisville Police in March 2020. Though there have been many calls for criminal charges against the police officers involved, more than six months later no charges have been filed.
The matrix of race, violence and sports that these protests index is precisely where Willis Thomas’s practice intervenes. In Branded Chest, we find a photo of a man’s torso, cropped just below his collar bones and just above his genitals. The subject’s muscular torso, seemingly that of an athlete, is lit from the top right, enhancing his musculature, and fills the frame. Though it’s a monochrome photo, the subject’s skin has a rich brown undertone, making clear that we are looking at a person of color. On the subject’s left pectoral muscle, just above the nipple, and the heart, is a scar in the shape of the Nike logo—that ubiquitous swoosh. The artist has digitally added the scar where the swoosh would fall on a polo or t-shirt, as though this brown body was also a Nike product.
The warm tone Willis Thomas achieves in the print is due in large part to the printing process. A platinum print is an especially expensive and labor-intensive process, involving the use of platinum, one of the rarest and most expensive of the precious metals. This process has the benefit, however, of depicting a broader range of grays and warmer reddish-brown tones than a silver gelatin print, which is the more common printing technique for black and white photos. As a result, Branded Chest seems somewhere between black and white and sepia, giving the subject’s skin a warm glow.
The focus on skin that the photograph’s technical features invite, indexes the ways in which race inflects the other major themes of the work— consumption, marketing and sport.
Martha Scott Burton, a recent MA graduate from the University of Texas at Austin’s art history program whose work focuses on the history of photography and race, helped me understand the significance of the technique, pointing out that the photograph’s technical aspects allow it to intervene in the medium’s history of misrepresenting darker skin tones. Much has been written in recent years about photography’s light skin bias. Burton pointed out the difference between the nuanced handling of skin tone in Willis Thomas’ photo and the approach in another set of iconic black and white photographs that address race, Edward S. Curtis’ turn of the century photographs of Native Americans. In Curtis’ more than 40,000 photos of Native Americans across North America, his subjects’ skin routinely appears much darker than it actually was, contributing to an exoticizing gaze and the flattening of difference among and between groups as varied as the Inuit of the far north and the Hopi of the southwest. Burton also pointed out that the use of platinum printing, with its shimmering undertone, instills value both in the photograph and its subject. She notes, “that could be a way of Willis Thomas assigning an honorific value to the Black body, or a fungible sense of value.” That is, a conception of the Black body as commodity.
The focus on skin that the photograph’s technical features invite, indexes the ways in which race inflects the other major themes of the work— consumption, marketing and sport. The Nike logo is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world, due in large part to Black people’s endorsement and consumption. One does not think about Nike without thinking of their iconic Air Force Ones or Air Jordans, styles of shoe that were promoted by Black basketball players and have become synonymous with Black popular culture. Nike’s products have received a kind of unpaid endorsement, through endless music videos, red carpet appearances and song lyrics. Remember Nelly’s 2002 hit “Air Force Ones”? The rapper did not have a deal with Nike when he released the song, though he was offered a deal once the song blew up.
These endorsements are not without their tensions, however. There were the oft-repeated rumors of racist comments made by designer Tommy Hilfiger whose clothing was popular among hip hop celebrities in the late nineties and early noughties. There was also rapper Jay-Z’s boycott of champagne brand Cristal after the managing director of the company that makes the drink said he regarded Cristal’s popularity among rappers and their fans with “curiosity and serenity,” and replied “[w]e can’t forbid people from buying it” when asked whether the drink’s association with hip hop was detrimental to the brand. Though the Tommy Hilfiger rumors have since been proved baseless, these incidents indicate an anxiety among Black consumers about their support of brands that may not be equally supportive of Black communities. In early 2020, a Black assistant designer at Adidas, Nike’s main competitor, began protesting at the company’s Portland headquarters over systemic racism in the work place. She told the New York Times: “the majority of people that we work with as a brand are Black people — Black athletes, Black musicians, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Pharrell. And our consumer base, right? There’s a huge disconnect when it comes to how we’re on the inside versus what people associate with us on the outside.”
