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Kings & Queens in Their Castles

Tom Atwood | NY, United States

Kings & Queens in Their Castles has been called the most ambitious photo series ever conducted of the LGBTQ experience in the USA.  Over 15 years, Atwood photographed more than 350 subjects at home nationwide (with over 160 in the book), including nearly 100 celebrities (with about 60 in the book).  With individuals from 30 states, Atwood offers a window into the lives and homes of some of America's most intriguing and eccentric personalities.

Among the luminaries depicted are Meredith Baxter, Alan Cumming, Don Lemon, John Waters, George Takei, Alison Bechdel, Barney Frank, Don Bachardy, Billy Porter, Ari Shapiro, Joel Schumacher, Christian Siriano, John Ashbery, Terrence McNally and Christine Vachon. 

Modern day tableaux vivants, the images portray whimsical, intimate moments of daily life that shift between the pictorial and the theatrical.  

This was an obvious subject for me because I felt there was a need for a serious photo series of the LGBTQ community.  Before embarking on this project, I only discovered a few such photo documentaries of the gay world.  Yet none seemed particularly robust or substantial, and most depicted scantily-clothed young subjects romping through the forest or lounging on the beach. 


There was a need for a photo series about the LGBT community highlighting our complicated, multi-dimensional personalities and backgrounds.  I wanted to create a body of work that would increase visibility of, strengthen the identity of and be a source of pride for the gay community, as well as feature role models for our nation’s youth.  


Alongside writers, fashion designers, journalists, bee keepers, Congressmen, religious leaders, farmers, bankers, actors and architects, I also document urban bohemians, beatniks, mavericks and iconoclasts, many of whom blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s but who seem to be slowly disappearing.  Greater acceptance and assimilation, while clearly a desired shift, entails its own kind of loss.


The title, Kings & Queens in Their Castles, in addition to referencing our community's dazzling drag kings and queens, is a nod to historical aristocracy reputed to have engaged in alternative gender practices.  Among these are Japanese samurai knights, Roman emperor Hadrian, French kings Henri III and Louis XIII, Alexander the Great, England's King Edward II, King James I of England and Scotland, Queen Christina of Sweden and Prince Eugene of Savoy.  Not to mention King Frederick II of Prussia, in his Sanssouci palace adorned with homosexual-themed antiques, and meant to echo Hadrian's Tivoli villa near Rome, also considered somewhat of a gay space. 


Today, while on one level it's helpful – particularly in terms of the modern civil right movement – to highlight that LGBT folks are just like everyone else, and as diverse as society as a whole.  On another level, there seems to be a common LGBT sensibility that sets us apart and that I wanted to recognize and celebrate.


Perhaps related to this sensibility, one fascinating phenomenon the series explores is just how many creative and cultural leaders are LGBT.  We seem to be disproportionately represented in the arts, culture and entertainment.  This seems to be true now as well as throughout history.  Homosexuality appears in art from virtually every culture and time period – from ancient Peruvian ceramics to nearly all Greek art forms to fourteenth century Japanese art.  And examples of LGBT individuals excelling in art and culture abound.  From Native American berdaches, with their exceptional aptitude for crafts, to da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cadmus, Warhol and Hockney.  From writers such as Plato, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein.  To architects such as Philip Johnson and Stern.  Actors, such as Rock Hudson and Jodie Foster.  Journalists such as Don Lemon and Rachel Maddow.  Fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Tom Ford.  And of course, photographers such as Alice Austen, Horst, Leibovitz and LaChapelle.  Alternative gender practices and extraordinary talent in arts and culture seem to be intertwined.


So the assemblage of LGBT creative and cultural leaders in my book should come as no surprise.  Some viewers may love photographs of celebrities and some may be irked by them.  As someone who grew up on a dirt road in the woods of Vermont without cable TV and who personally finds much of popular culture unappealing, high profile subjects are no more or less of interest to me than everyday individuals.  Yet I can understand why many people are drawn to celebrity photographs – we already have a history with many of these subjects.  If we loved an actor's movie or an author's book, it would only be natural to want to know more about their lives.  For those miffed by celebrities, I hope at the least Kings & Queens in Their Castles offers an opportunity to explore why celebrity culture has become so pervasive at this point in history.


I shoot subjects at home because our natural habitats bring out our character.  The gay person’s home is ultimately an extension of him/herself.  And for a community sometimes obsessed with image and beauty, our living spaces can also be the ultimate in self-expression.  With a flair for design, many of these subjects have crafted playful, often outlandish homes that tell stories about their inhabitants.  The spaces follow fashion – brushed steel instead of marble – and flee from it, with fine antiques balancing disposable kitsch.


I attempt to distinguish Kings & Queens in Their Castles from other photo series in a number of aspects.  I often seek out subjects with homes packed wall-to-wall with idiosyncratic belongings, paraphernalia and detail, albeit balanced by sweeping exterior shots.  I attempt to uncover what such homes reveal about the range of LGBT personalities as well as how complex our personalities can be.  Similarly, to illustrate that subjects and environments are a unified fabric - that we construct self-images partially through our homes - I choose a wide depth of field.  Neither subject nor home predominates; my images are an attempt to represent both.  Conventional portraiture, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the person, through backgrounds of streamlined simplicity often with a narrow depth of field. 


To fully create 360-degree portraits, I attempt to photograph people in daily activity – modern day tableaux vivants.  I seek out whimsical, intimate moments of daily life that shift between the pictorial and the theatrical.  With elements of both formal portraiture and informal snapshots, each photograph strives to be a work of art in its own right, making creative use of strong detail and vibrant color.  What is powerful is the sum of these artistic photographs side by side.  Fine art photos rich in beauty and clarity, these photos become both a witness and a celebration.

Tom Atwood has shot over 100 luminaries such as Hilary Swank, Buzz Aldrin and John Waters.
He won Photographer of the Year from London's Worldwide Photography Gala Awards, first place in Portraiture in the Prix de la Photographie Paris and has won over 30 other awards. Atwood's work has exhibited at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the George Eastman Museum, the Center for Fine Art Photography and several other institutions. His work exhibits at galleries nationwide, most recently ClampArt, Steven Kasher, Louis Stern and PDNB.

Atwood's work has been featured in over 150 publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, Art Newspaper, Elle and PDN. He has also appeared on Sirius, CBS and other networks.

Atwood has a Bachelors from Harvard and a Masters from Cambridge (England).

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