Interview Edel Cassidy
Drawing inspiration from the Byzantine period, American photographer Tawny Chatmon adorns Black bodies with gold and semi-precious stones to express her love for family and friends
How did you get started in your career as a photographer and what is your earliest memory of taking photographs?
Growing up, I thought I would have a career in the performing arts, and when I abruptly ended my pursuit of acting in my early twenties, I turned to photography as a way to earn an income. I don’t necessarily have any significant memories of taking my first photographs. Nevertheless, I remember being pretty young, getting my film from disposable cameras developed and feeling excited about seeing those photos. Still, I wouldn’t say that I necessarily had a passion for taking photos as a child. I have, however, always been a creator.
Personal experiences and events seem to strongly influence your current work. Can you tell me about this journey?
For me, my work is now a vessel to communicate my joy, my love, my pain and my frustration. It’s my way of responding to the things that have troubled me, while at the same time celebrating and honouring the people and issues I care deeply about. Photography, in the beginning, was a way for me to earn an income. However, it wasn’t until later that I understood the importance of my camera, that it could be used for much more than a tool for monetary purposes. Things such as becoming a mother, documenting my father’s battle with cancer and losing him, growing, evolving and becoming more aware of the world I was raising my children in were some of the moments that led me to refocus. My outlook on life in general really changed after losing my father. It made me think about what I was doing with myself while recognising that this life is not forever. I, too, will not be here one day and my children will have to live without me.
Also, for some time, I felt overtaken by feelings of frustration, sadness and anger as I continually came across so much negativity fixated around Black hair and hairstyles and the unfair treatment of Black people in the US and abroad, in addition to many other things that occur daily. I began to understand that a conversation I might have with someone about those things would most likely be forgotten, whereas something we can see, admire, touch (that also has the power to touch us somehow) could live on forever. After we’re no longer on this earth, art, photographs, writing and so on can be examined to decipher the past.
Describe your creative process. What are the steps you take from inspiration to execution?
I take a multi-layered approach when creating. I generally begin with an idea of what I’m looking to say, and I normally have somewhat of a storyboard. Typically, I’m guided by a set of emotions that I’m looking to release while working on a particular body of work. I’ll then schedule a portrait sitting or simply ask my children to pose for me. Most times, my subjects are people I’m close to somehow – my children, godchildren, a relative, or a model I’ve worked with in the past.
After the sitting, I often digitally enhance my portraits. I don’t restrict myself by following any set of rules or by working within one singular medium. I like to experiment with collage and montage or add my own hand-drawn elements to my photographs. After refining and printing, I often hand-embellish with acrylic paint, 24-carat gold leaf, and materials such as paper, semi-precious stones, glass and other mixed media.
I’m also particular when framing my work. I often choose gold vintage, antique and baroque-style frames that I collect from estate sales, galleries and auctions, or I commission custom-built contemporary ornate frames created specially for each piece. I like frames with a history, imperfect frames and frames built during (or reminiscent of) an era when framing subjects like mine wasn’t a consideration. The frames are an extension of my work as I’m looking to offer a counter-narrative to the typical portrait museum experience.
You’ve been inspired by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and the artists of the Vienna Secession movement. What drew you to this style?
For my series The Redemption, the painted dresses and clothing are directly influenced by some of Klimt’s works created during his Golden Phase – except that my subjects and the messages behind my work are entirely different from his. The emotions that the decorative qualities of his work brought out in me when I first discovered them are the feelings I want to evoke in the viewer of my work. So the influence is more tied to how I want others to feel, rather than to anything else. In If I’m no longer here, I wanted you to know, while Klimt’s decorative influence is still present, I pull most inspiration from Byzantine art in terms of its use of gold. Historically, gold was reserved for those of importance. I, in turn, am using gold to adorn those who are important to me while addressing issues in need of urgent attention.
What other artists or photographers do you admire?
I love the work of Gordon Parks. I admire how he documented Black life and culture beautifully and authentically. One of my favourite quotes by him is, ‘I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.’
Overall, I feel more impacted by how a single artwork or photograph makes me feel after viewing it. An artist or photographer might have created a thousand works, but I’ll usually remember one specific piece that made me feel something.
Congratulations on your new series, If I’m no longer here, I wanted you to know. Can you please describe this new body of work?
I worked on these pieces during the lockdown while we were all adjusting to the pandemic and more social unrest. So many thoughts ran rampant, especially mortality and the importance of ‘giving people their flowers’ while you and they are still here. I thought about my children, my community and the world as a whole. The revelations of injustice leading to civil unrest reminded me of the urgency to continue to work towards a better future for our children.
I don’t want to wait for the perfect time, the perfect place or the perfect day to express my love for family and friends. If I’m not here tomorrow, I want them to know the person I grew to become. I want to remind my children of the never-fading love I have for them, my extended family, and for you.
During periods of stillness in 2020, I reflected on my life and its brevity. I know I will not be here for an eternity, but my art, my writings, and every action I take as a human being will.
How do you define success as an artist/photographer?
I don’t really know how to answer this question, or how to define success as an artist. At this point in my life, I measure my success by who I am as an individual, how well I care for my children and what I’ve done to contribute to the betterment of society