Willis Thomas’ photograph, however, highlights a longer history of branding, the practice of branding the skin of enslaved people as a way to indicate their status as property.
Though these issues apply to many brands, Willis Thomas’ selection of Nike is not arbitrary. According to a 2015 CNN Business article, “[n]o company spends as much money on sports sponsorships as Nike.” The company has enjoyed record-breaking endorsement deals with some of the most celebrated Black athletes, including Michael Jordan, the late Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods. Through these endorsement deals, these athletes are branded, required to wear and promote the corporation’s products. Willis Thomas’ photograph, however, highlights a longer history of branding, the practice of branding the skin of enslaved people as a way to indicate their status as property.
In 1999, just four years before Willis Thomas produced this work, former Knicks player Larry Johnson stirred up controversy when he referred to his teammates as “rebellious slaves”. When Johnson was asked “how he could compare himself to a slave when he has an $84 million contract in his chosen profession,” he replied:
No one man can rise above the masses or the condition of his people. I am privileged and honored by the situation I'm in. No question, I have an excellent opportunity. And this is a beautiful country. Yeah, we've made beautiful strides, but what percentage of black people has made that stride when I go back to my neighborhood and see the same thing? I'm the only one who came out of my neighborhood. All of them dead, on drugs, selling drugs.
Am I supposed to be honored and happy just by my success? Yes, I am. But I can't deny the fact of what's happened to us over years and years, and we're still at the bottom of the totem pole. I can't turn my head to that. That's my point.
Former sport columnist for the New York Times, William C. Rhoden, named his book about the history of Black athletes’ role in American culture Forty Million Dollar Slaves (2010), in reference to the incident.
In the days since the NBA players’ refusal to play, a debate has emerged about whether their action should be called a strike or a boycott, as the players themselves called it in their statement. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez wrote on Twitter, “NBA players are courageously on strike (withholding labor), NOT boycotting (withholding their $/purchase),” she continued, “The diff is important bc it shows their power as *workers*.” Another Twitter user, writer Osman Noor wrote: “Boycott is when you stop purchasing a product. A strike is when you *are* the product.” This confusion over whether the players are consumers, workers or products seems to me to speak directly to the issues Willis Thomas asks us to consider in this photograph. What agency do Black people bring to consumption and labor relations, even Black athletes, these most celebrated and compensated of Black people? Can Black celebrity be leveraged for political power? Or are Black celebrities as vulnerable to exploitation as their less wealthy counterpart? Almost two decades later, these questions continue to linger.
Branded Chest with its gentle nuanced rendering of color, and its simultaneous admiration of and violence toward the Black body, will remain a poignant signpost of these issues as they existed then and now.
 See Sarah Lewis, “The Racial Bias Built Into Photography,” The New York Times, 25 April 2019. Also see “Light And Dark: The Racial Biases That Remain In Photography,” Code Switch, 16 April 2014.
 See Evan Fleischer, “Native American photographers respond to Edward Curtis' images 100 years later,” The Guardian, 6 May 2016. Also see Gilbert King, “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans,” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 March 2012.  See Alec Banks, “Digging Deeper: The Racism Scandal That Rocked Tommy Hilfiger,” High Snobiety, 7 March 2019.
 See Associated Press, “Jay-Z launches Cristal bubbly boycott,” Today.com, 15 June 2006.  See Julia Bond interview with Micahel Barbaro, “Protesting her own employer,” The Daily, 14 August 2020.  Chris Isidore, “How Nike became king of endorsements,” CNN Business, 5 June 2015.  Selena Roberts, “N.B.A. FINALS: NOTEBOOK; Johnson Responds To Walton,” The New York Times, 25 June 1999.  See Ben Strauss, “‘Strike’? ‘Boycott’? When athletes stopped playing, the arguments over wording began,” The Washington Post, 28 August 2020.