I recently had the privilege to connect with fine art photographer Tom Chambers for an artist interview. He talks about his Icelandic project, Hypnagogia for the creative process and advice for aspiring artists.
How would you characterize the art and work you do?
I call it photomontage, but Ive also heard it called constructed composite, collage or manipulated photography.
How did you originally get into your art?
I went to art school in the early 80s and majored in graphic design with an emphasis in photography. Since then have been working full-time as a graphic designer. Ive been an art director for a city magazine and an art director for a small appliance manufacturer. As an art director I got to experiment with Photoshop when it first became available in the late 80s. I combined this knowledge with a love for photography that Ive had since I was a boy.
Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
No, I had no idea what I wanted to do until I was in my late 20s and by then already working with art. A number of people in my family were artists, including a grandfather and aunt who were illustrators and a grandmother who was a painter. Before art school I did craft shows with stained glass and I started to slowly realize that I wanted to be involved in the art field full time. I applied to art school wanting to use my education to make a living I majored in graphic design. After graduating I designed a few monthly magazines and worked for an ad agency here in Richmond. It was at that point that I started messing around with Photoshop. I was using vacation shots and adding additional elements to them. Finally I had 20 images that I liked and showed them to the owner of a local art gallery. The gallery held a show for my work and from then on it was a slow process being accepted by more galleries and getting my work out there. I kept my “day” job as a safety net.
What are some successes you’ve had?
A few of the things Im most proud of in my photo career are: I am presently represented by six US galleries and one in the UK. To date I have had 19 solo exhibitions. I had two Virginia fellowships. I was invited by the National Photo Museum of Bogeta, Colombia to exhibit my work and speak at their Photo Expo. My work has hung in numerous major art fairs since 2008.
How do you develop the story telling elements behind your work? As an artist what is different about your process from other photographers?
I do this a couple different ways. I like to be in a very relaxed state, like when I’m almost asleep. At that point I’ll let my mind wander (or go crazy). I come up with my best ideas using that method. I will draw or sketch some thumbnail sketches of the idea and shoot all the elements including the background to match the sketch. The sketch is very loose and at times the final image varies far from the original sketch. Other times I will shoot interesting images while traveling, return home and sort through the images picking the ones that interest me the most. I then add additional elements to the background shots. These additional elements I photograph either in my back yard or in a studio so that the lighting matches the background. This can also be switched: I may have an interesting element (person or object) and will use that in a background that I have shot to match. There are times that I will add 20-30 elements and sometimes only one or two.
What are some challenges that you have faced to get to where you are?
I feel that my biggest challenge was learning this process on my own. The art of digital montage was very young when I started and I had to figure out most of the problems on my own. Photoshop was at an early stage and didn’t have some of the things it has now, like working in layers. The images had to be shot with film and scanned before I inserted them into Photoshop. The scanning and film costs were expensive but digital cameras were not up to speed at that time. Then there were printing hurdles. The problems and hurdles have mostly been worked out these days and I have an Epson printer in my house.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m working on a series which was inspired by a trip to Iceland. The images all have Icelandic scenes and all are out-of-doors. I’m trying to put more texture into these images whether its through the landscape itself or by adding texture layers in Photoshop. I want this series to have a painterly look and I will print on a heavy matte paper. I hope to have this series completed by early Summer this year.
Do you shoot or work on your art everyday?
Yes, I work at something with my art every day. I may be communicating with galleries, printing images or upgrading gear. What ever I’m doing it keeps me very busy along with my day job.
What do you currently shoot with?
I am using a Nikon D800 with two nice zoom lenses and one fixed lens.
Who would you say are you influences? Where do you find inspiration?
Literature is a big influence of mine, authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison and other magic realism writers. Painters, like Andrew Wyeth and Francis Bacon. I am also very much interested in Mexican and Italian religious art. I like the mystery of the religious art and try to sometimes convey that in my images.
What are your future goals?
Ive have met my goal which is to make artwork, have it seen by others, and sell a piece once an a while. I would like to continue working on my photomontage work and some day retire from my day job. Its exciting for me that I am able to get my work out there.
What’s a piece of advice you wish somebody gave you when you first started out?
Don’t expect a single event to affect your career in a major way. Every thing takes time and your photo career will most likely develop one step at a time. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, “If only I am able to get work into this gallery or have this person see my images”. Things don’t seem to happen in an earth-shattering way. Is small steps… keep plugging away.
Do you have any more advice or words of wisdom to artists?
Figure out which medium or style excites you the most. Head in that direction because this excitement will have to carry along through the years as you work at your art. If there is no excitement, there is nothing.
What’s next for you? What more do you want to accomplish? What are your plans?
I would like to finish my current series and then think about the next direction. When you are between two series of work it is scary and exciting all at once. Scary because you start to doubt yourself… “What do I do next?” Will it be good enough? Exciting because unexplored directions in art excite me.
I’m having solo or two person show in August, 2015 at the Gilman Contemporary gallery in Sun Valley, Idaho. I’m looking forward to that one, its a beautiful part of the country.
You can find more of Tom at http://www.tomchambersphoto.com.