Thomas is perhaps the most global artist I’ve ever interviewed. I love this chat with him because he really has a “world view” of things which I find sorely lacking among people who really need to “lift their vision.” Right now, Thomas is doing a lot of female nudes http://www.photoconception.com/, but the subject matter is much more profound that the mere surface. See for yourself.
MICHAEL: Hello Thomas, You're an absolutely formidable photographer. You're all over the map in terms of travel and versatility. What is it about photography that's still fascinating for you?
THOMAS: Firstly Michael, I'd like to say that I don't like to think of myself as a "photographer," but as an artist using primarily the medium of photography. Sure, I produce photographs, but as photographic fine art. The primary difference, as I see it, is above all one of mind-set. Photographers are in the vast majority of cases very pre-occupied with the technicalities of photography and usually aim to document a moment in time as seen there and then.
MICHAEL: Aha. And that doesn’t describe you and your work as an artist?
THOMAS: Artists approach things from a completely different perspective. As Ansel Adams once said, "You do not take a photograph you make it.” I think this quantifies very well the artist's mentality, whose objective is to communicate a message via his work, be it using the medium of photography or any other medium. The intent is not to capture a moment in time, but to create a visual that communicates the artist's message. In my case, I always tell people that they need to look beyond the immediate visual as my works are in many cases conceptual and in the majority of cases also representational. To truly understand my work, you need to look beyond the obvious visual and search for the true meaning of the message being conveyed within the artwork, something which a "photographer" is rarely, if ever, concerned with.
MICHAEL: I understand.
THOMAS: With regard to the fascination with photography (as a medium of choice), above all, I enjoy the challenge! I have been taking photographs since a very young age (around 8 from memory) when my father gave me my first camera and have always been fascinated by the medium. Later on in life, I was shooting back-stage fashion for several years, but eventually I felt compelled to do more with a camera than just capture images. Around the year 2000, the digital age was really taking a grip, and I remember well buying my first Canon Ixus with a whole two-million pixels, and couldn't wait to see what I could do with this new medium! Needless to say, at the outset the results were a little frustrating, especially for somebody who was used to shooting on film and then frequently on medium-format equipment. Slowly, the concept of digital photography got a hold of me, and I started to think of it as the same as a film camera, except that I now had a sensor instead of a role of film! I had always enjoyed pushing the boundaries of photography, and somehow this new digital medium seemed to offer infinite possibilities, albeit somewhat limited by the technology. In any case, this was what prompted me to get back into photography (I had quit prior to this for some six years!), except that this time, my focus was very much as an artist (I had always been a creative, but had never previously married my creativity with my love of photography).
It took me a few years from there, but in the summer of 2004, I quite my career as a financial engineer to dedicate myself full time to my passion, but in the capacity as an artist. Easier said than done, and right up until early 2006, I was still struggling to find my niche (I knew I needed a niche, but the more I tried to discover it, the more elusive it seemed to be!). Eventually, in February 2006, I reluctantly agreed to shoot some images for fashion model Chu Chiao Wang (CC) who wanted to update her book with something a little different. I say reluctantly, because I had left fashion behind and felt that shooting a fashion book was a little like taking a step backwards. Anyway, to cut a long-story short, I did agree and during the course of shooting that work, something clicked and I found myself producing works like I had never produced before. For me, those early 2006 works featuring CC are still some of the best images I have ever shot and have gone on to become some of my most popular artwork series. Naturally, CC went on to become my muse, and thus a new era of fascination in photography was born for me, producing works using the digital medium in a way that I never had before. That same fascination remains until today and in-fact has grown stronger as I push the boundaries of the medium, frequently breaking all the ground rules of photography from a technical perspective, which brings me back to my earlier distinction between a photographer and an artist!
MICHAEL: When you quit your job to pursue your passion, wasn't that scary? Did you have a plan? How did you make the leap? So many people want to do that, but don't have a safety net.
THOMAS : Yep, very scary! The fact is, I had been working as a financial engineer for many years at a very senior level, but the vast majority of my work was for humanitarian projects and low-budget projects, so I was not a Wall Street type, high-flyer earning millions! I had always had in my mind to one day quit financial services and pursue my passion as a full-time career. The difficulty is deciding when to make the break, but I did! I knew that I did not simply want to be a photographer, so set about finding-out everything I could about photographic arts and the art market in general. I have always had a passion for the arts (all media) and had been closely watching the growth of the photographic art market, with many of the top-tier auction houses progressively establishing specialist photographic departments. I had no specific plan per say, but knew that my focus must be to develop my career as an artist, as I had no desire to develop a career as a photographer. I also had no safety net, and it has been a turbulent ride at times, but the important thing is to keep moving forward and to keep your eye on the ball! For me, creativity comes first and my chosen genre is certainly not the easiest for global acceptance. Nonetheless, I have stuck primarily with my subject matter of choice and my long-term goal has always been to achieve global recognition as an artist and to leave a legacy for the future.
MICHAEL: I love the fact that you're globally-minded about your work and the world. It means that you respect cultures and places, yet you see the "bigger picture." I find that so many people obsess over small, insignificant things. I don't know. What do you think?
