Water is Life © Tom Chambers


Tom Chambers work was chosen as a 2020 Rfotofolio Merit Award recipent for his portfolio
Tales of Heroines. We are pleased to share his work here on Rfotofolio.

Would you please tell us about yourself?

Originally from Lancaster Pennsylvania,I grew up in a family of artists on a farm set amid religiously conservative Amish and Mennonite communities.At age eighteen I served in the Navy for four years, one on a Navy patrol boat base in Vietnam. After returning home, I spent five years working at various jobs and hitchhiking around the U.S.,Canada and Mexico.

In the 1980’s while living in Sarasota, Florida,I majored in graphic design with a minor in photography at The Ringling School of Art and Design. After graduating I moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I discovered Photoshop, working first as a magazine art director, and then spent twenty seven years as an art director for a national kitchen appliance company. When Photoshop was first launched in the early 1990’s, I began experimenting with vacation shots and could see the potential for artistic expression. Most of my first images were southwestern, so they fit together as a series.

Who has had an influence on your creative process?

I was lucky to grow up on a farm in Pennsylvania with two very talented grandparents who were artists. When my grandfather was not tilling the land, he worked as an illustrator for a number of magazines such as Collier’s, McClean’s, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was part of the Brandywine School of Art and the Chambers’ farm was less than an hour away from Chadds Ford, home to legendary illustrator N.C. Wyeth. There the Wyeth family influence began. Though my grandfather’s illustrations were similar to the work of the elder N.C. Wyeth, I have preferred the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Andrew’s landscapes and interiors, although seemingly barren, radiate pure emotion.

My grandmother was also an artist,but painted more for pleasure.She met my grandfather in art school,and each of their children pursued an artistic direction. My aunt became a fashion illustrator and my father a boat builder.My grandmother spent a lot of time teaching me how to draw and paint. While it was fun for me to learn, I didn’t realize at the time that I could develop a career as an artist.

Another significant influence came from an art school professor who had a photography background in New York City during the 1960’s.A friend of Andy Warhol, he was a bit quirky and would encourage his students to push the limits of photography saying,“The weirder the better! ”Or he would proclaim, “Garbage in, garbage out!” and throw a student’s print on the floor. Being challenged in that way had an impact.

Further important influences have come from a range of sources, especially the use of magic realism by authors such as Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, as well as photographers such as Graciela Iturbide and Manuel AlvarezBravo. Travel and exposure to new cultures, ideas, and museums energize me. As much as I hate to admit it, social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, provide an opportunity for viewing a wide range of art and discovering sources of inspiration.I really appreciate the new and exciting art of all kinds posted by my contemporaries.

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.

Andrew Wyeth’s Christiana’s World. This painting portrays a girl’s struggle to overcome her disability and at the same time illustrates her struggle beautifully in a field of grass. It taught me that any idea or thought, however dark or dismal, can be expressed beautifully through painting or photography.

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson.

My 2005 image “Prom Gown #3” brought me some recognition. It depicts a girl in a prom gown propped up by poles in a western backdrop reminiscent of a Native American burial site. The image is rather startling, not something the average person would hang in their living room, but never-the-less helped me to receive attention from a high-profile photography gallery, Photo-eye. The lesson being that even an edgy, unsaleable image, can do positive things for your exposure as an artist.

Lighning in a Jar © Tom Chambers

Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Rfotofolio Call.

I have used my daughter in many of my images and decided that this series Tales of Heroines would pay homage to strong young women, like my daughter, who have tackled and negotiated life’s complexities. With this series I wanted to take my work in a different direction in order to challenge myself and to keep things interesting. For some time I have been interested in creating a portrait series which would continue to include a storytelling element. I did not want to give up the narrative aspect of my imagery, so something happens in each image which sparks or initiates a story. After deciding to create a portrait series, I set parameters for myself which would be applied to each portrait. Until recently most of my imagery has been in a square format, often with the faces hidden. With Tales of Heroines, I decided to do full bodied portraits with the subject gazing directly at the camera. These figures would need to be similar in height within the frame. The horizon line would be somewhat close to knee level and the overall color muted.

Once these parameters were established, I developed these images in a similar way to older series. First I made a thumbnail sketch of an idea prompted by the influence of dreams, music, literature, or travel. I shot separately the different elements, including the background, animals or props that would appear in the image. The girls were photographed outdoors in clothing that supported the story. I typically find clothes or props on esty or in my overcrowded basement.After I had completed several images, I experimented with adding the arch at the top. This gave the images a medieval iconic look or a nod to the imagery of the pre-Renaissance period. It also gave the viewer a feeling of looking through a portal into another reality.

Now Now © Tom Chambers

What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding? 

There are three major parts in creating my photomontages. First is coming up with an idea for an image. This may happen when I’m day-dreaming or half asleep at night, or after reading, listening to music, or traveling. At this point I do a thumbnail sketch of the idea so I can remember it later. Next is the picture taking part of the the process. I will shoot the different elements, including background, human figure, animals or birds, and the small elements which help support the story. The third step in the process is combining the elements in Photoshop to create the final image.

This last part is probably the one I enjoy the most. For me it’s like playing a game, trying to make all the elements fit together seamlessly. While working, I listen to music and let myself get into a zone. The thumbnail sketch is not followed to a T, so what I may end up with might not be what I had in mind originally.

How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?

I imagine every artist has their own methods for working through a creativity block. Mine is to remove myself from what I am doing for a period of time.This may mean a couple days or even weeks.At some point the excitement comes back to me and all falls into place.

What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?

A decent digital camera,a mac computer with a good monitor,Photoshop software,and a wild imagination.

Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future? What’s on the horizon?

I’m not sure if its a good idea for an artist to tip his hand about his ideas for future art endeavors, because it just might not happen. Currently, I’m at a point between series and I am contemplating which new direction to take. Because I always enjoy depicting an interaction between humans and animals, have a deep respect for the environment, and enjoy applying magic realism, I can almost guarantee you that the next series will be touched with those elements.

How does your art affect the way you see the world?

For me it’s the other way around… the way I view the world affects my art.There is no better way to get the creative juices flowing than to immerse myself in another culture or unfamiliar environment.The best way to approach travel is with a mind and eyes wide open.A number of my series are directly influenced by travel to another country. The Illumination series followed a number of trips to Italy. The “Dreaming in Reverse” series evolved after a trip to Mexico. Two trips to Iceland inspired “To the Edge” series.

How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?

I have definitely been impacted artistically by the pandemic.As I explained earliertravel is a source of inspiration for my work which obviously has not been possible for nine months.Plus my photography requires shooting models,but social distancing has made that difficult. And at times,I have found it difficult to get motivated when the world is reeling from a virus like this one.Fortunately things are looking up in 2021 in many ways. With the vaccine we will be able to once again visit museums and travel.Then you will get that other inoculation, the one that you receive from the immersion in new ideas and cultures.

Thank you Tom. To learn more about the work ofTom Chambers please visit his siye by clicking on his name.

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