By Albert Smith
Originally published on Advocate.com October 30 2010 3:00 AM ET
Tom Atwood's recent work has focused on portraits of creative personalities, mostly at home. His work exhibits at galleries and museums nationwide. He is also a visiting photography lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Before moving to Hollywood, Atwood based his studio at different times in San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Amsterdam. In a past life he also held director and executive positions at two national advertising agencies. Atwood grew up on a dirt road in the woods of Vermont.He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's from Cambridge University in England.
The Advocate: Why are you a photographer?
Tom Atwood: My gravitation toward photography developed out of a confluence of other interests: painting (I’ve always been a visual person), architecture and urban planning (the settings for most of my photographs), musical theater and psychology (an interest in other people, their personalities, their lives, and how they feel and behave), and a love of all activities social (photography entails interacting with others). Because many of my general interests in life intersect with photography, it ended up being the perfect medium for me.
What catches your eye?
It’s the commonplace, everyday world that fascinates me most — how an interior is laid out, what’s in someone’s garbage, how someone uses the products in their bathroom. I’ve always had an eye for the most arcane of details. These almost obsessive observations remain etched in my mind, and sometimes I think they are trivial, but on some level they do matter because they ultimately inform my photography at one point or another.
How do you choose your subjects?
Art and photo directors match me with subjects for my commercial and editorial work. For my fine art work, finding individuals has become a psychological addiction of mine. Most subjects come through referrals from friends or friends of friends. Yet some of the most interesting subjects have emerged from some of the most unlikely sources: an elderly woman next to me on a plane, a don from Cambridge University, an Afrikaner management consultant, an L.A. high school student, a magazine editor from a dinner party in Paris, and a government bureaucrat in Amsterdam who had never set foot in America.How do you describe your work?
The main thesis of my portraits of individuals at home is that you can tell a lot about someone and their personality from their home and how they live in it. This is reflected in my style in a number of ways. I often seek out homes packed with wall-to-wall belongings, paraphernalia and detail. I attempt to suggest what such spaces reveal about the range of subjects’ personalities as well as how complex our personalities can be. Similarly, to illustrate that subjects and environments are a unified fabric, I choose a wide depth of field. Neither subject nor home predominates; my images are an attempt to balance the two. Conventional portraiture, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the person, through backgrounds of streamlined simplicity often with a narrow depth of field. I’m meticulous about composition — the photos often include both floor and ceiling, embracing as much of the environment as possible. I like to challenge people's eyes by including as much in the frame of the camera as possible while still creating balanced images. To fully create 360-degree portraits, I attempt to photograph people in daily activity — modern-day tableaux vivants. I seek out whimsical, intimate moments of daily life with subjects unaware of the camera. I strive for photographs that shift between the pictorial and the theatrical and that have elements of both formal portraiture and informal snapshots.
What makes a good photograph to you?
A photograph can be strong for any of a number of reasons: Raw emotion. Aesthetic beauty. Historical significance. Social value. A great photograph is often one that hits more than one of these or strikes a chord on many levels. Yet based on people’s unique life experiences, every individual will have a different reaction to every picture. So what makes one photograph great may be different for different people.
Who are your favorite artists? And why?
The photographers Gregory Crewdson and Simen Johan are my personal favorites. Gregory is known for his strange portraits of people in odd circumstances, and Simen for his somewhat grotesque portraits of children. I like them because in terms of aesthetics, both are brilliant at lighting and composition. Both also have an idiosyncratic, almost perverse understanding of the human condition.