Richard Tuschman's Tabletop Tableaux
Richard Tuschman may work with miniatures, but his art is anything but small. Seamlessly blending the life-size with the scaled-down, his photos create a sense of unease and otherworldliness. Couples appear together but are detached; they inhabit the same space but live in their own worlds.
FROM PRINTMAKING TO PHOTOSHOP
Stefan Gruenwedel: How did you start doing this sort of photography?
Richard Tuschman: My earliest connection with photography was looking at old photo albums. In fact, I inherited my grandfather’s photo album. I still look at those photos for inspiration.
Even though I concentrated on painting and printmaking in art school, I tried to incorporate photography into my work. At that time [mid-1970s], I was enraptured with the work of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. He had a unique way of blending painting and photography. I tried to mimic what he was doing in my own printmaking and painting.
My first job in New York was at an architectural supply store, where I was drawn to the model-making materials. I began putting together miniature stage sets and selling some of them.
That job wasn’t paying very much so I pursued graphic design as a way to make enough money to continue my personal work. My graphic design gigs led me to work on the computer—right when Adobe Photoshop was introduced. That was a life-changing event for me because suddenly I could achieve what I had been trying to do with collages and printmaking. I could seamlessly combine painting, photography, found images, and personal images, and assemble them in new ways. I’ve been using Photoshop for the past 25 years.
Gruenwedel: Why did you begin the Hopper Meditations series?
Tuschman: I always liked the psychological resonance and simplicity of Hopper’s interior paintings. They’re theatrical but humble. I see them as two-character plays. They convey something that I was looking to do in my own work. I’ve always been interested in creating a mood, even when I’m doing still life or more abstract work.
When I first began this series, I thought I would re-create each of his paintings in my own voice. But as the series progressed, I felt a little bit stifled by that idea, so I began to make my own compositions that were inspired by his vision.
I changed how the characters may or may not be dressed. My lighting tends to be a little bit softer than his lighting, which is pretty harsh. My color is a little bit different than his, too.
Gruenwedel: What went into making the first photo in the series?
Tuschman: I built the diorama first. It was based on Hopper’s Hotel by a Railroad.
After I made the diorama, I found a model, Aria McKenna, and worked with her for a day. I took enough photos for about eight or nine montages, some based on the Hopper painting and some using poses she improvised. I am the man in these photos, mostly because I work for cheap.
After I created the diorama and I had the pictures of the model, I went back to the diorama and relit and rephotographed it to match the poses. One reason I like working with dioramas is that they’re so easy to light. I have complete control of all the details, which is really nice.
Gruenwedel: That explains why you use the doll-sized furniture rather than shooting on a large set.
Tuschman: Working with a diorama is much more practical. I tend to be somewhat introverted, so it feels comfortable for me to work on small things by myself. I’ve always worked that way, long before the Hopper series.
One of the biggest surprises for me has been how few people realize, without me telling them, that they’re miniatures. I didn’t necessarily expect to fool people like that but it’s gratifying when you hear that they don’t realize it.
Gruenwedel: Do you think it’s fortuitous that photographing these miniatures typically creates a shallow depth of field?
Tuschman: It’s a very happy accident. I do like that aspect of it, and I love vintage photographs taken with those older cameras that have a very shallow depth of field.
I’m not consciously trying to make the models look like dolls, however. I’m after something that’s a little bit on a dreamy side. I like the fact that when you look at them, there’s something a little bit unusual about them. People sense that there’s something off, but they aren’t sure what. People try to figure out if I’m using a tilt-shift lens.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Gruenwedel: How do you put all the elements together?
Tuschman: First, I build the diorama, so I’ll know where the light is coming from and the rough point of view. Then I photograph the model against a neutral, gray background with the diorama in mind. While I’m doing the shoot, I keep track of the direction of the light source. Most of the time, the light comes through a window.
After I have the photographs of the live model, I go back to adjust the diorama, using little wooden mannequins as stand-ins for the live model so that I can match the lighting as closely as possible.
Next, I photograph the diorama. When I think I have the lighting right, I remove the mannequin and rephotograph the diorama so that I have a clean background to composite with the photos of the live model.
