by Jennifer A. Smith, PortalWisconsin.org
A man's home is his castle, as the old saying goes. But, as fine art photographer Tom Atwood notes, the connections of "home" run deeper. "In many ways, your home is a metaphysical extension of yourself," says the 34-year-old. "Nothing provides insight into an individual's personality as clearly as their home and how they live in it."
Atwood's interests in architecture, psychology and the lives of contemporary gay men have led to the creation of his first book, "Kings in Their Castles: Photographs of Queer Men at Home," recently published by The University of Wisconsin Press under its Terrace Books imprint.
The "kings" in Atwood's book are, he explains, "kings of their professions." They're an eclectic group of urban men who work largely in creative fields such as visual art, architecture, writing, film and television, academia, fashion and interior design. Their idiosyncratic living spaces are reflections of their varied passions and visual styles.
So how did a California-based photographer focusing on New York City subjects come to publish his book with a Wisconsin press? "I was living in New York when I started the project," says Atwood, speaking from his home in West Hollywood earlier this year. When it came time to seek a publisher, he spoke with a number of companies and several were interested. Unfortunately, some didn't seem to grasp the nature of his projector perhaps worried it wouldn't sell well the way Atwood had conceived it.
Wisconsin was a different story. "The University of Wisconsin Press gave me full creative leeway. You hear horror stories about publishers not letting you choose your own title or cover. They let it be my vision, and I appreciated that."
In a culture saturated with decorating magazines and home-makeover shows, Atwood's approach stands out. His book is not a decorating how-to or an attempt to show off the most meticulously kept, luxurious spaces. Instead, the photographer prizes spaces that are quirky, personal reflections of the singular people who inhabit them. His technique doesn't emphasize the person or the space, instead weaving the two together.
Says Atwood, "The vast majority of interiors books and magazines have perfect spaces that are very 'designed,' and they're photographed so that there's light everywhere. It's an artificial, pure, perfect light." Atwood uses natural light and strives for, in his words, "everyday moments."
Those moments include famed playwright Edward Albee playing his piano, an essayist on dance reading the manual for his new VCR, writer Edmund White munching an apple and a researcher taking a nap. Yet while these moments may be small and ordinary, the spaces in which they take place are not. Andrew Solomon, the depression researcher and National Book Award-winning writer, snoozes under a structure that looks like an indoor tentif Picasso had designed tents during his Cubist period. Says Atwood, "[Solomon's] space was really a surprise to me. Going up levels of his townhouse was like peeling back layers of an onion. This room was on the top floor of his housea guest roomand it was totally different from the rest of the house."
As a gay man himself, Atwood has chosen to focus on other gay men for reasons both visual and cultural. "Gay men have a flair for the visual, for whatever reason," he argues, noting also that he wanted to offer "an alternative to sexualized depictions" of gay men. He also wanted to honor what he calls "a breed of older, urban gay manbohemians, beatniks, mavericks" who helped blaze cultural trails in a world that was not necessarily welcoming.
"Kings in Their Castles" has been a labor of love for Atwood, celebrating not only a particular community but also a beloved city. Some of these homes are very smallthe most extreme being sculptor Tobi Wong's eight-by-nine-foot apartmentreflecting, Atwood notes, the desirability of living in one of the world's greatest metropolises. "Some people value the excitement and the culture of New York enough to forego material pursuits; they'll do anything to live in New York."
Atwood, who holds degrees in economics and city planning from Harvard and Cambridge, respectively, says this project has brought together different facets of his life. "For me, photography is a confluence of other interests," says Atwood, citing architecture, people, psychology and painting. He plans a second book with this same theme, but with a national rather than New York focus.
Speaking with Atwood, it's impossible to resist asking about his own digs. "I live in a very eclectic, older neighborhood in West Hollywood. I can see where Bette Davis and Jodie Foster used to live." His furnishings include an antique secretary desk handed down through his family, bookshelves found in the trash in New York, antlers on the wall, a gong and what he dubs "weird chairs from around the world."
If home really is a reflection of one's inner self, then the friendly, engaging Atwood is unpredictable, curious and ready to seek beauty where he can find it.
Book notes: "Kings in Their Castles: Photographs of Queer Men at Home" by Tom Atwood is published by Terrace Books, a division of The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-21150-9