Tom Atwood: 'Kings & Queens in Their Castles' - LGBT Americans at Home
Every once in a while, an artist comes along with a concept that challenges preconceptions and allows you to see the world from a new perspective. Tom Atwood is one of those artists. His photography takes you inside the lives of LGBT Americans, over 350 of them across the nation, in a way that just simply hasn't been done before: Giving us a rare glimpse into their universe, capturing them as they simply exist in their lives. Deeply personal, yet oddly removed, it's like a subject captured and contained, yet in the most intimate settings possible: At home, in bed lounging, making coffee, sitting on their stoops talking with a partner, cooking dinner or practicing their chosen craft.
"LGBT's in their natural environment" is the phrase that keeps running through my mind, beautiful, effortless and ordinary... Well, sort of. His images oddly reminiscent of a captured bug, viewed up close and through the lens of a microscope.
This is his story.
Tell me a little about what got you into photography, when you caught the bug, if you will.
I'm kind of self-taught, I'm an autodidact. I guess I had always taken
photographs as a kid and got serious about it after college. In some ways, I see it as kind of a blend of many of my other influences. When I was younger, I dabbled in painting and sculpture, I was interested in architecture and I was always making things. I also did a lot of theatre and in college
I did a bit of psychology and they allowed me to get a perspective on people's moods and expressions. I was interested in many things and all of them somehow informed my photography in one form or another. I think they are all relevant when I press the trigger and in what images I choose afterwords... Photos that look real and lifelike.
Your style, especially in this book, offers such a unique perspective. It's about the people in the images, but in a very interesting way, it's not. To me, they are about capturing the entire experience of the environment as much as capturing the person in that environment. It's really striking.
Thank you. That was my idea. I do professional portraiture and architectural photography both and in some ways, my photographic style is a blend of the two. Conventional portraiture, obviously, is often focused on the person and zooms right in and wants a simple background that's kind of blurred. I always try to include as much in the frame of the camera as is possible, to sort of challenge people's eyes. I've always been attracted to clutter, as well. (Laughs) I'm interested in people's homes and interested in what you can tell about someone based on their spaces.
That's another fascinating thing about the photographs in your book I've observed. It's almost like looking through the glass of an exhibit inside a zoo. There's this quick peek that you get into the private lives of those who reside inside, yet there's a clear separation because they are behind glass, or in your case, behind a lens.
I've never thought of that analogy, but it's really interesting. Someone else mentioned at one point that it felt a little voyeuristic. I can see that, because in a lot of the photos the people are not looking out at the lens. They're aware that I'm there, of course, but it looks as if they aren't. If you think about it, when you're in someone's home and photographing them there, you are sort of objectifying them, which is kind of what happens in a zoo, as well. We have these animals and there is a little bit of a "recreated environment," but we're basically watching from a distance.
Do you find that most of your subjects are comfortable with the process, or does it take a while for them to relax into being photographed so intimately?
I often have to coax it out of them and, more often than not, many are a bit uncomfortable. Some are ill at ease or more self aware when they're being photographed. I would be too, we all want to look as good as possible. Part of my approach involves talking to them, getting them to relax, getting them to almost forget what is going on and that they are being photographed. I do that through constant dialogue and by making it fun by engaging with them, people kind of let their guard down as a result. It allows me to get more natural moments and expressions.
How and when did you decide to put this collection together? You've been working on this for many, many years, correct?
Yes, fifteen years between the two books ("Kings In Their Castles" was published first), this current book took about ten or eleven years. People hear that and think it's such huge amount, but it's very time-consuming to find subjects, schedule them, and often I have cancellations and rescheduling. Finding people who not only had interesting environments, but who were willing to be photographed in their different locations was challenging. Then in between all of it, I have to make a living and pay my rent. (Laughs)
Then too, time to pack equipment and get there. I went to 30 different states, so planning all those trips in and of itself was very arduous. Each shoot can easily take up to a half a day, but it can take just as long to go through the photos and select the images. Then, there is all the retouching and work that has to take place in Photoshop, so it's a very lengthy process. Finding a publisher and shopping that is another whole process, and then the print production process takes a great deal of time, as well.
Most don't really realize what kind of time and energy it takes to pull together a book or magazine, or any creative process for that matter.
If I had not been someone who has done two books, I couldn't even imagine how much goes into it. I sometimes look at people who do a two-hour movie, with multiple people, sound, props, lighting and then writing a script and acting it out on top of that, I can't fathom how much work that would be. It's one thing when you have a large film production company with a staff of hundreds, but when it's one person, it's very time-consuming. It has given me a whole new appreciation for what it takes to put any creative project together, especially if you want to do it well.
There were some shoots where I personally didn't like any of the shots, so I didn't use them. I was kind of a perfectionist when choosing the photos and would go back through them several times, before choosing one. Color, hue, brightness and darkness is very important to me as well, so all of that took a lot of time.
I'd simply call that being a great photographer, it's a creative art form and that takes time. Even though the tools we have now make it easier to
adjust the medium, it's still a process. Capturing the essence of a subject is a skill though, not everyone can do it. There are several images that stand out for me and one in particular- is the photo of Meredith Baxter-there is something so intense and emotional about the shot.
We don't often see big celebrities like her in a moment of vulnerability or rawness; this was an example of that. There were health supplements and things on her counter, mail and junk and she didn't mind any of it being photographed. I was talking with her while shooting and she started to pour her soul out to me. Her daughter was going off to college, and all these very personal stories about her family... I got the shot in that moment. It's hard to do, because there is so much going on as you're shooting. You must think about the composition, the lighting, is my camera on the right setting, and then to also keep up conversation with them is a challenge. I don't use an assistant by choice, because if I did, they would end up talking to them. I think it would make it more uncomfortable for the subject and less of a personal experience. Being one on one with them allows me to capture the expressions I am able to.
What was the most surprising thing for you about the process of doing this book?
One of the wonderful things, I kind of knew already, but had reinforced, was just how many interesting people and interesting gay people there are all across the U.S. And, how many thriving gay communities there are in small, rural areas. In some of the more remote areas, many of the gay people knew the other LGBT people in their areas and were connected to them. In Vermont I shot several farmers, and they all knew each other, even though they were in different corners of the state. Then, in deep Republican territory like Texas and Utah, there is a thriving gay community. I knew this on some level, having grown up in Vermont in a small town in the woods, you might drive through and think that there isn't a lot there, but I knew that dotted throughout the woods and down all the long driveways, were interesting people and things. I kind of learned that the whole country is like that, and that there are interesting people everywhere.
For more information about Tom Atwood and his work, or to purchase his most recent book, Kings & Queens in Their Castles go to tomatwood.com