Thomas Allen has been a favorite photographer of mine since I first saw his work at the Foley Gallery in 2004. He describes his work quite simply: “I work with vintage paperbacks, mainly 1950s pulp novels. I cut them with an Exacto knife and make pop-up books. Then I light them for very dramatic effect and I photograph them,” and though his work is instantly recognizable, it seems always rich in new possibilities. Indeed, given his unpromising materials, the range and sophistication of the human subject-matter that he is able to tackle with them is at once surprising and impressive. And the exquisite illusions that he is able to conjure with simple cuts, folds, and juxtapositions are quite remarkable. Clearly I am not alone in thinking this: in 2007, Aperture published UNCOVERED: Photographs by Thomas Allen, with a forward by Chip Kidd. In addition he has shown at galleries throughout the United States and has already had solo museum exhibitions, at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Wisconsin. He has also worked extensively in the commercial field, for Harper’s, The New Yorker, New York magazine and O magazine among many others.
When I discovered that Mr Allen’s current show – aptly titled Epilogue (at Foley until this Saturday, October 10) – was to be his last using his current techniques, materials, and subject matter, I decided it was time to talk to him about his work, and it turned out to be a fascinating conversation.
Tom, can you tell me what got you started with this sort of photography?
Well, very early on I was interested in making constructed photographs – photographs that were staged specifically for the camera. I found it was more challenging to make pictures than to try and find pictures. In fact, half the fun is actually making things before I photograph them. If not more fun.
I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I called my thesis show Science: Fact or Fiction. (I’d always been fascinated with science as a kid, not from the technical point of view, but from the physical point of view.) By then I’d realized that I could cut little things out of books and layer them over other books – usually science books – and change the meaning and actually tell a different story. For example, in Deception, the book was a sort of science encyclopedia, and the snake came from a picture book of animals, and suddenly you have the snake next to Adam’s apple in the Garden of Eden. But sometimes the pieces I wanted to use weren’t big enough or small enough, like in Shooting Stars, so I started scanning them into Photoshop and then I’d print them on paper, glue them on card stock, and put them in place.
The current work’s a bit more complicated than that though, isn’t it?
When I first started doing pulp novels, I was cutting a guy out of a front cover and I realized that if you pulled him up and looked at him from one precise point, it looked as though he was in three dimensions coming out of the book. But if you switch the viewpoint, one way or another, the trick is blown: you see through the cuts. (One thing I’ve never done is alter what I see through the view camera.) Anyway, I knew I was on to something, so I bought more of these pulp novels.
What’s so attractive about photographing pulp novels?
It’s a great away for me to relive my fantasies! It allows me to become part of their world. Especially if I get up really close. I play off what’s going in the faces. There’s such drama in the facial expressions, and by photographing them in such a small space you can determine the interpretation. If I was just to cut the books up and display them as objects, you wouldn’t have quite the same feeling, because the viewer’s not contained. But in this show, and in the show previous to this, my focus has been on setting up small environments that are more like film stills, so that a narrative takes place in the single frame. I always try to find some kind of narrative. Like in Finale: Did she do it? Or did it happen by accident? And is she happy it’s happening?
Talking of narratives, there’s a picture in this show called Epilogue. Is it a kind of self-portrait?
If I look at a lot of these images, they seem somewhat autobiographical, but I think that Floored is more of a self-portrait, in the sense that I have finally met my match, and the game is over.
Thinking more broadly, would it be fair to say that you are commenting on contemporary cultural interests?
Yes, that’s the impetus: I’m using items from the past to tell stories from the present. I’ve taken these objects from the pop culture of the fifties and altered them in such a way that they reflect today’s sensibilities, with things such as homoerotic imagery, or the whole idea that women are oftentimes the victims. In most of the images that I make the woman ends up coming out on top.
Like in one of my favorite pieces of your commercial work, the Eliot Spitzer portrait. How did that come about?
I received a call from New York magazine telling me that the whole Spitzer thing had just erupted, and they were changing the entire format of the magazine so that they could run a piece on Spitzer. They were inviting ten artists to visually interpret what was going on, and we had eighteen hours to get it to them! So I jumped at it – I’m always up for a challenge. They provided me with hi-res headshots, and I immediately thought of this idea. Sometimes I have these books that I’ve looked at over and over again, so I have like a visual catalog in my head, and I thought, “OK, I can use that one and that one.” It came together quite quickly.
Is morality generally an issue in your work?
It certainly could be. My background – on my father’s side of the family anyway – is that they are all racists, for want of a better word. And they’re all womanizers. So I suppose I’m making a comment about my distaste for their behavior. It’s about what I choose to distance myself from.
But you deal with things in a humorous way. How important is that?
It’s really important. I’ve always thought they should be funny, and why can’t they be funny? A lot of the covers are downright funny, and I don’t think I’d get the point across if I made them too serious. They have to be somewhat light. In the past people have asked me if they are supposed to be funny, and I’ve said, “I certainly hope so!” But I also think they all have some underlying darkness.
So these are the last of the pulp fiction pieces?
Yes. It’s been about ten years. While I’m sure I could keep going, to be honest I’m starting to lose fascination with it, and it’s just becoming more and more difficult.
And what can we expect next?
Who knows? I’ve been looking at eBay for inspiration, and at playing cards. And I have a collection of books from the Real Book series – The Real Book of Cowboys, and The Real Book of Dogs. I have them here right now. On the other hand, I recently applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, and if the stars align and I get it, I will be using these pulp novels again. I wrote them a statement about Robert Frank making very telling pictures from the 1950s, and me photographing people from the 1950s as well, but making a social statement about our current climate. We’ll see what happens.