In 1971, photographer Lew Thomas was in a rut. As manager of and principal buyer for the influential and progressive bookshop at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum, he voraciously read the latest in cutting-edge art theory and philosophy, exposing himself to the intellectual underpinnings of the nascent conceptual art movement. Thomas’s interest in what he thought of as the literary aspects of art led him to become increasingly disillusioned with a Bay Area photographic establishment rooted in a California photographic tradition that privileged craftsmanship and emotion over concept and theory. He resolved to “do something unique in photography or drop it all together,” to launch an effort that would lead to “the reduction of photography to the level of the idea” and position the Bay Area at the forefront of conversations around conceptualism and photography.
From his perch at the Legion of Honor, Thomas attracted acolytes who shared his desire to disrupt the photographic status quo—chief among them Donna-Lee Phillips and Hal Fischer. They eagerly devoured the theoretical texts he recommended to them, fundamentally altering their conceptions of the complex relationship between photography and language, text and image. Working with a common theoretical foundation and a shared aesthetic vocabulary of sequence, seriality, and structure, the three artists brought their own distinct points of view to the publications, exhibitions, and multipart photographic works produced during their fleeting but intense period of collaboration that lasted from the mid-1970s into the early 1980s.
All the photographs on view are newly acquired, and the exhibition builds on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Thought Pieces (2020), the first show in over 30 years to present the trio’s works together.
Ongoing through January 23, 2022. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
Pictured: Hal Fischer, Signifiers for a Male Response from Gay Semiotics, 1977. Carbon pigment print, 20 x 16 inches. Museum purchase, 2021.20.1. Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London, © Hal Fischer