In the book Kings in Their Castles, photographer Tom Atwood offers a pictorial of the New York City gay community, with images of everyone from John Waters to Junior Vasquez to Hedda Lettuce in their abodes. Atwood talked with Windy City Times about these men and the stories behind the photographs.
Windy City Times: Why did you embark on this project?
Tom Atwood: I thought that there was a need for a serious photodocumentary of the gay male community, because there hadn't been many that I'd seen—and I certainly hadn't seen many featuring men at home. I seek out subjects that sing to me, and gay men have flair for design and many of us live in some of the most intriguing spaces in this country, so I thought that ( from an aesthetic point of view ) it was an intriguing subject. There are some playful, outlandish homes and I document [ them ] .
Also, I thought that there was a breed of older, bohemian men who are slowly disappearing as gay society assimilates with the rest of society. So I wanted to document that as well.
In addition, I feel that art should be democratic and accessible by all—and this book can be enjoyed by tens of thousands of people.
WCT: How did you decide which subjects to photograph?
TA: I started photographing friends and friends of friends, and it spread out from there. Most of the people I shot were referrals that came from all sorts of interesting people, including a South African management consultant and [ even ] an elderly lady sitting next to me on a plane.
WCT: Going through the book, it became obvious that it took a lot of time to put it together. There's one picture that was taken on Sept. 11 in New York City. [ Note: Most of the images were taken in that city. ] That picture is pretty powerful.
TA: Yeah, it took four years to put it together.
Thanks for the compliment about that picture. I had a meeting with a potential client that morning in Midtown. I grabbed my camera just in case the meeting didn't go through. I went to Midtown from the Upper West Side and, sure enough, all the skyscrapers were closed. I knew that my friend Pascal [ Arnaud, who is in the picture ] had that view. I called him and he was home, and I went over there to take pictures. He was also snapping pictures from his window; he could send everything that was happening and he was e-mailing his pictures to the French media.
As I show people that picture, some feel that I shouldn't have included that [ image ] because the book is supposed to be about celebrating gay people and be something positive. But I felt like it was a part of history and a part of living in New York during that period.
WCT: The book definitely presents a variety of homes. Did I actually see a nuclear bomb in the living room of one of the places?
TA: They [ gym manager Joe Barron and publishing salesperson Bill Gutmann ] did. It's an art installation but it's an operable nuclear bomb. It lacks weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, but if they had [ either ] , it would work. Don't ask me how they got in into New York. [ Laughs ]
WCT: You mentioned the book being a celebration. I basically saw it as a presentation of a cross-section of homes of people from various economic backgrounds.
TA: I think that's an accurate comment. I saw it as a celebration of difference, or a way to show how interesting and complex the community is.
I've gotten letters and e-mails from people who really like the book. A kid in rural Georgia said that he's inspired and is going to go into photography. Also, a Midwestern couple put me in their blog; they took a picture of themselves and said, 'This is us.' It's actually a great photograph.
WCT: In your opinion, who had the most interesting home?
TA: My answer to that always varies according to my mood and the lunar cycle. [ Laughs ]
However, I must say that John Waters' home was pretty interesting. He's such an interesting and quirky guy with such a complex personality. His space reflected what I expected of him; as I progressed through his house, it was like peeling back layers of an onion. On the ground level, he had antiques and a Turkish carpet. Then, he had an execution chair; he also has Polaroids tacked up of everyone who's been in his home. In his attic, he also has old movie props and an art installation as if a terrorist were manufacturing anthrax so he had white powder in little plastic bags.
I found that a lot of people had homes that I expected. [ Fashion designer ] Todd Oldham's place was playful and had all sorts of colors. There were also people who used their spaces to create fantasy worlds that allow us to blossom and be who we want to be, regardless of whether society might disapprove. So I feel that gay people go to great lengths to draw distinctions between us and the rest of society—and this may be reflected through unusual colors or provocative pieces of art.
Sometimes, people's spaces are the opposite of what I expected. For example, [ interior decorator ] Austin Chinn has a space I wouldn't expect. Also, [ fashion designer ] John Bartlett is in something that's edgy; yet, his apartment—which is gorgeous—is more on the traditional side.
WCT: The collections of some of your subjects are interesting. One guy had poodle figurines while another had leather paddles on his headboard.
TA: [ Laughs ] Yeah. [ The paddle photo ] I put in the book across from the guy who had all the crosses in the kitchen. I thought it made for an interesting juxtaposition—and there are juxtapositions like that throughout the book.
WCT: One I think I picked up on is [ sculptor ] Tobi Wong in his eight-foot by nine-foot apartment being across from those two artists in their huge home studio. How did you even photograph Wong?
TA: My back was up against the window pane and I used a wide-angle lens. That was a tough one.
He is positioned on a board that functions as a bed—and he's got a Prada box there, which is interesting. He's rolling a joint but, yeah, that's his whole apartment right there.
WCT: At first, I thought that he was sitting on a board on top of a toilet. How foul would that be?
TA: [ Laughs ] However, speaking of toilets, there's a picture of [ professor ] Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt [ in his tenement bathroom/kitchen ] . His kitchen sink is also his bathtub, so that's an interesting use of space.
WCT: [ Architect ] Alan Tanksley also has an interesting space, with a shower positioned in front of a huge window.
TA: What the picture doesn't show is that, because of the tiling, people below the 20th floor can't see his genitalia, but people above the 20th floor probably can. There was no curtain over it; it's such an interesting place to take a shower.
WCT: The pictures are taken in New York City. Why is that?
TA: I lived here the whole time I was shooting it. I'm working on a second book that's more national in scope. I've shot Carson Kressley from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The fact that most of the images are in New York is inconsequential; it just happened that way. But the next book will [ incorporate ] San Francisco, L.A. [ and other places ] . I hope to broaden the scope with the next one.
WCT: Did you learn anything about yourself in putting this book together?
TA: Interesting question. It's so funny because, throughout the project, I focused on the subjects and choosing photographs that I thought represented them well.
I learned about photography and I taught myself photography and environmental portraiture through this project. ( I'm entirely self-taught. ) I developed a style as I was producing this.
See more info about Atwood at Article Link Here . The book Kings in Their Castles is available at Article Link Here .