I have to say that sometimes these interviews are a no-brainer. There are those in the massive field of prospects that command a certain deserved respect and admiration for any number of reasons. Thomas Alleman is one of those people. Tom knows what he’s doing out there better than most, and it was for this main reason I needed to get a sense of who he was and where he came from in order to paint the picture of how to get where he’s gotten. He has produced some incredible bodies of work, and I think we can learn from someone like him. He would be far too humble to accept this praise in full, but it’s true. Read through this interview and view his photographs to find someone who has put the work in - and deserves the praise and respect for it all.
Thomas Alleman was born and raised in Detroit, where his father was a traveling salesman and his mother was a ceramic artist. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in English Literature.
During a fifteen-year newspaper career, Tom was a frequent winner of distinctions from the National Press Photographer's Association, as well as being named California Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1995 and Los Angeles Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1996.
As a magazine freelancer, Tom's pictures have been published regularly in Time, People, Business Week, Barron's, Smithsonian and National Geographic Traveler, and have also appeared in US News & World Report, Brandweek, Sunset, Harper's and Travel Holiday. Tom has shot covers for Chief Executive, People, Priority, Acoustic Guitar, Private Clubs,Time for Kids, Diverse and Library Journal.
In the late 1990s, Tom exhibited "Social Studies", a series of street photographs, widely in Southern California. He's currently finishing "Sunshine & Noir", a book-length collection of black-and-white urban landscapes made in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. "Sunshine & Noir" had it's solo debut at the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas in April 2006. Subsequent solo exhibitions include: the Robin Rice Gallery in New York in November 2008, the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, OR in October 2009, the Xianshwan Photo Festival in Inner Mongolia, China, in 2010 , California State at Chico, in 2011, and the Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles, February 2013. Fifty-three of Tom's photographs of gay San Francisco, shot between 1985 and 1988, debuted at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco in December 2012, under the title, "Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws".
Michael Kirchoff: Tom, thank you for taking this time with me to answer some questions about your prolific career as a story teller and image maker. I want to ask a series specific questions about a few older bodies of work that appear to have shaped your aesthetic, and then follow that up with some general questions about how and why you work the way you do. First though, it’s probably necessary for you to fill us in on how and why photography became your trajectory in life. How about some background on your start?
Thomas Alleman: I was born and raised in Detroit, where my father was a salesman for trucking companies and my mother was, after a while, a sculptor and ceramic artist. I’m the oldest of three boys, all of whom came of age in the 60s and 70s. We lived next to a miles-long easement that the Edison company used for their high-tension towers, so we built ballfields and hockey rinks under those singing wires in every season, and our house became the headquarters for the neighborhood kids who played sports with us. We listened to Tiger baseball every night on the radio, and devoured books about legendary quarterbacks. But, when adolescence came we dropped all that in a heartbeat, mesmerized by the siren song of pop culture. We studied record jackets as we’d once pored over box scores, tore through the canons of Vonnegut and JD Salinger, memorized George Carlin albums, traded copies of the National Lampoon with our outré friends, and stayed up late to watch Marx Brothers films on the UHF channel. I got hooked by movies, and took a filmmaking class at the local community college when I was in tenth grade; with frequency, I skipped out of school and road my bike five miles on the shoulder of a freeway to see matinee movies at the four-plex; I read all the paperback tie-ins and screenplays I could find at the Little Professor Bookstore in the mall.
It was that obsession that motivated my first forays into photography: I borrowed a camera from the school newspaper and spent a week walking around with it glued to my eye, seeing what things looked like through a viewfinder, panning and swooping and “making movies” in my mind. The natural consequence was, the yearbook editor gave me some film and a list of shots she needed. Haltingly, I learned about lenses, exposures and enlargers---all of which I was quite ham-handed at. In university I pursued a couple classes, years apart, but they ruined my semester every time: I spent every night in the darkroom, tirelessly printing and reprinting the same negative, and blew-off my daytime classes for long drives into the farmland that surrounded our school, looking for abandoned barns and rusting old tractors to photograph. For those and other predictable reasons---pinball, pot, parties---I wrecked my education at that backwoods teacher’s college, and transferred down to Michigan State, a serious institution that demanded my best attention. I placed my little Minolta in a drawer and hunkered down for the serious pursuit of an English degree. Three three years later, I took it out again and tried to remember how to put film in.
