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Exploring Surrealism & the Creative Process: A Conversation with Artist Tom Chambers

photo-eye Gallery Exploring Surrealism & the Creative Process: A Conversation with Artist Tom Chambers Anne Kelly Tom Chambers discusses his new series, the influence of Covid, and the evolving role of AI in the art realm, provoking thought and inspiring creativity.

Tom Chambers, Ascension, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 20x20", Edition of 20, $1,200 

In the realm of art, the boundaries between reality and imagination often blur, giving rise to captivating and thought-provoking creations. photo-eye Gallery director Anne Kelly sits down with acclaimed artist Tom Chambers to delve into his latest photographic series, Declarationwhich ventures into the realm of surrealism. Known for his mastery of the magical realism genre, Chambers shares his insights on this artistic shift, the inspiration behind his work, and his thoughts on the use of AI-generated images in the visual arts.

Amidst the discussion, Chambers opens up about his artistic process and emphasizes his deliberate choice to eschew AI in the creation of his new series. Drawing upon his expertise in Photoshop, Chambers meticulously composes his images by combining hand-drawn elements and photographs sourced from his inventory. By consciously avoiding the use of AI, he seeks to preserve the distinct personality and creative touch of the artist in his work, raising thought-provoking questions about the rise of AI-generated images in the art world. As the conversation unfolds, Chambers shares valuable insights and advice for fellow creatives, encouraging them to follow their passions, infuse their work with enthusiasm, and constantly challenge themselves to push the boundaries of their chosen mediums.

Tom Chambers, Genesis, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 13x15", Edition of 20, $750 

Anne Kelly: You typically work within the Magical Realism genre, but in this new series which was made in 2022, two years into Covid, you drift into surrealism. Do you think this is a new direction for you? Please elaborate on this shift.
Tom Chambers:  Magic Realism is an art genre which contains a magical element within a generally realistic scene. Surrealism can be sometimes full-blown unrealistic. I always felt that when using Photoshop for Surrealism you are walking a fine line between serious art and somewhat corny art. I have read many of the magic realism writers and have felt that that direction works better for what I’m trying to say. Because of Covid I was not shooting models or traveling, I had to rely on images I had in my inventory. I decided to step into the Surrealism genre, mainly to shake things up with how I work and push my work in a different direction. The times felt irrational, so Surrealism felt like the right fit. I don’t plan to continue to move in the Surrealism direction permanently, but it will be fun to fall back on occasionally.

AK:  Your images come from your mind–Instead of “moments captured” in one frame with a camera. In the past you had credited "daydreams" as your muse–do you think this new surreal work took you into a different part of your mind, or would you credit an alternative muse?
TC:  The sources of inspiration for this new series “Declaration” have not changed. Daydreams are still an inspiration for new ideas. Before Covid I had spent some time in Italy where I thought, why not try to combine Renaissance religious images with contemporary ideas? During Covid was the perfect time to pursue this direction. I felt the world was out of kilter, so why not push my photo work a bit further than I had been. My ideas for the magic realism images and the surrealism images all come from the same places, very often daydreams.

Tom Chambers, Rejuvenation, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 19x22", Edition of 20, $1,200

AK: In your statement, you note that you didn't use AI in the creation of the new work and that all elements were drawn or photographed by you, and montaged together. In your past work, images started from sketches and then were composed by combining multiple images to create your final composition. I believe this is the first time you have incorporated actual drawings included in the composition. Is this accurate? Please tell us a little more about both the technical part of that process and the creative process that inspired you to incorporate the drawings.
TC: In my art statement for the “Declaration” series I state: “Artificial Intelligence, (AI) was not employed in creating any of these images. All elements of each image were photographed or hand-drawn by me.” When I say elements were hand-drawn, I’m referring to digitally drawing some of the smaller elements. Each image is planned ahead. I make a small thumbnail sketch and then follow it loosely. I photograph the elements or background I need to create that image. Sometimes I pull images I have previously photographed from my archives. I hate to have to make the “No AI” statement, but I feel that it’s almost necessary at this point with the rapid development of AI software. I didn’t want this particular series of work to be swept up into the AI category by mistake.

