Photographer Creates Snapshot of LGBTQ Living

Kate Opalewski
By | 2017-05-04T09:00:00-04:00 May 4th, 2017|Michigan, News|

When asked what home means to him, New York-based photographer Tom Atwood said, “Home is a refuge from the chaotic urban world around me, and a welcoming place where I can host guests. I guess this comes from being a rural kid at heart, and needing a break from the city. As well as me being a pretty social person.”
Home means different things to different people, though, which Atwood captures in his new book, “Kings & Queens in Their Castles,” which offers a window into the lives and homes of some of America’s most intriguing and eccentric personalities.
His work has been called “one of the “most ambitious photo series ever conducted of the LGBTQ experience in the U.S.” Over a 15-year period, Atwood photographed more than 350 subjects across the country, 160 of which are in the book.
“I shoot subjects at home because our natural habitats bring out our true character,” said Atwood, who felt there was a need for a serious photo series of the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of LGBTQ photography depicts scantily-clothed young urban subjects and seems to emphasize nudity and sexuality. I wanted to offer a different perspective. There was a need for a series highlighting our manifold personalities and backgrounds.”
Atwood discussed the subjects in his photography book that “sing” to him, what motivated his work and how LGBTQ people’s homes are an extension of themselves.

What did you learn about the different ways in which people define home?
Sometimes I encountered subjects that seem to use their personal space as a way to create a sort of sanctuary which can sooth them. For others, I think our homes seem to represent fantasy worlds that allow us to blossom — to be who we want to be regardless of societal pressure. I think some LGBTQ people go to great lengths to draw distinction between the mainstream and ourselves, a difference that is often represented visually through our living spaces. Unusual color palates, provocative objets d’art… all of these design elements — whether consciously or not — I think are often used to show that we are unique. And other times I think individuals create homes that seem to be aspirational — a projection of who they want to be. So we’ll project elements of the outside world that we want to be a part of our lives into our personal spaces. And of course sometimes it’s a mix of all of the above.

What’s the story behind the title?
I see kings and queens in castles as a telling metaphor for the subjects in the series. Many of the subjects are kings or queens of their professions — leading actors, writers, designers, politicians or journalists. And many of the interiors of the book are visually rich in the way that medieval decorations were — with strong, deep colors and lavish fabrics. The title, in addition to paying tribute to our dazzling drag kings and queens, is also a nod to aristocracy from history reputed to have engaged in alternative sexuality or gender practices or sensibilities.

Can you elaborate on the LGBTQ sensibility of which you speak?
Today, in terms of the modern civil rights movement, it’s helpful to highlight that LGBTQ folks are in many ways like everyone else, and as varied as society as a whole. Yet on another level, there’s a common LGBTQ sensibility that sets us apart that I wanted to recognize and celebrate. This sensibility shares an outlook with the sensibility of creative and cultural leaders — an awareness of difference, of other, of possibility — an avant-garde mindset. One fascinating phenomenon the series explores is just how many creative and cultural leaders are LGBTQ. Alternative sexuality or gender practices and extraordinary talent in arts and culture often seem to be intertwined. So in recognition of this, I did include many subjects of creative and cultural pursuits.

Can you discuss the fact that your photo series is heavily focused on white people?
It’s a completely valid critique. I did go out of my way to try to find more subjects of different ethnicities, even specifically asking for people of varying ethnicities when reaching out to contacts about locating subjects. I both didn’t seem to get as many referrals, and didn’t seem to have as many people interested in being photographed. Not sure why that is, but perhaps I should have tried harder. There is a broad range of types of people in terms of characteristics not as often associated with diversity, including age, income, profession, interests and geography. A lot of LGBTQ photography historically has skewed younger and more urban, so I went out of my way to include older and rural subjects.

What do you hope viewers will take away from your photographs?
A sense of how varied and interesting the LGBTQ community is. A celebration of difference and of a gay sensibility that is unique. One straight high school friend of mine mentioned after seeing the book that she had no idea so many leaders in the arts, entertainment and media were LGBTQ — that that aspect of the series was really eye opening for her. I also want the series to provide positive role models for LGBTQ youth, and I’m hoping that the book becomes a symbol of and source of pride for the LGBTQ community – that it might help shape and become a part of our identity. On a lighter note, I also just want people to enjoy the book and have fun with the pictures.

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.