MK: Your series, The Unwinding, seems to be a genuine and heartfelt start to a photojournalistic career. Was this more an exercise towards your future career, or a way of comprehending and dealing with the emotional struggles of your own family? Perhaps both?
TA: When I graduated from Michigan State in 1981, I had no useful skills or immediate prospects. I had a point of view, I suppose, and an attitude about certain material---I’d been in a Creative Writing program---but I didn’t have the discipline, in those days, to do more than dabble at the standard wannabe stuff: acting and folk music and short story writing. I was a bit of a dilettante, a know-it-all who bussed tables in a Mexican restaurant and wrote desultory feature stories for the local weekly.
By very slow measures, I started making photographs to accompany those articles. After a while, I took up a search for examples of such pictures at their best. The Village Voice became a model---along with other lefty tabloids like Portland’s Willamette Week and the Chicago Reader---but I found my best inspirations at the library of the local community college, among a photo collection of about a dozen books. Besides the requisite volumes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, which were irrelevant to the faux-journalism I was practicing, there was a self-published anthology from Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand’s Public Relations, and one I’d seen floating around the art department at MSU: Gramp by Dan and Mark Jury.
The Jury stuff really challenged and lured me. Their scruffy little photo-diary gathered the pictures they’d made while caring for their dying grandfather, a retired coal miner, during the last three years of his life. I didn’t know that, at that time, those images were somewhat controversial: such grim intimacy was rare, and frowned upon. I simply figured, “This must be a thing that some photographers do sometimes.” I had great affinity for their kitchen-sink storytelling, and considered trying that somewhere.
But I was painfully aware that my own technique was insufficient to meet the technical challenges the brothers had overcome, shooting Gramp in one dim room after another. To work in that world, I knew I’d need to hone my chops. (That blooming ambition, to master the photographer’s craft, was a personal development that pleasantly surprised me: I’d been waiting forever, it seemed, to find the humility to dedicate myself to task.) To learn about “available light” and slow shutters, I practiced on my friends every night, while we played cards and drank beer. When they finally grew irritated and banned my camera from the table, I took it home with me to Detroit one weekend, to continue testing my techniques on the family there.
From the first, even as I labored and stumbled with my exposures of Mom at the dining room table, drinking coffee in the evening, I felt a strong, strange thrill burbling under the scene. I was confirmed in that feeling when I looked at the pictures on my contact sheet. I knew from my college lit courses that what I’d identified was “subtext”, the story beneath the story---that invisible narrative that makes sensible all the little data points that my pictures were describing. Apparently, my years at college, living among other folks, had given me perspective on the family and its vibe, their habits and strategies, so that I could suddenly feel the machinery moving under the scenes that played out in the living room, and I could read the evidence in gestures and body language, which I realized was photographable. So that’s what that Minolta was for! Every time I came home for Thanksgiving or some birthday, I shot a dozen rolls, with the simple intent to improve my technique and try to catch a little whiff of that frisson I’d felt at first, the subtext that haunted those scenes.
For the first couple years, that subtext was supplied wholly by the past---my past, as a kid in that house, knowing those people and their foibles and stories and fears and desires. My gaze was not particularly inclined toward the future, and the fate of the family; I wasn’t looking toward their demise. That my father was diabetic and had had heart surgery was “interesting” to me, but it wasn’t until two or three years in that I actually began to imagine his immanent death, which turned my attention toward the future as I traced his arc there. I began to realize that, in such a future, Bob’s dopey high school alcoholism might bloom and become deadly serious, and that Mom’s cigarette-seared lungs would likely grow weaker. All the stuff I’d been in denial about. Those recollections I’d seen in the shadows of my pictures became premonitions instead: the song had modulated to a minor key, and the Ghost of Christmas Past had surrendered the stage to the Ghost of Christmas Future. From Dad’s death in 1985, onward, I was aware I was photographing an unwinding story, whose last act would probably feature Mom’s death from some gruesome malady of the lung.