Tom Chambers, Visitation, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 30x30", Edition of 10, $2,300

AK: What are your current thoughts on the use of AI-generated images in visual art?
TC: I feel torn between a number of thoughts. I’m all for new directions in art and new tools for creating art. But, I like to see the hand (and brain) of the artist in their work. Is there a personality who is making the work? Hopefully, there is and it would be important to see that personality reflected in the work. In some cases the artist chooses to use AI only for an element or two in a larger image, maybe combining it with Photoshop. This begs the question: How much of the image is AI created? An element? Five elements? The background? Should the artist make a statement that the work or a percentage of it is AI created? In the past my art statements mention that the work is photomontage to eliminate any confusion. I felt that this was necessary. Does the artist owe it to the viewer or purchaser to give that information? I think so. 

I understand that when prompting AI software like Midjourney or DALL•E 2, the software “scrapes” the internet and pulls images or parts of images from different locations, combining them. These locations can include other artists’ work and always pulling it without the artists’ permission. I feel that in a sense this is a form of plagiarism. The same could be said for ChatGBT, as I understand that it will be easy for a student to use AI to create and write a paper. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered in the coming months as I can see that the art field might radically change. Lawsuits already have been filed by artists against AI users saying their art has been stolen. The technology will soon be available for AI painting. As a CAD machine can draw a large format drawing, a similar piece of machinery will be able to paint large format paintings from a computer file. Is the art world ready for this conversation? How will we answer the question, “What is art?” 

Tom Chambers, Presentation, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 11x17", Edition of 20, $750

AK: As an early innovator of Photoshop–do you see any parallels between the early days of AI and the early days of Photoshop? 
TC: There is a similarity in the sense that it’s a new tool. I feel the parallel ends there since the artist’s creative hand is no longer in use when employing AI. AI supporters say that it’s a creative process when prompting the software. How much creativity goes into coming up with a descriptive prompt? A photomontage image is parts of photographed images that have been combined. The debate should be, “Can an AI-generated image be called Photography?” I don’t think so. The word Photography literally means “drawing with light”, derived from the Greek word for photo.

AK: Do you have any advice for others that are trying to tap into creativity?
Yes, decide what excites you. If bugs excite you, then it’s taking photos of bugs - do it. Your excitement for your subject matter will keep you interested and your work will exude that energy. My direction turned out to be photomontage because I enjoy the planning and the building of an image, along with adding that extra twist that throws things off kilter.

Tom Chambers, Repose, 2023, Archival Pigment Print, 30x30", Edition of 10, $2,300

Artist Statement: 

“Declaration” was inspired by my return to international travel in 2022. Just as life had changed with the impact of Covid, my photography work shifted from elements of magic realism to surrealism. The Covid years often felt irrational, as though we were living in a different dimension. Through the resumption of travel, I was drawn to the idea of blending the influences of Italian Renaissance art with surrealism resulting in a timeless look and feel. 

Narration is a key element of my work. All of the women represented in this series “Declaration” belong to a society of women living not in the past or in the future but in a different planetary space and time. They tell stories and reveal ideas of importance, perhaps of an existential nature.
Artificial Intelligence, (AI) was not employed in creating any of these images.  All elements of each image were photographed or hand-drawn by me, Tom Chambers.

photo-eye Gallery is proud to represent artist Tom Chambers.

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The prints from this series are Archival Pigment Prints 

Small, Edition of 20, Starting at $750
Medium, Edition of 20, Starting at $1,200
Large, Edition of 10, Starting at $2,300


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If you are in Santa Fe, please stop by during gallery hours or schedule a visit HERE.

For more information, and to reserve one of these unique works, please contact
Gallery Director Anne Kelly or Gallery Assistant Jovi Esquivel.

You may also call us at (505) 988- 5152 x202

photo-eye Gallery

1300 Rufina Circle, Unit A3, Santa Fe, NM 87507
Tuesday– Saturday, from 10am– 5:30pm