Sunshine & Noir: Tom Alleman

by Jim McNay

Tom Alleman

January 01, 2010 — Like art, the transition from straight photography to fine art is no easy task. In building the arc of a career, Los Angeles-based photographer Tom Alleman began in photojournalism before carving out a successful niche as a corporate and magazine portrait photographer. Never content with the world he knows, lately he has taken up new ways of viewing the world using a plastic toy Holga camera with black-and-white film—blasphemy of blasphemies in this digitally-crazed world—beginning an exploration of a new kind of photography for him.

His early professional experience comes from newspaper photojournalism. Before moving on, Alleman made sure he knew how to make excellent, well lit and visually interesting color portraits. He’s won important awards in the Pictures of the Year competition as well as in similar contests in California, specifically Los Angeles. These skills took him to publications such as Time, People, Business Week, Smithsonian and National
Geographic Traveler.

Ian Jeffrey’s book Magnum Landscape dramatically changed the nature of his work. Seeing the title, he asked, “What could that be?” Finding photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Larry Towell—known for their ability to capture people-centered interesting moments—made Alleman rethink what he might do with a camera. “I just treasured that book. I thought it was spectacular,” he says. Seeing this work, Alleman feels he was given a green light to pursue the more personal visionary work he was dying to do.

By constantly looking for the unexpected picture, Alleman feels he’s prepared himself for this challenge. When he worked as a photojournalist he felt at a disadvantage going up against photographers who were more interested and knowledgeable about some of the bread-and-butter assignments like sports. In those situations, Alleman salutes his colleagues, of whom he says, “At a football game they’re ahead of the play. I’m behind the play.”

However, Alleman’s strength comes in those moments in between the action, or at halftime when, as he likes to describe it, people are going in nine different directions in a chaotic swarm. It is during those nothing-is-happening moments that other photojournalists wonder where to find the picture. Alleman, on the other hand, is ready. “And I look around and say, ‘This is so great,’ because the responses I have honed are appropriate to that situation.”

People look at his pictures from these chaotic moments and ask, “How would you even see that?” Alleman says it comes from his preparation. “I have been practicing to see it,” he says. “When I walk through the world, that’s what I’m looking for.” Back to his football analogy, he says, “I don’t see that third down play from scrimmage before it happens, I see the triangles,”—meaning the odd, quirky moments among the players.

A key motivation for Alleman is to make photographs that disrupt what the viewer knows, pictures where “you think you know about this thing [but] you don’t know.” So moved is he to do this that he says, “I’m really surprised I got to have a journalistic career.” He adds, “It so goes against my grain because the pictures I always want to make are those that deconstruct the apparent narrative, whatever that is.” A guiding koan for Alleman could be, “Not that, not that.” He says, “However the scene is arranged, if the information explains what the picture is, I avoid putting that in.”

For the project Alleman calls “Sunshine and Noir” (www.sunshineandnoir.com) much of his fine art Holga photography is made in Los Angeles. The pictures began with Los Angeles because he’s immersed himself there—and because he feels he has insight into telling LA’s story in ways others do not. “To photograph a city is a mission. To do it from the street level using your honed responses and your quick wits is a rite of passage and, in some cases, the finest thing many photographers can do.”

And in a city everyone thinks they know, whether they have ever been there or not, there is the fun of confirming or subverting their understanding. “I’m not so much into the confirmation because what we believe we know about LA is nonsense and gibberish,” he says. “What is true about LA is not ever what you find on TV or in the movies,” Alleman says. “These are the fever dreams of New York magazine editors who think we all have hot tubs and rub elbows on Hollywood Boulevard with Tom Hanks.”

Lately the Los Angeles project has expanded to include New York. A portion of the motivation was in response to the events of 9/11—part of it personal. In the amazing visual banquet that is New York, Alleman says, “I just want to be left alone to stand on a street corner and reorganize the narrative.” Also, bringing New York into the project widens his audience and plays off bi-coastal assumptions. “It’s LA vs. New York; it’s East vs. West; it’s that famous duality,” he says.

To make sense of these urban landscapes, Alleman draws on his college training in English literature, which helps him see metaphors with his camera. In LA especially, he says, whether he wills it or not, the presence of writers like Raymond Chandler lets him see visual clues that bring meaning to the scene. This understanding helps him decide where to point the camera. “If everything is fair game, then you will go insane if you don’t organize the mission around something.”