As, indeed, she became sicker in the years that followed, I continued photographing her and my brothers. But a sense of uneasiness grew on me, and I began to weigh her need of me, in that final year, against my own need for more pictures, more grim evidence. I decided to stop shooting during the Christmas season of 1990, and made my last exposure on New Year’s Eve. I flew across country three times in the next six months, to sit with her in the hospital or tend to her needs on the rare occasions she was home, but I was back in Los Angeles when she died in July of 1991.
I put my family negatives away in a banker’s box, which I carried from apartment to apartment to garage to storage for over 20 years. Since 2013, I’ve been editing and scanning from that collection of about 400 rolls, and have prepared 80 images. As usual in such cases, I wrote an introduction to the material---the standard seven or eight pages---but, against all advice and better judgement, I’ve spent the last two years expanding that piece of writing far beyond the scope of the pictures. For better or worse, I’ve conceived and almost finished a “literary memoir” that tries to identify the seeds of their demise in the events that long proceeded my photography, and that traces the consequences of all that into the present time, almost thirty years after Mom died. It might be a ridiculous misfire, but for the moment it seems like my best ambition.
MK: I remember living just outside of the Castro District in San Francisco not long after you had photographed your series, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. It was an emotional time to be there, seeing so many celebrating their lives with the shadow of the AIDS epidemic always looming. Were you covering the people and the crisis there for a particular publication, or was this more a response to what you were witnessing while working in the city? Also, it seems as though this is a project you are only recently showing as a completed body of work. What has the reaction been showing this in a historical context?
TA: I moved from Michigan to San Francisco in 1984, to see if I could get a photojournalism career off the ground. But I was ambivalent, to say the least, about the super-straight, fly-on-the-wall stuff that was then orthodoxy in the newspaper world---I was too weird and unruly, and wanted to state a point-of-view in my pictures. My portfolio showed that reticence: no football shots, no houses ablaze or cops-and-robbers, but several flash-lit, flatulent views of moping cheerleaders and leering punks. None of which endeared me to the handful of bewildered suburban editors I met with. I ended up in the Castro District, where I discovered the Sentinel, a sharply-designed gay weekly that reminded me of The Village Voice. In fact, when I met with the Sentinel’s editor a couple days later, he stopped halfway through my portfolio and fixed me with a wily eye, saying, “My boy, I think I’ve finally found my Sylvia Plachy.” Ms. Plachy, of course, was the Voice’s most famous contributor, a Hungarian photographer who’d been mentored by Andre Kertesz himself, and who shared the master’s lyrical vision and wide-ranging technique. So, I ended up spending three years in the heart of San Francisco’s gay community, just as the first wave of AIDS and HIV was crashing onto Castro Street.
In a neighborhood like the Castro, where everyone confronted disease and death every day---their own, their lover’s, their neighbor’s---the Sentinel chose to spare its readers too many stark depictions of the horrors that all were numbingly aware of: the lesions, the abattoir at San Francisco General Hospital, the gaunt young men with their oxygen masks. Instead, I was persuaded to photograph the public, communal response to the epidemic---which I was entirely prepared for, having learned to work in public from the books that William Klein and Charles Harbutt and Garry Winogrand had published. Every week I shot demonstrations, sit-ins, protests, marches, and parades. On the social scene, which still thrived, it was drag shows, lip-sync bacchanals and Halloween carnivals. As the Voice did in New York, the Sentinel published my pictures big, always in their raggedy full-frame glory, surrounded by aggressive, expressive type and blocks of color. At those six-column sizes, the images could convey a ton of nuanced information, which encouraged my natural inclination to wide lenses and blasts of revealing strobe-light. But I set myself the goal of using that aggressive, pugnacious style to create images that were sympathetic, even tender, toward their subjects. Because, in that first age of AIDS and HIV, I was often photographing scenes---vigils and memorials---where sorrow overwhelmed the folks I shot, who certainly didn’t deserve an “ironic”, Weegee-styled presentation. I was often successful on that tightrope; the pictures that failed never made the paper or the portfolio.
