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Kings and Queens: Colour, Clutter, and Community Captured by Tom Atwood

Photographer Tom Atwood (1995) has just released a new book, Kings and Queens in Their Castles¸a window into the private worlds of LGBT+ people throughout the US.

With over 30 awards, hundreds of photographs of luminaries, and a series of exhibitions and publications in multiple countries, it’s fair to say that Atwood is highly acclaimed, and for good reason. The Director of the Hammer Museum described his latest book, Kings and Queens, as “fresh, alive and attention-grabbing’, and upon viewing the photographs one would be hard-pressed to disagree. On his website, the book is described as follows: “Over 15 years, Atwood photographed more than 350 subjects at home nationwide (with over 160 in the book), including nearly 100 luminaries (with about 60 in the book). With individuals from about 30 states, Atwood offers a window into the lives and homes of some of America’s most intriguing and eccentric personalities.”

Kings and Queens in Their Castles took thousands of hours of work.  Atwood found subjects through everything from dinners in Paris to searching Facebook for local LGBT+ groups, with a lengthy referral process required for his more famous subjects. Whilst much LGBT+ photography focuses on the young, beautiful, and urban, Atwood sought out people of all ages and backgrounds, including elderly and rural subjects.

The photographs are vibrant, almost chaotic in their fullness.  Unlike conventional portraiture, in which the focus of the photo is on the individual, Atwood gives equal attention to the architecture of their lives.  He wanted to challenge people’s eyes; as someone attracted to clutter, photographing people and the environment around them was a natural choice.  In particular, he wanted a focus on the everyday, especially for celebrities who are rarely seen in that context.  Atwood mentioned a photograph of Meredith Baxter in her very ‘ordinary’ kitchen, with the clutter of daily life clearly evident in shot.  Atwood’s process of talking with subjects at length while shooting, he says, allows him to connect emotionally with subjects.

The positioning of the everyday besides the glamorous or famous can also be found elsewhere in the book.  One double-page spread depicts, on one side, LA Director Randal Kleiser, relaxing by his pool accompanied by two horses and a well-groomed goat.  Across from this portrait is Mari Omland, a farmer in Vermont.  Mari also owns a goat, but hers is in the much less glamorous – but perhaps more familiar – position of being tied up ready for milking in a barn.  The inclusion of people who don’t match the idea of ‘Kings and Queens’ – whether referring to Royalty or to the drag scene – adds depth to the series.  In some ways, Atwood says, these people are Kings and Queens of their professions, but humour runs through the book as well.  Atwood draws on a playful sense of camp in his use of the metaphor of royalty. By doing so, he seeks to recognise and celebrate an awareness of difference, possibility, and creativity in the LGBT+ community.

 

When asked what makes his photos so distinctive, Atwood replied that people often comment that his photos have a particular style that is normally hard to achieve as a photographer, and that while beauty has become unpopular in the art world – rejected in favour of grimy, industrial shots – he wanted photos that would feel beautiful.  Further against photography trends, Atwood includes a variety of expressions, including happiness, rather than the formulaic, bleak looks often favoured by portrait photographers.  The use of colour and environment also makes Atwood’s work visually striking.

Kings and Queens in Their Castles provides many surprises along the way for viewers, but also for Atwood himself.  He was delighted to find that LGBT+ communities exist almost everywhere.  As a resident of New York he, like many others, had certain preconceived ideas about states like Texas and Utah, but found vibrant LGBT+ communities thriving in stereotypically oppressive spaces.  Atwood grew up in Vermont, and one of his favourite photos is of a transgender Deputy Sheriff; in the background of the shot the Vermont landscape is laid out before the viewer.  This sense of space was not as present in his first book, which was shot largely in New York.

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Atwood came to Pembroke in 1995 for his MPhil. His parents and family are all of British descent and he described feeling an affinity for England.  He visited Cambridge in High School but at the time didn’t even think to apply, attending Harvard instead where much of the set up mimics Cambridge.  When asked about Pembroke, Atwood said he ‘loved’ it, finding it a beautiful and visually interesting place.  He has visited Cambridge many times since he left and still keeps in touch with some of the friends he made here.  In particular, Atwood had only positive things to say about the strong alumni network, and the willingness of older alumni to help out and connect with their younger counterparts, building on a sense of common experience that cuts across generations.

To view more photos and purchase books, visit: http://www.tomatwood.com

Photographs:

Reproduced with the permission of Tom Atwood

Gallery 1:

  • Meredith Baxter, actress from Family Ties, All the President’s Men, Glee, Family Santa Monica, CA
  • Ria Pell, chef from Top Chef and winner of Chopped Kiki Carr, web developer Atlanta, GA
  • Mary Celley and Sue Williams, beekeepers Brooklyn, WI
  • George Takei, actor from Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Star Wars, Heroes Los Angeles, CA

Gallery 2:

  • Randal Kleiser, director of Grease, Grandview U.S.A., Big Top Pee-wee, The Blue Lagoon Los Angeles, CA
  • Mari Omland, farmer Northfield, VT

Portrait photos:

  • Gary Tisdale-Woods, community volunteer Greensboro, GA
  • Martyn Lawrence Bullard, star of Million Dollar Decorators, Hollywood Me Los Angeles, CA
  • David Lerner, dance essayist New York, NY

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