THOMAS : I tend to agree Michael. A great many people just stay focused on their local neighbourhood, whereas I've always thought of my own local neighbourhood as global! Maybe it's because I've moved around so much in past years and lived in a variety of countries and cultures. There are artists whose philosophy is to self-promote locally with the hope of growing things from there. In my opinion, that simply doesn't work, or if it does work, it's going to be a long and drawn-out path. Having said that, I guess we all have our own strategy, there is no one size fits all, so whatever works for you is great. For myself, I'm into multi-tasking and I find that having several things going on at once in various corners of the world, also tends to frequently all come together in a strange sort of way. For me, I can't obsess over the trivial things, I have more important goals to focus on and that's what keeps me going. It's my life-blood!
MICHAEL: A lot of your work has sort of a multi-cultural, National Geographic type feel. I know that you have your own vibe and agenda, but do you see this in the work too?
THOMAS : Multi-cultural for sure, I'm not sure about National Geographic. That's the first time anybody made that analogy! Joking aside, my work is very multi-cultural and many of my series are looking at cross-cultures and ethnicity. I also have future projects which will explore this even more so, notably a series called, "The Woman Within," which is destined to explore the femininity of Arab women. Of course a large body of my work is also focused on the Far East, but that's largely because of my historical long-term association with that region. For sure, I will continue to be exploring different cultures and cross-cultures in the foreseeable future.
MICHAEL: What have you learned from your exposure to various cultures and people that you might not have learned otherwise?
THOMAS: Wow Michael, so much that I think I could write a book on it! Above all, mutual respect and tolerance and yes, not to believe everything that you see or hear in the media!
MICHAEL: What do people see or hear in the media? Do you think the media warps culture and perception?
THOMAS: Perhaps the media ultimately has good intent, but at the end of the day, they frequently tend to dramatize and distort reality. As a result, yes; I think peoples’ understanding and perception of other cultures is often distorted, which is to say the least, unfortunate! Ultimately, to get a true perspective, one needs to experience other cultures first hand. Only this way can you get a true understanding!
MICHAEL: You certainly don't need to explain it to me, but you're definitely inspired by female, semi-nudes or full nudes. The female form is a great landscape, no? Or perhaps, bodyscape?
THOMAS: As we both know, the female form is and has always been an inspiration to artists for centuries. However, my own interest is less about the form ("bodyscape") and more about women themselves. My work is very conceptual in nature and as I always explain to people, if you look only at the immediate visual and not beyond, you will miss most of what is being communicated. Traditionally, nudes (both male and female) have an aesthetic value, based around shape and form. For myself also of course, but that is very much only the surface of my own interest. My work is concerned with female sexuality and sensuality as a whole and also the role of women in society and how they are perceived in society. My works are more about empowering women than objectifying them, which perhaps explains why the majority of both collectors and admirers of my work are female.
MICHAEL: Don't you have a book out or a big project that you recently completed? Tell me about it? What's the message?
THOMAS : Actually I have several books in various stages of publication, one of which is my first monograph entitled "Imaginism," which will be launched at a forthcoming solo exhibition, which is currently being scheduled for next year at my representing gallery in Taipei. However, I think you are probably referring to my recent solo exhibition at Taiwan Photo (Taiwan's international photographic art fair), which took place back in October. That was the first showing of a series of works entitled "Propaganda," which although photographic works, also features a large amount of graphic work. Each year, I will produce one or two series that are a complete break-away from my usual works, and "Propaganda" is one such series. The series was undertaken over a 30-month period, in collaboration with Vancouver-based graphic artist Anthony Yang. The series is essentially a contemporary look at the various periods of Mainland Chinese propaganda and the posters issued during the respective periods. The posters are shown digitally superimposed onto a nude model (6 male and 6 female), which are symbolic of the open-mindedness of the people, who themselves are depicted in somewhat surreal surroundings, symbolic of the whole "unreal" aspect of the propaganda messages. During 2013, the works will exhibit at numerous gallery venues throughout East Asia and also several museum venues in Taiwan and Mainland China.
MICHAEL: So you've gone from being a financial engineer to one-man shows as an artist who produces books. Quite a journey. How are you feeling about all of this?
THOMAS: It feels good, although maybe it all sounds far more glamorous than it really is! The journey has been a tough one and I'm still on it! Whilst working in the financial services industry, I always had my mind set on ultimately becoming a full-time artist. Back in the 90s, I was shooting back-stage fashion at the major fashions weeks, then around ‘95 I quit taking photographs completely. It was only around 2000 with the arrival of the digital age that I really got back onboard and then I knew from that moment on that my focus was uniquely fine art. Having made the decision in 2004 to quit financial services completely and dedicate myself to being a full-time artist, the harsh reality hits when you realize you no longer have a pay check! It took me around another 18 months to find my real direction, so it's been about six years to make it this far. 2012 however definitely feels like a turning-point in my career, as a lot of new opportunities and avenues have opened-up. I'm looking forward to 2013, as I have several solo-exhibitions being scheduled, including at least two in Taiwan, one in Vienna (my first showing of mixed-media works and at my newest representing gallery), two in NYC, one in Venice (if I can get it all together in time!) and perhaps my first-ever show in Tokyo. Aside from the shows, I also have two books being launched, so 2013 is going to be a busy year and hopefully bring some reward for all of the hard work put into the last six!
MICHAEL: Excellent. Thanks Thomas. My very best to you. Loved this chat.
THOMAS : It's been a real pleasure Michael, thank you for your time and not least of all your interest. I look forward to staying in-touch.
Check out Thomas and his work at http://www.photoconception.com/.