The experiences I had during those three years on Castro Street made a real photographer out of me, and my gratitude for that opportunity is boundless. Personally, however, I was devastated by all that emotional calamity, the daily slaughter and the feeling of doom that’d crept into my bones. I kinda snapped after a while, and was pretty broke, besides---working for peanuts all that time. Brokenhearted, I fled to Southern California, and got a staff job at a small newspaper in Claremont. That paved the way, five years later, to work at bigger and better dailies in L.A. proper, and then a decade doing national magazines. The negatives from my San Francisco sojourn joined the film I shot of my family during those same years, all that 80’s stuff crammed into a couple cartons that I didn’t open until those subsequent careers wound down. I began the long slog, digitizing contacts and scanning work prints, in 2007, and debuted 53 of those images in 2012 at the Jewett Gallery in SF. That show was up for two months, and generated almost a hundred pages of comments in the Jewett guest book---an outpouring of testimony and recollection and cri de coeur that just flabbergasted and humbled me.
MK: In looking through your collection, Social Studies, there is an intimacy with your subjects that is so clearly defined, yet often unpredictable. This is a photographic style that appears to give your photographs a voice, beyond simply documenting events or your surroundings. Was this always how you saw things or is this a style that was developed over the course of many years of experience?
TA: I spent the Christmas season of 1982 studying a handful of monographs by the heroes I’ve already mentioned---Winogrand, Friedlander, Harbutt, William Klein, Elliot Erwitt. In the New Year, I set about mimicking the flash-lit, fractured close-ups they’d made at house parties, art openings and conventions. I used the tools I had at hand---a Minolta SRT-201 with a 28mm lens and a handheld Vivitar strobe---which, quite by accident, turned out to be the exact equipment those pictures required.
From the very beginning, I intuitively understood almost everything I needed to know about that kind of work: the strobe technique, the slyness and aggression, the use of that wide lens. More than that, I “got” the feel of those pictures, their anarchic attitude, the barely-controlled chaos. From studying my contact sheets obsessively---I slept with them---I realized that my most successful images were the ones that most disguised the nature of the event, that subverted the assigned narrative, and that the best shots filled the frame with disembodied shards of information, all equally valuable to the non sequitur the picture had become. I’d begun by aping those established photographers, but within months I truly felt I’d found a voice of my own, for the first time ever. I’d been despairing that I’d ever get a foothold on some genuine artistic practice, and then, almost overnight at the age of twenty-five, something had cracked open, and I knew I’d finally begun my real life.
Altogether, I spent seventeen years on “Social Studies”, and showed fifty prints in a half-dozen locations around the states of California and Michigan. After that, I tended my new magazine clients for a couple seasons, until events shoved me toward “Sunshine & Noir”, my next way-too-long undertaking.
MK: In the midst of your professional career, you decided to bring a different look to your already defined style of working. Your use of the plastic Holga toy camera has enabled you to achieve this, by creating a multi-faceted fine art body of work known as Sunshine & Noir. Can you tell us a little of how this idea came about? Why a camera such as this for someone used to using modern cameras to create images?
TA: The weekend before the towers of the World Trade Center fell, on September 11th, 2001, my wife found a two-dollar Holga at a garage sale in Silverlake, and brought it home to me. A week after those events, I put a roll of 120 black-and-white film in it and stepped out into my neighborhood, shakily. As most of us had been, I was utterly traumatized by the events of 9/11: horrified down to my bones, alienated unto my soul. I’d fidgeted and paced for several days, dazed by TV replays of that spectacular carnage. When I couldn’t handle another minute of Wolf Blitzer and Dick Cheney, I headed out to walk and think and mope and maybe to shoot. In that blackened, dizzy mood, I chose the Holga to take along, knowing its reputation for light leaks and errant focus and stupid, wrecked exposures. I wanted to shoot pictures that wouldn’t work out; I wanted to waste my time at something irrelevant and ill-begotten. I doubted any of us would ever be the same again, that order would never be restored, so I spent that day and the next month in the perverse, nihilistic pursuit of negation and self-destruction---walking endlessly, shooting constantly, using my viewfinder to create order and meaning that I knew the Holga couldn’t sustain, that I knew would look pukey and garbled, disordered and meaningless, when finally I encountered my negatives.
Later, I dragged a bulging Trader Joe’s bag to the lab, all my squandered film. I was flabbergasted to discover that the work I’d produced with that ratty Holga was actually pretty great. Somehow, I’d failed to sabotage my best efforts; I’d fucked-up my campaign to create a glorious mountain of crap pictures. How had I accidentally succeeded, when I’d tried so hard not to?
