It’s easy to get drawn in by “Kings & Queens in Their Castles” (Damiani, $45), Tom Atwood’s compelling new book of portraits chronicling lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans at home.
That’s because Atwood has managed to capture so many familiar faces in unremarkable moments.
Veteran actress Meredith Baxter is pictured in her Santa Monica kitchen, lost in thought, gripping a nutritional supplement.
George Takei is shown wrapping Christmas presents at home in Los Angeles. CNN anchor Don Lemon takes a call on the balcony of his New York apartment.
There are the voices you know too: Ari Shapiro, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” rinses a sponge in his Washington, D.C., kitchen.
In his quest to highlight the LGBTQ community, Atwood photographed more than 350 subjects across the country over a 15-year period, including the not-so-famous: Beekeepers Mary Celley and Sue Williams are captured trekking through snow to bee boxes in Brooklyn, Wis., for example. And in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., Vick Marchand, a ballroom dancing instructor, and John Happ, a paleontologist who studies dinosaurs, tend to their chickens.
Atwood turns the culture of celebrity and architecture into something that goes beyond portraiture as he documents how similar we all are. Recently, we spoke with Atwood about the long-term project and how our homes convey a bit about who we are.
What was the impetus for this book?
When I was younger, in my 20s, I wanted to do a photography book. I was always interested in architecture and wanted to go to architecture school. I knew a lot of gay people in New York who had fabulous homes. I remember looking at gay photography and a lot of the photos were trendy urban shots of men with their shirts off or fully naked. I wanted to do a series that would focus on people and not their bodies. The gay community is often represented in urban environments. Being from a small town in Vermont, I wanted to show gay people living everywhere.
Many of the celebrities, such as John Waters and Greg Louganis, are well-known. How did you find the less famous?
It took thousands of hours of letter writing. When I meet someone I write down where they are from and I keep a contact book. When I went to West Virginia and Tennessee, I’d look in my contact file, and friends would make referrals. I utilized gay magazines as a resource along with LGBTQ groups on Facebook. I would message people. I would go to gay and lesbian nonprofits. I tried to include people from a variety of professions and went to small towns and rural places in culturally conservative places.
We expect interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s home to be fabulous, which it is. The other interiors don’t appear to be styled. Some are messy.
I got referrals to a lot of people who had professionally designed spaces. It was nothing new. I like spaces that are done by the homeowner. I often wouldn’t know that much about them or see their space beforehand. Each shoot took two to three hours, although I only had 20 minutes with some of the celebrities. I would ask them to walk me around their home and tell me about it. The location for the portrait was often not my decision. I typically wouldn’t rearrange anything. Meredith Baxter, for instance, was lost in thought. She opened her soul and her heart. Her daughter had just gone away to college.
Is there a common thread running through these portraits?
In general, gay people are not that different. There is a subset of gay people who have a sensibility that is avant-garde and creative, and I wanted to celebrate them. I do think there is a disproportionate amount of us in creative fields. Generally, people’s spaces accurately convey who they are, or their homes were a projection of who they want to be. There is a hint of camp and humor in my style to celebrate that.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
How varied people are in this community. I also hope people celebrate the gay sensibility a bit. And I hope it provides role models for LGBTQ youth. A few people have written to me that it inspired them to come out. Another wrote to me that it inspired him to get into photography. There are so many leading figures in the gay community that we can be proud of. Let them live on and be a snapshot of gay life during this point in time.