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Interview & Portfolio: Tom Chambers on To The Edge

photo-eye Gallery Interview & Portfolio: Tom Chambers on To The Edge As always, we are excited to present a new series of photographs by Tom Chambers: To The Edge. In addition to sharing the images, I have asked Chambers to speak about his experience photographing in Iceland, the inspirations behind his imagery, and his aesthetic.
The Trickster — Tom Chambers

As always, we are excited to present a new series of photographs by Tom Chambers: To The Edge. In To The Edge, Chambers takes us on a journey through Iceland. As usual, his images are inhabited by children and animals, but in this series Chambers takes us a bit deeper into his dreams. In the new images we start to see elements that boarder on the surreal — a boy with handmade bird wings soaring over a vast green landscape, children catching birds like butterflies  and a young girl speaking in flowers. Each image is carefully paired with lines of poetry by Allen Chamberlin inspired by Chambers' images. In addition to sharing the images, I have asked Chambers to speak about his experience photographing in Iceland, the inspirations behind his imagery, and his aesthetic.—Anne Kelly

One Oar Out — Tom Chambers
Anne Kelly:     Your grandfather was a painter and illustrator — I have always perceived his influence in your work, but see it especially this series.

Tom Chambers:     My grandfather worked both commercially as an illustrator and in his free time as a fine arts landscape painter. He began his commercial work when magazines primarily were using illustrations created by painters, before the time photography took over the scene. I always felt that my grandfather’s work and what I do are similar. My work can be described as photo illustration, constructed photography, or photomontage. While my grandfather illustrated a story using gouache or oil paints, I digitally illustrate ideas or scenarios that come into my head. Though we share a similar style, I have wondered how my grandfather would react to the digital illustrations produced today. With my new series, To The Edge, I have pushed my connection towards painterly illustration by incorporating textures that mimic watercolor washes in the skies of the images.

AK:     You work within the genre of magic realism. While this series is not a departure, we are starting to see the incorporation of a few surrealistic elements. What are your thoughts on this and the intersection of the two genres?

TC:     I think that To the Edge might have a more surrealistic feel because the Icelandic landscape itself is strangely beautiful with its myriad of geological formations. Nonetheless, I feel that I continue to work within the genre of magic realism, which generally portrays a magical or unreal element in an otherwise realistic environment. With this new series, the landscape naturally has a surrealistic quality and one or more elements also is highly unlikely, as we find in magic realism. For example, one major theme is children catching birds. You don’t see this too often in real life, but when you do it turns your head. I try to keep my images close “to the edge” of reality, in the possible but improbable zone. Pushing them too far puts them into the impossible category and they run the risk of becoming somewhat hokey.

Fowl Play — Tom Chambers

AK:     In this series you collaborate with poet Allen Chamberlain. Did you have this in mind before you trip to Iceland?

TC:     Before the trip to Iceland I had a general idea of how the series would take shape. I envisioned Iceland with its surreal landscape as the perfect backdrop for my images. Once there I found that not only is the landscape surreal but there are many sagas or stories of local history which are fascinating and even magical. Today a large percentage of the population actually believe in elves and there are recent stories of road construction being rerouted to avoid an “elf habitat.”

After shooting in Iceland, I had the idea to run lines of poetry through the images that would enhance the magical vibe of the landscape. Initially, I was afraid that the viewer would get stuck on the line of text, or the text might work like a headline in an ad and become more important then the image itself. To avoid these potential issues, I decided to translate the poem into the Icelandic language. I’m intrigued by the language and the strange looking words, many of them containing multiple consonants and few vowels. I wanted to use the text as a design element but it also had to be meaningful to the series.

As I was developing the series, I met with a friend and poet Allen Chamberlain who imagined writing a ghazal style poem based on the images. The ghazal is an ancient form of poetry containing rhyming couplets and a refrain, each couplet ending in a similar idea or phrase; in my case, “to the edge.” Inspired by my images and her research about Iceland, Allen wrote a remarkable poem which creates mental pictures and captures the essence of Iceland. Most importantly, the poem connects perfectly with the images from the series. After writing the ghazal, the poem was translated into Icelandic. Lines were then inserted into each image.

Winged Shepherd — Tom Chambers

AK:     Traveling has inspired several of your recent bodies of work. Do you choose the location based on the desire to photograph there or has it just become natural for you to make images wherever you are?

TC:     I just love to travel, especially to places with a strong connection with the natural world or with a mythical heritage. After exploring an unfamiliar place, I am often inspired to interpret what I've seen or felt through my art. Most travel adventures are planned with the idea of using the photography for my work.

AK:     I know that you have many stories your trip to Iceland. Will you share one that is particularly memorable?

TC:     We rented a 4-wheel drive SUV and drove the loop route around the perimeter of the country. The main road Route 1 is not entirely paved, but very driveable. Touring the country, the first thing you notice is the lack of trees. Hundreds of years ago the country was deforested by the Vikings and then their sheep made sure the trees didn’t grow back. No problem; there are so many geographical elements that make your head spin, including hundreds of waterfalls, random steam shooting up from the earth, lakes, fjords, glaciers, ice flows, black beaches, volcanoes, and my favorite, moss covered volcanic rock. Luckily the volcanoes held their temper during the time we were there.

The summertime in Iceland is great for photography, and you can shoot all day and all night. The sun dips just below the horizon late at night and at that time it seems more like dusk. The hard part was keeping a schedule. Many times we would be out exploring and suddenly notice that it was way past midnight and realized that it was no wonder why we were tired. In the summer the weather can change on a dime. The Northwest coast was so windy that the car door flew back, hitting my wife on the head and knocking her to the ground. We drove to the nearest town looking unsuccessfully for ice (in Iceland) to hold to her bruised head and finally found a kind soul who gave us a bag of frozen mangos. We thought that was a bit ironic. A couple days later we were driving down a mountain on a switch-back road in a fog so thick we could only see 10 feet in front of the car. The next day when the fog lifted we could see that we were in a beautiful village on a fjord surrounded by mountains and ribbons of waterfalls. The northern most part of the “highway” (sometimes unpaved) took us within 40 miles of the Arctic circle. My wife and I are excited to be taking another trip back to Iceland this Summer.

Summer Soliloquy  — Tom Chambers

View the To The Edge portfolio

View more work from Tom Chambers
View Chambers' book Entropic Kingdom
View the Dreaming in Reverse portfolio

For more information about Tom Chambers' photography please contact the gallery by email or by phone 505-988-5152 x202