As the pictures of “Sunshine & Noir” began to accumulate in the fall of 2001 and the winter of 2002, the first outlines of a book took shape. But I knew that such ambition would require almost a hundred images---“The Americans” had 83, it’s well known---and that I’d certainly need a year or two to find all those. (It took twelve years, in fact, to achieve that edit.) However naïve my projections were, it was clear that the alienation that had driven the project’s seminal season couldn’t possibly keep its grip on me for so long; I certainly hoped it wouldn’t. I’d begun the project in mourning, and had photographed equivalents of my despair in the neighborhoods of LA, but I knew that couldn’t be sustained---and, anyway, a book-ful of pictures of sorrowful alleys and nihilistic dog poop would make a pretty dreary terrain for viewers to slog across. So, as my spirits rose in the middle of 2002, the photographs began embracing other animating vibes: visual punning, wistfulness, direct wonder, humor, and an elegiac lyricism that was far gentler than the sarcastic, self-deprecating anger I’d started with. By 2013, I’d gathered over a hundred of those images, and thought I might have exhausted my interest in Los Angeles, but the purchase of a couple Mamiya 6s---“real” cameras---rejuvenated me, and I raced back into the field to shoot my first color project, “The American Apparel”.
MK: What is the work process like for making images for Sunshine & Noir? Are you going out specifically photograph these images, or are they done while taking part in your day to day life as a working photographer? Do you have a favorite film you use for this? What about color? Holgas are cheap, do you keep more than one on hand at all times?
TA: From the beginning---those brutal weeks after September 11---the pictures that became “Sunshine & Noir” were made by immersion and accumulation, one step at a time through strange neighborhoods, following my nose into whatever side street or vacant lot I fancied in the moment. In the decade that followed, I learned to study shopping districts and hillside enclaves from my car as I crossed town on my daily errands, back and forth to the color lab or the rental house, and I made notes about intersections I might come back to, at this or that time of day. Returning, I’d park the car and launch out onto the sidewalk, where I stayed for three or four hours, meandering like a drunk through alleys, eyeballing dog poop and Guadalupe shrines and the way shadows played across a garage door. Unbidden, a random, unlikely song would often ooze into my imagination---“Strangers In the Night”, “I Fought the Law” ---and as I sang it to myself, over and over and over, it took control of my inner rhythms, my stride, the flow of my thoughts. I must’ve looked like the village idiot.
But I knew that those pictures could only be made by that process: space unfolding as one moved through it, juxtapositions looming into harmony and then disappearing as the angle changed, information realigning with every step. One might glimpse the seed of a picture through a driver’s window, but, invariably, that image went to hell when finally confronted, after parking and walking back; the apparent relationship between object and background, a flag and a porch and a bicycle, had disappeared in the translation from drive-by to sidewalk perspective. So, walking was the only way to truly see what might be photographed---which, in effect, was otherwise non-existent. To do that, one needed a certain intention, a half-day, and a clear conscience.
Since the Fall of 2001, when I began “Sunshine & Noir” in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, I’ve used and retired over 60 Holgas. They simply wear out after a while, usually in the meniscus arrangement of the shutter. Sometimes the lens grows cloudy, or makes vignettes that’re too invasive for my taste. Each Holga is ugly in its own way. I’ve marked each with a letter of the alphabet, so I can label every roll for the lab by the camera it came out of; if those negs reveal an intolerable flaw in the operation of the machine, I know which one to throw away. I’m currently on “MMM”, which denotes a third swing through the code, half way to “AAAA”. My greatest, most treasured Holga was “C”, which had a beautifully-proportioned vignette and a perfect fall-off of focus; incredibly, it lasted twelve full years, and died peacefully in Chicago in 2013.
MK: In an age of digital supremacy in the professional photography realm, why would you step back into film with a project when you really didn’t have to? Is there something about the use of film that simply appeals to you, or are you getting something out of it that you cannot recreate digitally? I suppose the real question is, what’s the psychology behind using film in the modern era?