Gruenwedel: What kind of gear do you use?
Tuschman: I’m very low tech. I use a Canon EOS 7D with a Sigma 50mm f/2.8 lens to shoot the live models. When shooting the diorama, I usually use a 30mm lens to get a little more perspective.
When I first started, I was using big, continuous lights. That was cumbersome, so later I switched to Speedlight strobes connected to the camera. They give me more control and they’re easier to move around. All of the lighting in the whole Hopper series is artificial — except for one square image [By the Window], which shows Aria standing next to the window.
Gruenwedel: What kinds of effects do you apply in Photoshop?
Tuschman: I try to match the shadows as much as I can from the photograph of the live model to the photograph of the little mannequin in the diorama. If I have to repaint the shadow, at least I’ll have a pretty good reference of it in one of the photographs. I try to make the shadows as believable as possible.
I match the contrast and color of the images I’m combining. Because the photograph of the live model tends to be a little bit sharper than the photograph of the diorama, I usually soften the model photo a bit so it blends in better with the diorama background.
Because I build the diorama at 1:12 scale, the background will never have nearly as much detail as in real life. I don’t want the photos to be too sharp, because then little imperfections become more obvious.
Gruenwedel: Do you sometimes integrate full-sized objects?
Tuschman: The furniture is almost always miniature. The only time I used a full-sized chair is in Pink Bedroom (Odalisque), where a nude woman is lying on the bed and a man is sitting at a table in the next room [below]. The chair he’s sitting on is actually a full-sized chair, but the table is a miniature. I did have a miniature chair in there, but the composition worked better using a full-sized chair. The model is lying on a real mattress with a white sheet.
Gruenwedel: The outdoor scenery is interesting. Is it part of the diorama?
Tuschman: In Hotel by Railroad, all of those buildings exist in miniature. I built the part of the outdoor building that’s closest to the window. The building in the distance is a combination of something I made from a railroad model.
The only image with a composited exterior is Woman in the Sun [left]. The outdoor scene with a tree is completely composited. I discovered that it was easier to get it right by not compositing it. It was more convincing if I could create the models and shoot the window without having to composite it.
Gruenwedel: How did you achieve the cracks in the wainscoting in Pink Bedroom (Daydream)?
Tuschman: I was inspired by an antique French dollhouse that had that wainscoting and was cracked like that. When I built the diorama, I mixed additives in with the paint to make it crack.
Gruenwedel: Your colors are interesting. Do you base them on existing photos, or are you inspired by a certain film look?
Tuschman: It’s very intuitive. I like the colors captured by old film stocks and have always been interested in capturing a film look, even though I’ve never really worked with film. I also like hand-colored images. You have so much flexibility with manipulating colors in Photoshop. The enhancing stage is one of my favorite parts of the project. I’ll add huge washes of warm colors here or a cool color there, and it can make the whole image pop. It’s like painting, except that you can undo it.
Gruenwedel: What are you working on now?
Tuschman: My new series takes place in Poland during the late 1920s to early ’30s. It’s pre-World War II, pre-Holocaust. I’m going for a sense of unease. The architecture in Poland really inspired me. Kraków, the city where my wife grew up, survived World War II. It is a beautiful old city, and most of the architecture is from the Renaissance period or even a lot earlier than that.
I’m hoping to imply a more connected narrative in this new series. The scenes are still open-ended but I want to create a bit of a connection from image to image, so there’s more of a story arc. And my new series will feature more characters.
Gruenwedel: What percentage of your work is personal projects and what percentage commercial projects?
Tuschman: I spend about 60 percent of my time on personal projects at the moment.
Gruenwedel: How do you make sure that 60/40 split doesn’t become 40/60?
Tuschman: It’s not easy. I just try to make sure that I spend a certain amount of time each day working on my stuff. I just monitor the situation. But it’s a struggle.
Gruenwedel: Five tips for other artists to keep them going and inspired?
Tuschman: Get enough sleep. Pay attention to what inspires you. Get into a routine of showing up in the studio and making images every day. Take time to reflect on and edit what you’ve made. Repeat.
As for staying inspired, read some fiction! That really feeds my inner life.