Art by Tom Chambers

Fairytales and Photo Collage

By Alyssa Coppelman

Throughout his career, Tom Chambers has crafted fantastical worlds in which people, mostly children, feature prominently. Still Beating, a recent series, is a case in point, in which Chambers has created otherworldly fairy tales by placing his subjects in lush, magical environments where they often commune with wild animals. His artistic tool of choice for all of his work: Adobe Photoshop.


While a student at Ringling School of Art and Design, a teacher pushed him to “look at things from an edgy, bizarre point of view,” Chambers recalls. He began experimenting with masking techniques while printing film in the darkroom. After college, he got his hands on the first version of Photoshop.

“We played around, amazing ourselves by copying an eye on to the middle a portrait’s forehead," he says. "But I didn't think seriously about using Photoshop as a fine-art tool until I saw someone at the Adobe booth at an event demonstrating the layers feature. He was moving a fish on one layer behind seaweed on another layer, and it blew my mind.” The year was 1994, and the version was 3.0.

Chambers immediately ordered Photoshop 3.0 to make composites from his own images, adding pictures of his daughter and animals to photos from his travels in Mexico. Once he’d produced enough work for a series, he showed them to an art gallery, which gave him his first exhibition in 1998.

From then on, Chambers employed digital photomontage in his art “because of the flexibility to work quickly while having the opportunity to make changes that aren't permanent. I’m able to move elements around, delete elements, try new ones, or rearrange the composition. You can’t do that with oil paints.”


When beginning a new image or series, Chambers may feed his imagination with travel, or by immersing himself in art or a different culture. After he hits on a theme, he makes drawings to guide him as he photographs each element. (He works only with his own photos, originally shot with medium format film cameras, switching to digital cameras in 2008 when file size and resolution increased.) He photographs all elements of a single composition under a light source of similar intensity and direction. Background images may come from photos taken on his travels.

"The fun part comes after all the elements are in the layout and I can move things around to see how they work together," Chambers says. "Shadows are important to connect elements to the ground. Little things like blades of grass need to come to the forefront. When some elements appear lighter or darker than others, I adjust that with the Curves feature. To avoid hard edges on each element, I use the Blur filter along the edges."

This animation shows the progress of a work Chambers named Hidden Aviary. "I had planned for the figure to have a coyote head,"explains Chambers, "so I shot a stuffed coyote along with all the other elements. That image was interesting but too different to fit with the rest of the series. So I scrapped that idea and enlisted a neighbor, who became the model for the head shot. The hands are my daughter's, and I created the leaf shirt from shots of a shrub in my backyard."

The Photoshop file for a completed composition includes roughly 25 layers. He uses masking, Adjustment layers, and textural layers to add a painterly feel to his newer work. “The Adjustment layers allow me to change colors, and Fill layers allow me to create textures. Color and texture have been critical to the success of my work. People often say that my final images ‘look so realistic’—until the viewer notices the one element where I have employed magic realism.”


Chambers emphasizes the importance of presenting work in a series, especially when showing work to galleries. “A gallery wants to see how things evolve as you work toward an idea,” he says. “If you work toward a particular direction and your images have a cohesive look or subject matter, the images eventually tighten up and become more interesting or thoughtful. Not working in a series is like throwing your images against a wall to see what sticks.”

Chambers's forthcoming book, Hearts and Bones, will be published in October 2018 by Unicorn Publishing. In the meantime, you can follow him on Instagram

All photographs © Tom Chambers. Courtesy photo-eye, Santa Fe. 

February 22, 2018.