TA: I must say, I’m not particularly in love with film, as such. I’ve shot it seriously, several days a week, for about thirty-five years, and processed negatives and prints for about twenty-five. For over a decade---even at my first “real” job---I filled cassettes from bulk rolls of Tri-X and T-Max, and souped thirty or forty a week; later, I did C-41 on a daily deadline in Noritsu and Fuji machines, and scanned the film into a network. When I travelled for Time and People, we shot transparency film and FedExed it to New York from our location---a nerve-wracking process that tested the wits of all involved. So, for me (and a great many other old dogs), film is quite simply a material onto which our photographic choices and behavior are encoded for transfer into another medium---light-sensitive paper, via the intercession of a darkroom, or an LED monitor, by way of a Nikon scanner. I’m quite aware that, for some very discerning practitioners, the richness of its grain and gradation is a thing of beauty---it’s an object unto itself---and, as a “partner” in the artistic process it forces contemplation and commitment that profligate digital capture just doesn’t. Also, for those who hope to declare their independence from iPhone culture, a battered old Pentax Spotmatic is a terrific fashion accessory. My feelings about the uses of film are just more utilitarian, more lived-in, after all this time. However, if the subject is film cameras, I’m all ears.
When I shoot film, my interest is entirely in the cameras and lenses that expose those rolls and sheets. As for the Holga: It comprises about fifty cents worth of crap plastic molded into a box whose walls one could almost crush with a bare hand. It’s an “ur-camera”, fundamentally original, with nothing added to the seminal design. How much different is a Holga from a Brownie? But its charm lies there, too. In an environment where even the cheapest little eBay camera kit makes fairly sharp, well-exposed pictures, and where images Photoshopped to pro standards are published wall-to-wall in our newspapers, magazines, and all our various screens, we’re utterly surrounded by well-polished pictures that promote the hegemony of a single standard: perfection. Holgas provide the opportunity to test a modest alternative to that. They make possible a rumble of feedback---the Jimi Hendrix kind---atop the Beach Boys sheen of our everyday visual experience. Their negatives give us murky, ambivalent, dreamy options to the insistent, hyper-real onslaught of “useful” images that bombard us all day, and they give permission to particular photographers to go ahead and see where “uselessness” leads.
MK: Was there ever a specific job or event that became a turning point of success in your career as a professional photographer?
TA: Early in 1984, while waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, I mounted a show of recent street photography at a gallery at MSU, my alma mater. Somehow, Michael Moore---yes, that Michael Moore---saw the show, and asked me to do a couple assignments for the Flint Voice, a rabble-rousing weekly that he was then the editor of. We hit it off, and ended up traveling together that summer to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention. (That’s where we met the Mother Jones people, who offered him their top job, which precipitated all the weirdness he documented in “Roger and Me”.) I have great memories of that trip: I watched David Burnett working with a Mamiya 7 in a dim stairwell, and met Robert Frank on a sidewalk outside the Moscone Center, and found Eugene Richards’ first two books in the bargain bin of a used bookstore next to the Judah train. I thought, So! This is what happens when you get out of Michigan!
Even after all the rookie screw-ups I committed on that trip---I crashed a borrowed car, and missed a train and missed a plane and ran out of money and slept overnight at the airport---I still remember thinking that I’d conquered something huge, rounded a crucial corner in life, and that I just wanted more and more of that. So, that was the turning point you asked about: I thought I could do a certain thing, become a particular version of myself, which required proving and testing---and I went off and did that test, at great cost, and learned that I was who I thought I was, and that the sky was the limit.
MK: What is it that inspires you to decide upon a particular project?
TA: Like many photographers, I’m greatly interested in people and their stories, and with social conditions and current affairs---but I don’t initiate my personal projects from those concerns, or from any set of intellectual or spiritual or political ideas. For better or worse, my projects all begin from a consideration of what stuff looks like when it’s photographed, as Garry Winogrand famously said. That urge necessarily drives the ongoing accumulation of…photographs of stuff…which collection is then available for “interrogation”, as the grad students say.
