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Interviews: Tom Chambers on Photomontage

Tethered Aviator / Aviador atado -- Tom Chambers
On the day that the Tom Chambers Dreaming in Reverse / Soñando Hacia Atrás exhibition opened in photo-eye Gallery, a review of the exhibit by Casey Sanchez came out in Pasa Tiempo. In the first sentence of the article Sanchez addresses Tom Chambers’ process -- photomontage. He makes the point that many people have the wrong idea about montage as in the digital age a lot of what we see is poorly done either in skill or aesthetics (or both) or is montage that attempts to tell a lie by doctoring photographic. All of this has given photomontage a dubious reputation, but it is like anything else -- anything can be done poorly or for dishonest reasons. The way that I see it, Photoshop is a tool with many uses. For Chambers, this tool is used to combine images in order to transfer an idea from his imagination to something physical, a paper and ink print — much like painting, sculpture or music – and share it with the world.

Spring Covers the River, Vietnam, 1971 -- Don Hong-Oai
Photomontage predates the digital era and has been practiced for more than 130 years. Also on display in the gallery is work by Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004). The photographs of Don Hong-Oai are made in a unique style of photography often referred to as Asian Pictorialism. With the delicate beauty and traditional motifs of Chinese painting (birds, boats, mountains, etc.) in mind, photographers of this school used more than one negative to create a beautiful picture, often referencing visual allegories. In these pre-digital composite photographs, realism was not the goal.

Chambers’ images have been described as probable, but improbable – viewers question if what they are looking at is real (what is real... now that’s a whole other subject!). The images are so masterfully construed that they appear to be real — did the woman in Tethered Aviator actually tie a string to the bird in the window? We don’t know, but like the work on Don Hong-Oai, realism is not the goal.

But what is real in these images is a constant question from viewers. I have been asked dozes of times during the course of this exhibition – “Is this real?” “Is this Photoshop?” “Are these images digital enhanced?” and so on. So I have asked Tom Chambers to tell us a little more about photomontage and how he arrive at using it as vehicle to share the images in his imagination with the rest of us. --Anne Kelly

Anne Kelly:   How were you first exposed to art making?

Tom Chambers:   I grew up on my grandparent’s farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We lived in the tenant house across the farm lane from my grandparents who bought the farm in the late 1930s, where they worked as both farmers and artists. Not only was I lucky enough to have an idyllic childhood romping in the farm fields, but I also was fortunate to have been influenced by the artistic talents of my grandparents. Both my grandparents were classically trained artists from Philadelphia who continued their passions for painting throughout their lives.

My grandfather, Wilson Chambers, made his living illustrating books and magazines, as well as creating oil paintings. I have fond childhood memories of smelling turpentine and watching him work in his studio. The illustrative nature of my photomontages clearly was shaped by my grandfather’s artwork. In turn, my grandfather was heavily influenced by N.C. Wyeth, who lived nearby. The emotionality of son Andrew Wyeth's landscapes, in particular, has influenced my photography. My grandmother, a watercolorist, also painted emotionally, but because of the times was not as highly recognized as my grandfather.

Sketch for and final print of The Goatherd by Tom Chambers
AK:   Tell us about your photographic process.

TC:   I like to say that instead of taking a photo, I am making a photo. My imagery is referred to as "photomontage" which combines two or more photos to create one image. To construct a photomontage I might initially sketch a concept or idea that I have for an image. Many of my inspirations for my montage photography come from musings or dreams, which I refer to as improbable dreams. These are "visualizations" that rattle through my head when I'm in a relaxed state of mind. Other times I will have an interesting background or element for the composition and will use it as a starting point. Then, I photograph each element of the photomontage using a Nikon D700. The greatest challenge is in making sure the light intensity and direction are similar in each of these shots.

The process of creating a photomontage may take a month or more, depending upon how quickly I am able to get all the shots and sort through them, selecting the ones that work best together. Elements of the final image may include the landscape or background, often shot in sections, as well as the sky, a human figure, an animal, or another object. Then, I use Photoshop software with a Macintosh computer to combine each "piece," constructing the final image. Lastly, the photomontage is printed with archival pigment inks onto cotton rag paper.

AK:   How were you first exposed to photomontage?

TC:   In addition to my work as a fine arts photographer, I work as a graphic designer in creating printed material and packaging. The work of graphic design has allowed me to learn about different software and various printing processes, as well as to understand issues of color and design. When Adobe Photoshop was released about twenty years ago, I began exploring the possibilities of combining images, first with shots from family vacations. With time I honed my Photoshop skills, and I recognized the possibilities of expressing some of my artistic ideas and inspirations through photomontages.

Sketch for and final print of Meant for Love by Tom Chambers
AK:   Who are your influences?

TC:   Having grown up on a Pennsylvania farm, I have always been very inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s rural landscapes and love affairs with the nature. Like Wyeth, I feel a strong emotional connection with the image that I am creating. In addition, iconic Mexican religious art, various Hispanic photographers such as Graciela Iturbide, and authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, and a range of contemporary music have inspired both creative and critical thinking. Opportunities to travel and experience different cultures have encouraged my appreciation of multiple artistic perspectives and spark ideas for my artwork.

AK:   Why do you use photomontage instead of staging your scenes?

TC:   In the spirit of magic realism, I typically am modifying one or two elements in an image in order to elicit an emotional response from a viewer. You could say I stage each element in the image separately. I enjoy adding or subtracting elements in an image or moving them around to satisfy my sense of composition. Photomontage seems to allow me greater control and flexibility to create the mood that I am seeking.

Sketches for and final print of Camouflage by Tom Chambers
AK:   You have shot both film and digital, which do you prefer and why?

TC:   I initially began my photomontage work shooting with film and scanning the transparencies. Four years ago I switched to using a digital camera since film had become too time consuming as I tried to get just the right shot. The lower cost of shooting digitally takes my mind off conserving expensive film. Because I'm shooting more there is more opportunity for unintended surprises that sometimes takes the photomontage in a unique direction.

AK:   Most of the scenes in your images are possible and so masterfully constructed that they appear real, but have a quality that causes the viewer to question the reality. How do you achieve this?

TC:   Thank you for the compliment. My photomontages follow in the tradition of magic realism. Magic realism is a term used in art and literature referring to a situation or setting in which all seems true and believable, except for one or more elements which lend an air of improbability. Because I am adjusting one or two elements, the resultant photomontage is intended to appear almost real. In addition, creating a photomontage involves a tremendous amount of post-production. I have to be very thoughtful about honoring my idea for the final image. I want to avoid over-manipulation of the pieces that are included in the final image and ensure that the final gestalt feels authentic, yet a bit disturbing, and not too forced.

photo-eye Gallery's Tom Chambers exhibit Dreaming in Reverse / Soñando Hacia Atrás will be up in the gallery for about another week. Please stop by if you're in town. Chambers' work can also be viewed at online here.

For more information on Chambers' work, please contact Anne Kelly, photo-eye Gallery Associate Director at or by phone at (505) 988-5152 x202.