Tawny Chatmon

WINNER, IPA PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR, 2018

Motherhood did not curtail Tawny Chatmon’s ambition as an artist —rather, it reinforced it. Amid the complex intersection of both roles, her work jumps across time and space to define some shared human truths: the search for representation and the desire to shape a better world for our children.

Her portfolio is brimming with blends of multiple genres of visual art, and her photographs speak volumes. With her precise and detailed execution and her beautiful and well-thought concepts, her distinct style stands out from the crowd.

Tell us the story behind your winning IPA entry, “The Awakening”, from the inception to the final touches.

The Awakening is a celebration of black childhood, motherhood/familial bonds and African/African American traditions and hairstyles. An observance of childhood bonding shown through portraits of breastfeeding, hair plaiting and styling and the intricacies of protecting and raising a child. For some time, I felt overtaken by feelings of anger and frustration continually coming across so much negativity fixated around black hair and black hairstyles (in addition to the long list of atrocities that have happened and continue to happen to people of color globally). Mixed feelings of anger and sadness urged me to refocus that energy into creating something to speak for me and act in opposition of it all. The Awakening was the 4th series I created in those moments of frustration. I’d had the paintings of Marianne Stokes saved on my mood board for some time and looked to them as inspiration for the wardrobe. The garments in her paintings titled “Melisande” and “St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor” were specific influences for The Awakening.

I’ve long been drawn to paintings by the old masters, but couldn’t help but begin to feel disconnected to them. The historical representation of black faces — faces like mine, my children, my family, my ancestors — in classical western art and culture, for lack of better words, very haunting.  Often depicted as servants, props, background, or not at all.  I wanted to create contemporary imagery with hints of references from older paintings, bringing to the forefront faces that were not celebrated. I worked with stylist Isabelle Philogene to pull clothing with similar patterns, textures and adornments mixing in whispers of African influences as well. I worked with Charese Adkins on the initial hairstyles (which I later manipulated) mixing African and African American traditional hairstyles and Judy Rowe for makeup. My children, models I’d worked with in the past, my goddaughter and other close family and friends were my subjects.

After the initial portrait session was complete, I digitally manipulated each portrait in various ways, often exaggerating their hair, manipulating, sharpening, mixing and combining their eyes with other eyes to create a more painted look or achieve a direct link to a heritage or ancestry. Some portraits I montaged antique patterns and textures over their wardrobe and if I did not yet feel as though I was yet complete, after refining and printing, I built upon the patterns with gold leaf gilding and paint, adding ornamental elements.

How essential is your use of mixed media to the narrative?

Very essential. I’ve always been interested in creating, painting and drawing (as most children are), but I’ve never felt I had the technical skill to paint faces how I’d like. Collage and Montage were other practices I appreciated but I never thought to seriously incorporate it into my work until recently. I had no idea where it would all fit in. My recent work is inspired by paintings from the 15th-19th centuries with the specific intent of bringing to the forefront faces that were under-celebrated in this style of work. Experimenting with various mediums allows me to expand upon my photography and create an entirely new expression. There is so much I want to say through these portraits, adding various layers allows me to get my point across. There are many layers to one portrait and each layer has its own meaning that ties into the bigger picture.

What message do you want to be relayed to viewers in your focus on black female subjects with a 19th-century undertone for the series?

It’s my hope that with each theme I explore and with each portrait I create, something vital is etched into the memory of the viewer. It’s my belief that our memories and experiences are directly responsible for who we become. And if I believe we are shaped by our memories, as artists/photographers/creators, I have to also believe that we too play a small part in shaping and shifting the views of anyone who comes in contact with our work. I didn’t always look at things this way, but now that I do, I’ve tried to make sure my message is clear.

Now, take us back to the time you first held a camera and the moment you realized your passion for photography.

I turned to photography after deciding to no longer pursue a career in dramatic arts when I was 20/21 years old. I needed to find a way to creatively earn a living after abruptly ending my pursuit of a career in theatre. Throughout high school, I played around with a camera, but I can’t say I had a deep passion for it. I worked with a few photographers, and then gave photography a try myself and I have not put my camera down since. I am now 39. I think perhaps that’s how you know you have a passion for something. You never tire from it.

Tell us about the pivotal moment that really launched your photography career.

I feel I’ve had pivotal moments that more redirected my path in photography. Bringing life into the world and becoming a mother completely changed my life and who and what I wanted to focus my lens on. I never thought about photographing children until I became a mother. After becoming a mother, I only wanted to photograph children. Photographing my father’s battle with cancer and ultimately capturing his last breath was the most painful and pivotal moment for me. Going through something like this while also documenting those moments completely changed my relationship with my camera. It forced me to really start thinking about what I was contributing to the world and what I wanted to contribute in the movement forward.

What appeals to you about portraits of children since they make up most of your works?

Their authenticity appeals to me. They’re also the future. If the world is going to change, I think the power lies within them.

More importantly, tell us how you were drawn to using mixed media.

I’ve always enjoyed all forms of creating. Mixed media allows me to not just stick to one art practice, but mix them all together and follow no set of rules. Allowing myself not to feel restricted to just one art practice has helped me tremendously to create work that is more instinctual and fluid.

What materials and techniques do you like to work with and which ones do you think personally produce the best quality of work?

I love incorporating 24k gold leaf in my work.  There is a richness that gold adds to the portraits.

Is there a chance for you in the future to use themes or genres of art outside of your own?

There’s always a chance. I think that life events and the needs of the world may force me to focus on other matters in addition to continuing the work I am currently creating. As the mother of three children, I now feel that my focus will always be trying to contribute to a world I want them to thrive in. I most definitely think I’ll explore other art practices as well.

With your growing number of remarkable works, what should we expect from you next?

The only word that comes to mind is MORE. Expect MORE.

How’s winning IPA International Photographer of the Year going so far?

Truthfully, I’m still filled with many emotions over this win. There is always so much talent from around the world entering, I feel so grateful to have not only been recognized, but to have been awarded Photographer of The Year. Words really can’t justify exactly how I feel. I am grateful that the message is being heard and celebrated and I feel it is confirmation to continue on the path of creating work that means something to me.

What is your advice for emerging photographers and mixed media artists?

Don’t feel limited or scared to experiment. Don’t wait for permission to create. It may take years to find your place but keep going until it feels right. “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation” is a quote by Aristotle that really resonates with me. What’s needed in the world and how can your art contribute to the needs of the world.