Whenever I’m not working on a specific set of pictures, I range widely in the urban environment, walking in neighborhoods that interest me, and I shoot whatever I see, without prejudice, responding with as much pure visual curiosity as I can muster. After several months of that, certain subjects begin to emerge, certain themes or techniques catch my attention. I might notice, to my surprise, that stray dogs have taken over my contact sheets, or that I’ve collected an abundance of castaway mattresses. Over time I might study my feelings about those subjects, while I pay more attention to them in my walkabouts. A point-of-view might emerge, a swarm of ideas might coalesce around those dogs or mattresses---the vagaries of freedom, the impermanence of love---and I’ll pursue those as I hone my searches and, for the next year, all I’m doing is dogs and mattresses. But, even in that state of heightened attention, other unrelated motifs will always swim into my peripheral vision, and I’ll make a half-hearted snap of such-and-such, and perhaps my next preoccupation will slowly bloom.
MK: During the height of your photojournalism years, was there a favorite camera, lens, and film combination that you felt covered you the best while in assignment? If you were to recreate that workflow today, would you do it the same way, or might you change it up in some way?
TA: By a mile, the aspect-ratio that feels natural and almost perfect to me is 1 x 1.5, which is the standard DSLR dimension, and the 28mm lens is where my eye feels at home. Of course, a photojournalist shooting assignments is pretty-much obligated to come back with a publishable picture, every time, so one must use cameras and lenses that will give maximum advantage and opportunity. My belief is, that mostly rules out prime lenses. When I was in the field, I carried two motor-driven bodies---Nikon F4s were my absolute favorite, back in the day, and Canon Eos Mark 2s and 3s in more recent years---with a zoom lens on each, one short and one long. In the Nikon realm, the short zoom was a16-35mm f2.8, or a 24-70mm in the Canon era. The longer zoom was a Nikon 70-210 f2.8---am I remembering that right?---and a Canon 80-200 f2.8.
Believe it or not, I always wore the classic Domke photo vest, in which I carried a couple dozen of rolls of film, a few prime lenses, two strobes with off-camera cords, and a table-top tripod. (I often had a 300 f4 in a belly-bag.) A camera bag on the shoulder just couldn’t compete with that arrangement.
The film we used in those days, from the early 90s through the early 2000s, was Fuji 400 ASA, which was very pushable. (I used T-Max 400 on “Social Studies”, during that same period.) During my magazine career we used transparency---slide---film almost exclusively, mostly Fuji products in both 35mm and medium format. I believe there was a Kodachrome 200 that I really liked---or was that Ektachrome? When we were testing our lighting set-ups---a dreary, costly process that digital has made obsolete, thankfully---we used Fuji products in Polaroid backs, which popped onto and off of my Hasselblads. Later, when I shot color film for “The American Apparel”, I used Kodak Portra in 120 rolls of 400 and 800 ASA.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
TA: For most of my early career, the photojournalism I practiced in my professional capacity was complemented by personal work I did on nights and weekends. In effect, I was doing two jobs side by side---which might account for the chronic feelings of frantic-ness and exhaustion I’ve had since I was twenty-five. The gallery projects I did up until 2000 shared with my best newspaper work a common subject: people in public, performing ritual behaviors in ritual wardrobe, negotiating the narrative and the space itself with one another, moment by moment. As a staff photojournalist, I bore responsibilities to my readership for accuracy and straight-shooting, so my “take” on those events resembled the “real world” in which they transpired. But my personal work, which drank from the very same pond, tried to propose an “un-real world” that was off-kilter a bit, a non sequitur.
A common feature of my recent work, even including some of the Holga portfolios, has been my attention to those “un-real worlds”, which have their own rules, a color palette of my choosing, a quality of light that diverges from the everyday. My best hope is to use the everyday stuff that’s generously provided, in bulk, by the workaday world, and to transform a subset of all that---a particular city, a certain aspect of the built environment---into a world of its own. As I’ve grown, and gained understanding of that urge, I’ve become more committed to the very disciplined method required for such “world-building”. The work I value the most, whether my own or by others, are the projects that slice into “reality” at a particular angle---a “way of seeing” a particular subject---while deploying a particular and limited arsenal of tools in a consistent and coherent way, over the course of twenty or thirty pictures. By those means, one excludes everything that doesn’t add to their exposition of that “world” and how it works. And one pays the strictest attention to light and its qualities. Always, always, photographs are about the vagaries of light as it strikes the surfaces of the visible world. Examples? Using a strict technique, Todd Hido created a world with his pictures of suburban houses at night, as did Alec Soth in Songbook, with his choice of subjects and the benign, “pedestrian” strobe he exposed them with. Once they’ve demonstrated “the rules” of the world they’ve set up---the camera system and the film, the use of light, their compositional strategies, the use of saturation and contrast in their printing---those photographers never veer from that aesthetic, out of necessary respect for the fragile “gravity” of the world they propose to show. Humbly, I attempt that same discipline and philosophy, however much I might fall short of the mark.