Speaking of his work routine, Alleman quickly dispels the concept of artist-as-casual-wanderer who finds pictures. This is work. There is a structure. And making these pictures, hitting the street—discovering new neighborhoods, or revisiting old ones, is what this kind of fine art project is all about. “You want to be an explorer going up river,” he says. “It’s just about you and this very stringent standard, which is, ‘You either nail it or you don’t.’ You don’t have much to fall back on except your wits, your cunning, your charm, your experience and the variety of responses you’ve developed over time. And for me, that’s so exciting.”

Part of the journey into the world of fine art for Alleman has been the reception he received despite having worked as a photographic professional for a couple of decades. From the beginning he resisted the term fine art photographer, though that is a way people continue to categorize his Holga pictures. His reluctance was confirmed when, in a meeting with other like-minded photographers, a leading museum curator told him, “Oh, dear God no, you are not a fine art photographer,” adding most others in the group were not either. Such a term, the curator maintained, is reserved for the Vermeers and Dalís of the world. Rather, the curator urged, Alleman and the others should use the term “independent photographer,” since that is the kind of work they do.

Is the fine art world looking to bring more photographers into the fraternity? Probably not, based on Alleman’s explorations. When it comes to understanding the inner workings of fine artists, Alleman finds photographers, curators and gallery owners apparently unwilling to speak clearly about this part of the visual world. To some degree this has slowed his transition into fine art.

He tells of struggling to understand the concept of design when it comes to fine art monographs of one photographer’s pictures. In his newspaper work, Alleman understood design at one basic level, with a dominant visual element on the page supported by secondary pictures and careful use of typography. But when he picked up the classic Diane Arbus book from the original MOMA show, or Robert Frank’s The Americans, he says, “I really couldn’t get people to tell me what design was.”

In discussions about the Arbus book, people would tell him, “Oh, the design of that is marvelous.” Meanwhile Alleman was thinking, “I don’t get what you mean, because it’s a square picture on a page and you turn the page and it’s another square picture.”

With time and continual chipping away at the question, Alleman came to realize in this instance, design meant the ordering of the pictures. “I am told that sequencing is of the utmost importance,” he says. As a consequence when showing his work, whether on the Web or in short-run books photographers can produce though online sites today, Alleman pays special attention to the sequence of the photographs, which ones share a spread, how one leads into another.

“I will tend to design two pictures in a row that create a visual pun,” Alleman says. Living where he does, images of religion and transportation have become regular themes for the photographer and make for enticing two- and three-picture sequences. “All of these pictures allude to religiosity in some way and also commercial transportation, which is a special issue in LA,” he says.

At the same time, the challenge is to avoid being too cute about such arrangements, a huge minefield when working this way when one has serious intentions. “That stuff can be really on the nose… it seems like you’re showing off,” he says. “I’m frequently tempted to pair pictures which are similar in their approach, but I always have to overrule myself, because that tells people you have a limited number of tricks and I’m pointing out one of the tricks.” There are, however, the occasional moments when it works. “When it creates some fission, when it creates a little spark of excitement and wit, then you do it.”

Alleman realizes even with his Holga work that the trend in the fine art world does not necessarily bend toward what he does. As he was growing up in photojournalism, there was a gritty, operatic, sweaty sense of the photographer being in the middle of things as very dramatic pictures were made. Today, he sees a type of imagery that is disengaged, more aloof. He sees published projects more about constructed realities or ideas spawned in graduate seminars or workshops and then carried out, much like having an idea and then making a movie. It’s about doing a project, not about reacting to the world in the moment.

While the LA Holga work is not a book yet—the pictures are being seen around the country. Shows at the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas, Texas and pictures in New York City’s Bloomingdale’s downtown venue as in-store display ads have helped. Last Christmas a solo show at the Robin Rice Gallery in New York gave added visibility to the work. A display on Pedro Meyer’s Zone Zero Internet photo gallery is in the works.

And while the fine art curator was not inclined to put Alleman’s work in that category, the same person was helpful in suggesting alternate marketing approaches to adopt. Thus Alleman is working with collectors to produce limited-edition books and is pre-selling affordable mini-portfolios from other cities. Buyers, having seen his current work, are eager to have him turn his lens on other locations; cities the buyers either live in or love.

As for the photographer himself, he expects to be shooting his LA/New York project right up to the moment a willing publisher needs the pictures. “If I could get a contract to publish this book and then a deadline for the delivery of the images, I would quit shooting about two weeks before the deadline,” Alleman says. “I continue to employ a photojournalist’s approach that you want to tell the whole story and not miss parts of it.”

Jim McNay is a California-based teacher and writer. He was the first college instructor to receive a summer fellowship in the National Geographic photography department. He is a past president of NPPA and writes regularly for the Sports Shooter website (www.sportsshooter.com) with the intention of helping emerging photographers break into the profession.

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