Portland, Oregon-based photographer Tatum Shaw's influences range from William Eggleston's 1970s color, to found vernacular snapshots and the American South. Generally off-the-cuff, his pictures are full of light moments that combine tension and humor, a deep understanding of how color can inform a narrative, and a smart, often poetic, way of seeing. While he's made several distinct series for more than a decade, his work could easily be broken down and remixed into an interchangeable archive of of photos-as-musical-notes. Here, his own snapshots, street photos, southern landscapes and found images could live and function as one. Whether his day job as an advertising copywriter bears some influence on this pulse remains a mystery.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
I'm particularly drawn to your series New Songs. How did that series come about?
New Songs started out as a really easy idea with very little thought behind it. Then I made it depressing. The title was an only slightly more clever way to say “New Photographs.” Which they are; photographs taken between 2012 and 2017 in various places around the U.S.. I wanted to make it like a collection of singles verses a “concept album” because I wanted an excuse to show off some photos that weren’t connected to any one place, occurrence or concept. Individual stories (or songs) that stand on their own.
I made several edits of the work which had a more poppy and colorful feel, but towards the end of last summer I made one more edit based on some of my moodier images and it created this really dark cloud of dread that I felt was different for me and distinguished it from my series Also Here. I might add this was also right before the tire fire of November 8 that elected the walking above-ground pool we now have as President, so there was a definite anxiety in the air. I suppose that ended up being the visual theme I threaded through this. I almost changed the name to “Playing Dead” on account of the bodies in the pool, but it felt too on the nose. New Songs felt more interesting because it sounds hopeful, but then you see bodies floating in the pool and a little girl with a cord around her neck.
What's the story behind the image of the kids in the yellow convertible?
That was taken after Christmas lunch at my dad’s house in Rome, Ga. He was showing us the old Corvette he bought and my nephew and half brother got in to check it out. I probably took twenty pictures of everyone standing around talking in the driveway. It was overcast and cloudy and really bad, unremarkable light. But then for just, like, literally fifteen seconds, a little sliver of sun burned through and cast that eerie glow that somehow looks like movie set lighting. I love that image for so many reasons, but the clincher for me is that the last thing my eye travels to in the frame is my nephew’s expression. It’s kind of mischievous, like he’s not really there in the moment with the rest of the family.
Your family is originally from Georgia, but you have been living in Portland for some time. Does this play into the work you make?
Homesickness, family, and the past rear their head in a lot of my work. The series Etowah, Wonderland Trail and Exit 8 are all connected in that way. I have a deep love of and fascination with The South. It is gorgeous and haunted and absurd. When I go back home all my senses are tuned to eleven, and I’m really trying to capture this feeling I get from it all. It also helps that it’s a break from my every day Portland life. There’s something about getting things in spurts that makes you appreciate them more.
Can you tell me a bit more about Wonderland Trail? I know they're images from your grandmother's home, but what's the process behind them? Are they your own images disguised as vintage postcards?
Wonderland Trail was the product of a six-week trip through the south my boyfriend and I took during his work sabbatical. There was an excitement to show him all the places of my childhood and I think that worked its way into the tone of the work. I really wanted these images to be childlike and straightforward, and I purposefully shot a lot from Blowing Rock, where my grandparent’s mountain home is, at a lower point of view. Like the height of a six year old. Really just shooting a lot of memory triggers from my summers there when I was a kid. I didn’t know if the pictures would lead to anything while I was on the trip.
Then, when we got back to Portland, my boyfriend got me all these fantastic vintage postcards from the cities we visited as a birthday present. A bell went off that this would be a great way to present the photos, and also do something different than just another book. I should also point out that music had a huge role in dictating the tone of the final edit. My friend Jess curates this Tumblr of mostly obscure, vintage tunes. One in particular, Ken Griffin – Marea Baja, made my brain buzz in the perfect way and I would loop it on repeat while coming up with the sequence. It really put me in the headspace of being a kid and being entranced by this colorful world around you. Then I worked with a miraculous, yet sadly now defunct Photo Lab in Portland called Digicraft. They helped me get the poppy colors just right and printed them beautifully on the linen paper stock.
You seem to have a kinship to vernacular photography.
Well I should point out that Fuzzy is vernacular, but from a very specific source: my grandmother’s photo albums. So I also have a personal connection to those photos in particular. As far as vernacular photography in general, I’m not super well versed in that genre although I do enjoy it a great deal. The Kessels Kramer and Robert E. Jackson books come to mind. Larry Sultan’s Evidence. I love how someone can curate a group of seemingly random images to present a unique visual idea, which is something I enjoy doing with my own photos.
You're also a copywriter for big brands. Do these practices interact with, or influence each other?
It depends on the project. Some advertising briefs call for a copy heavy or comedic approach, but then there are those that lend themselves to an artful and conceptual direction that let me flex my visual muscles to a greater extent. I tend to think with imagery first, words second. Clients like Apple and Nike are particularly good for that. For instance, my Swing Portrait spot for Tiger Woods was a simple idea to create a moving photograph. My P&G Special Olympics spot consisted almost entirely of photographs from our hero’s family albums. We poured over stacks of photos, made selects, then put them up on a wall and sequenced them according to her age, but also according to colors and lighting so the edit had a consistent flow and made you feel a certain way. It was like trying to find the best bits and make them work, which felt similar to sequencing a photo book.
And then to flip it from advertising to photography, I can use the skills I learned from that spot and apply them to a photography book or series I’m making. I feel lucky to have started my career at Wieden Kennedy, who operate at a much more sophisticated level than some other advertising agencies. They really helped me hone my conceptual thinking and overall craft. Added bonus: Going back and forth between the two helps me not burn out on either.
Who is inspiring you most right now?
Sally Mann’s color photographs of her children. They are so much darker than even her Immediate Family black and white stuff. I saw those somewhere online and they really stuck with me. Mine don’t come close to what she achieves with her images, but they definitely made an impression.
Cormac McCarthy’s line from No Country For Old Men, “You can’t stop what’s coming” was a big influence for New Songs. Just the idea of an unavoidable fate and translating that into visuals. There are so many images in that movie that stick with me: The black demon dog that leads him to the dead bodies. Chigurh’s silhouette in the reflection of the television. The crinkled candy bar wrapper that expands like a ticking time bomb.
Holly Andres’ series The Fallen Fawn. I love the world she created to make those images. It has me thinking about ways to do that with my own work.
You don't mention him as a current inspirer, but Eggleston feels like such a prominent nod in your work.
For sure. I feel like Eggleston’s influence has worked its way into a lot of photographers, cinematographers, and directors that, combined with Eggleston himself, make up a large reservoir of my inspiration. I’m thinking Juergen Teller, David Lynch, Alec Soth, the Coen brothers and others. But of course I’m directly influenced by him a great deal. When you photograph in the south, his and Christenberry’s images are always popping up in the back of your head.
If you could elevator-pitch your "practice" or outlook on image-making, what would it be?
Know enough to be dumb.
BIO: Tatum Shaw is a photographer and advertising copywriter. He currently resides in Portland, OR.