Can one photograph a dream? Early twentieth-century Surrealists used photography to lend a ring of truth to impossible fantasies and dreams. Photographs don’t lie? In those days of cutting and pasting by hand, some photos told whoppers.
Tom Chambers began compositing his fantastic visions after digital photography made it easier to blur the edge between reality and imagination. Hearts and Bones: A Retrospective of Tom Chambers’ Photomontage Art presents a retrospective of Chambers’s work from 1997 to 2017 with over one hundred full-page, high-quality reproductions that display his subtle mastery of color as well as his seamless blending of the real and the unreal.
Although Chambers says that some of the images come to him on the edge of sleep, he credits magic realism, the literary and art genre that arose in Latin America, rather than Surrealism, as an influence (9). Instead of conjuring visions that are beyond belief or comically absurd, he injects a drop of magic into everyday reality, creating scenes that are improbable, and often disquieting, but not impossible. He likens them to “fairy tales gone awry.”1
What is the cover image, Prom Gown #3 (2005), telling us? In a mountain meadow, a girl in a filmy pink dress arches backward over crossed stakes, her expressionless face tilted toward a darkening sky. Is she a maiden about to be sacrificed? [Image 1]
The mystery is intentional. “I want to first connect emotionally, and then [viewers] can figure out what that image means to them,” Chambers told me a few years ago.2 Yet, to ensure that his intent is not lost, a brief explanation precedes each series. Prom Gown #3 is part of the series Rite of Passage (2005–7) in which Chambers likens the vulnerability of budding adolescents to the fragile state of the environment. Without his text, though, the connection to environmental degradation is not evident. Still, the threat of unknown dangers in the transition from child to woman is clear. The same young model appears throughout the series. Blindfolded, in a gauzy gown, she makes her way through a pack of snarling canines. In a fog-shrouded lavender lake she drifts, asleep—or drowned like Ophelia? Seen from the neck down, she cradles a lamb in her arms, as a serpent creeps up her leg. We can’t see her reaction, but the tale of lost innocence is unmistakable.
Myth and magic pervade Çhambers’s work. In Mexico he encountered folk art ex votos: Each painted plaque depicts a disaster and thanks a saint for the miracle of survival. In his first series, Ex Votos (1997–2004), we see fires, floods, even a horse washed up from the sea. In some images, however, the nature of the disaster is not disclosed. Deep shadows, indigo skies, faces in shadow or severed by the frame, and galloping horses provide a strange blend of urgency and foreboding. Pray for a miracle.
In another series inspired by Mexico, Dreaming in Reverse (2010), the artist expresses a kind of preemptive nostalgia for Mexican arts and folkways soon to be lost to global consumerism. Wild animals sniffing at lace tablecloths or lounging on tile floors, ignored by white-clad girls, add a hint of magic realism.
In the preface to Entropic Kingdom (2008–10), Chambers cites the inspiration of the “subtle, but powerful, emotion” of Andrew Wyeth’s landscapes (59). He hopes to stir viewers’ emotions by illustrating the disturbance created by climate change. But as in Rite of Passage, although the scenes are provocative, the tie to the environment depends on the text. Likewise, in Marwari: Indigenous Spirits (2009), the romantic images of a little girl riding a horse knee-deep in water don’t convey the Marwari horse’s struggle for survival that is described in the text. Animal Visions (2013) once again presents girls and wild beasts as comfortable companions, out in nature, or in an opulent salon. The simpler goal: showing that the kinship of humans and animals works [Image 2].
Illumination (2012), a paean to Renaissance painters’ mastery of light, shows that Chambers too has mastered the subtle art of illumination, even with architecture and models photographed a world apart. His command of color is also evident in the swish of a dancer’s hot-pink tutu against a background of gray skies and time-dulled stones as she tiptoes over the edge of the balustrade of a bridge crossing a Venice canal. The scene is filled with happy magic. One assumes the skirt will magically act like a parachute, letting her float down lightly onto the water.
The ancient volcanic rock and glaciers of Iceland inspired the 2015 series To The Edge, which incorporates handwritten lines in Icelandic. The text comes, not from an old saga, but is a translation of a new poem by Allen Chamberlain inspired by Chambers’s photomontages. In the final series, Still Beating (2015–17), girls interact with birds, wolves, and other creatures in desolate landscapes. We see beauty and mystery but, as usual, we need the artist’s preface to unlock the message. And that’s all right.