MK: I appreciate your willingness in answering these questions, Tom. Normally, I’d say that since we share the same city, let’s go out for a beer and you can fill me in about the latest news. But why not share that here as well? Do you have anything new in the works that you’d like us to keep an eye out for? What’s next for you?
TA: Michael, I reached I genuine crisis in my shooting career, back in the middle of 2015. I’d just finished “The American Apparel”, my color series about fashion advertising in the working-class neighborhoods of LA, and was testing out three new ideas I’d been itching to get to---all using the same materials as “TAA” had, 120 film in Mamiyas and Hasselblads. But the prices of film and processing had been rising fast since about 2012, and I was reaching a breaking point. (Kodak, always myopic and arrogant, chose to penalize their dwindling adherents with higher prices, rather than embracing and supporting us.) I was spending seven or eight hundred dollars a month on 120 Portra, and almost a thousand processing those rolls. As the fieldwork on my new projects became more intense, and I required more and more film, I decided to spent my funds in that pursuit and stopped processing altogether, refrigerating a growing pile of exposed rolls. (At one point those bins and bags of film weighed in at 32 pounds.) Clearly, that practice was unsustainable, and the future of my whole endeavor was at risk. When I could no longer deny the reality of that situation, it broke my heart.
Naturally, digital capture had occurred to me. I’d been using Canon’s 5-D line for ten years in my professional work, but didn’t believe those cameras could produce files big enough for the large prints my gallerists were demanding. I thought, if Canon could ever market a DSLR that doubled the size of that Mark 3 sensor, I might be persuaded to surrender my beloved Mamiyas and Hassies. Then, out of nowhere, they did just that, introducing the 50-megapixel Eos 5ds-r that very summer. I sold a couple prints after Thanksgiving, and two more just before Christmas, and by New Year’s 2016 I had that camera (and a supersharp 24-75mm 2.8 lens) hotly in hand. Although that camera allows one to dial a square mask into the viewfinder, I chose, after a couple months, to surrender to the 1x1.5 aspect ratio that’s native to that body. Those new habits led to other changes: I began shooting my urban landscapes with a brilliant strobe, powered by a Dynalite 1000ws pack I wheel around behind me in a carry-on bag, or hoisted up onto my back. A couple of those projects, begun almost three years ago, are almost finished, and three more are gaining momentum.
I’ve sent along a handful of frames from one of those projects, “The Nature of The Beast”. Those of us who live in Los Angeles are familiar with the variety of desert plants and flowers that sprout everywhere around us: wildflowers, bougainvillea, agave, cactus. Their story, I’ve realized, is one of accommodation and insurgence: however much cement we pour onto the hills and canyons of this basin, the desert abides. In the strangest of places, its persistent vegetation pokes up through the cracks and seams in the built environment, unbidden, climbing fences and telephone poles and sprawling randomly across alleys and sidewalks everywhere. This portfolio tilts toward bougainvillea---which, quite simply, pops like crazy in the strobe light---and includes other bright and gnarly blooms in neighborhoods from San Pedro to Echo Park to Venice and the Hollywood Hills. Currently, there are thirty pictures in the portfolio, which I’ll finish it for good next March or April, after I get one more winter’s work under my belt.
Meanwhile, I continue to shoot in American cities with my Holgas---Nashville and Memphis are next in the New Year---but I wouldn’t recommend anyone “keep an eye out for” those images, which always take a year or so to see the light of day. A trip like that, which normally lasts about three weeks, generates at least 200 exposed rolls of T-Max and Ilford 3200. Whatever else one says about film, the “professional” or serious use of it is very labor intensive and time-consuming for someone working alone, like me; the quickest I’ve ever turned-around a finished, 25-picture portfolio from one of my city safaris was two months, which was a pretty dizzying pace.
You can find more of Thomas' work at his website here.
*This interview originally posted in its entirety at Analog Forever Magazine, December 18, 2018, here.