Born in San Francisco, California in 1932, Lew Thomas was an American photographer, polymath artist, curator, critic and a bookstore manager. He is one of the most well-known conceptual photographers of the 1970s, a pioneer in the field whose photographic experiments created new possibilities for Conceptual art.
Thomas, who had firm working knowledge of art philosophy and theory, actually rejected the term ‘conceptual photographer’. He struggled to gain acceptance for his work as there was not a broad understanding of photographers who were working conceptually within the photo community. As photography was still seen as separate from fine art, the art world was not accepting those photographers who were grounded in that practice.
Lew Thomas, as a child, developed a love for books and language, a trait which would later influence the basics of his art practice. He attended the University of San Francisco where he graduated in 1960 with a degree in English Literature.In 1964, Thomas became the manager of the Patrons of Art and Music Bookshop where he stayed until 1982. During this time, he developed his interest in photography and French Structuralism, a school of thought developed by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in which cultures are viewed as systems and analyzed in terms of the structural relationships of their components.
Thomas initially studied under Joe Schopplein, a photographer with San Francisco’s de Young Museum, who taught him the techniques of shooting and printing film. Throughout his work, Thomas continued to investigate the relationship between word and image. Instead of being concerned about the aesthetic or psychological content of the image, he emphasized the capacity of a photograph to provide simple evidence of an image’s underlying structure. His art was a meticulous study of creating pictorial responses to understand how the meanings of words are conceived through their relationship with other words- a relationship without which they would have little significance.
Lew Thomas’s seminal work was the 1971 “Black & White”, a vertical diptych of photographs in which the word ‘black’ is printed in white on a black background above a print of the word ‘white’ on a black background. This breakthrough work was followed in 1972 with ”Opening & Closing the Garage Door”, which featured two vertical photo strips of a figure performing that routine. Although seeming quite simple on the surface, these two artworks by Lee Thomas were supported by his studies in structural linguistics, including his observations of his daughter’s speech development.
Thomas was also interested in the concept of time’s passage and how devices such as clocks form our relationships to it. In 1971, he created “Time Equals 36 Exposures (Negative and Positive Sections)”, a set of thirty-six exposures of a black clock shot at various times during the day, accompanied by an equal in size set of exposures of a white clock taken at the same times. For his 1973 “Light-On-Floor”, Thomas again used a six by six grid of thirty-six exposures to show the passing of a day as light shifts across a linoleum floor.
Starting in the early 1970s, Lew Thomas’s artwork began to be shown at major venues, including the Oakland Art Museum in 1972, San Francisco’s de Young Museum in 1974, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, among others. Thomas’s work, along with the work of conceptual photographers Donna-Lee Phillips and Hal Fischer, was shown in the 2020 “Thought Pieces” exhibition held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. These three photographers became the co-founders of the “Photography and Language” movement, named after a book and group exhibition of the same name produced by Thomas in 1976.
Thomas, Phillips and Fischer were all extremely active in the mid to late 1970s. In addition to making their own artwork, they published essays, reviewed shows and organized exhibitions. Under the name NFS Press, Thomas published a number of books designed by Phillips, including the 1978 “Structural(ism) and Photography” which featured Thomas’s work; “Eros and Photography” edited by Phillips and published in 1977; “Gay Semiotics” published in 1978; and the 1979 “18th Near Castro Street x 24”, a print version which paired young, gay Hal Fischer’s twenty-four hour study of a popular bus stop bench in the Castro district of San Francisco with texts drawn by him on the sidewalk every hour.
Lew Thomas, in addition to producing his art, engaged in the San Francisco art scene where he encouraged and debated fellow artists through salons, panel discussions, and workshops. He edited and published over thirty books and organized legendary exhibitions in California. The “Photography and Language” movement Thomas co-founded attracted many rising artists, including Dennis Adams, Peter d’Agostino, Meyer Hirsch and Cindy Sherman, among others. The work of this group exerted an influence beyond California and played a role in the conceptual photographic work of the 1980s.
In 1985 Thomas relocated from San Francisco to Houston, Texas, where he served as the Executive Director of the Houston Center of Photography until 1987. His artwork of the 1980s explored filmic representation, photography and human relationships as mediated through new technology, in particular, the newly popular VCR. From 1989 to 1995, Lew Thomas was the Visual Arts Coordinator at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. His work in this period was exhibited at New Orlean’s Galerie Simonne Stern. In retirement, Lew Thomas moved to Petaluma, CA, where he lived surrounded by family and friends until his death in August of 2021 at the age of eighty-eight
Note: There is a short video of Hal Fischer discussing the genesis and impact of his photographic book “Gay Semiotics” and life in the Castro district in 1970s San Francisco. The video is located at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s website: https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/thought-pieces-1970s-photographs-by-lew-thomas-donna-lee-phillips-and-hal-fischer/
Top Insert Image: Lew Thomas, “White Motion/Black Motion”, 1972, Vintage Prints (Self Portraits), Two Parts, 25.4 x 21.6 cm, Private Collection
Second Insert Image: Lew Thomas, “Throwing-Nikomat”, 1973/2014, Four Gelatin Silver Prints, 74.3 x 59.1 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Lew Thomas, “Portrait Equals 36 Exposures”, 1972/2015, 36 Gelatin Silver Prints, 165.7 x 135.2 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Fourth Insert Image: Lew Thomas, “Opening & Closing the Garage Door”, Two Perspectives, 1972/2015, Ten GelatinSilver Prints, 60.1 x 34,3 cm, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover
Bottom Insert Image: Lew Thomas, “Sink, Filling/Filled, Draining/Drained (9 Works)”, 1972, Nine Gelatin Silver Prints, 81.3 x 76.8 cm, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover