Artist Tom Butler didn’t start out as a photographer—in fact, his degree (and the majority of his early work) focused on sculpture. It was only after viewing photographs of his work that Butler began to shift his practice. “A photograph of a sculpture changes how you see it. I reached the point when I was looking at my sculpture and the photograph of my sculpture and wondering if I preferred the photograph.”
Dividing his time between London and Portland, Maine, Butler has dedicated much of his recent practice to the alteration of Victorian cabinet cards. He paints, draws, and otherwise alters the figures in the cards to play with concepts of identity and memory. The results of this inquiry are unsettling on a fundamental level. When Butler removes his subjects’ eyes, they become less than human—and yet, these figures represent real people who posed for their portraits over a hundred years ago. Below, Alexandra Olczak interviews Butler about his work, which is on view now at The Photographers’ Gallery in London—
Alexandra Olczak: Looking broadly at your artistic practice, I can see you use photography both as a primary and secondary medium. You’ve also previously used found material as the basis of works, such as your vintage postcard series. What drew you to Victorian cabinet card albumen prints?
Tom Butler: I started appropriating vintage postcards when I left art school because I had little money for material, no workshop to use, and I was moving around a lot. Using them felt great because even though they were cheap and small, they offered me a pictorial space to be creative. They were small, portable, readymade environments for me to intervene in by inserting drawn objects. I made lots of bizarre sculptural proposals, such as barriers dividing up towns, enormous bugs climbing up buildings, or skies filled with balloons and wondered what it would like to make them for real, only to realize that the appropriated postcard was the work.
One day I was looking for new postcards and found a stack of cabinet cards in a thrift shop. They were such beautiful photographic objects with just an edge of gothic that I’ve always loved. Now instead of intervening with a readymade landscape, I had an anonymous figure I could cloak as a kind of psychological clotheshorse.
AO: What particular qualities do you look for in a cabinet card when making new work, and how to you decide how you are going to alter them?
TB: I always start with the eyes, even if I obliterate them. I add a glint of white gouache at the end to bring them to life.
I also look at how the sitter is positioned in their photographic space. If they look confident, uneasy or fading into the background this gives me a starting point. I have a collection of unaltered ones too—every now and then I’ll find one so perfect I can’t touch it.
AO: To what extent do you think your two sculpture degrees inform your work?
TB: I rely heavily on my education in Sculpture. In my BA at Chelsea I made things, some of which would fill a room, and I photographed them relentlessly. It was drilled into us to document everything because of postgrad applications but also because a photograph of a sculpture changes how you see it—it essentially transforms it into another object, in my case a photographic 6 x 4 inch photographic print from the chemist down the road, or a 35mm slide from Metro. I reached the point when I was looking at my sculpture and the photograph of my sculpture and wondering if I preferred the photograph.
During my MFA at The Slade, I let the photograph become the starting point, but whilst one side of my work continued to flatten, the other became more performative. I made short public performance pieces where I would balance things on my chin or roll myself up in huge sheets of paper, but I liked that the photograph was the only physical document of the work. I also photographed my attempts at invisibility by hiding behind mirrors in the street (Invisibility Machine, 2007) and made drawings of spaces beneath furniture that I thought might make good hiding places (From Where I’m Sitting…, 2007). These were all ways I could propose my concealment in a given space without the need to make further physical objects. So while my BA show was a room full of timber and motors, the work for my MFA show could fit neatly in a few folders, much as it does now.
AO: There are a number of double-sided cards in this series of works, which we haven’t seen before. What was the inspiration behind these?
TB: Yes, these are the newest and most sculptural pieces in the exhibition. As I’m presenting a figure on both sides of the card it encourages the viewer to move around it and take a bit more time. I like how they jut out from the wall: they’re assertive in their presence, but head-on they just look like a sliver of something, hiding in plain sight.
These pieces can’t be viewed from across the room: they have to be approached more closely than the single-sided works, and this feels more like a personal interaction. It opens up new possibilities for the work. For example, I can pair two sitters in specific imaginary relationships by cutting them up and re-arranging them so their identities become mixed and joined together. Like a couple so close they can finish each other’s sentences. I can also divide up a single person and represent them twice; perhaps on one side they seem to be hiding behind a barrier and on the other emerging from it.
AO: You’ve said before that your practice centers on your fascination with the process of “conspicuous invisibility”—can you expand on this?
TB: The term refers to how I find the process of concealment inherently performative, and that in the process of hiding you actually end up revealing something about yourself: like choosing a specific face mask or personally designed screen. I remember how much I loved playing hide and seek when I was a kid—especially the moment of being discovered where one is ‘seen hiding’ in the chosen location. It always felt like a very sincere moment. Being hidden can be very performative, humorous and even a little slapstick, as well as having the potential to be sinister (the horror film The Vanishing, from 1988, plays this out brilliantly), but I think hiding to a certain degree is something we all do in our adult lives too. We have to play a role to behave appropriately in professional situations that require self-editing, we wear clothes to signify specific group identities that enable us to do our jobs (a grey suit is a costume that practically makes you invisible), or we find a good pillar to lean against when the room gets too crowded. That’s partly what I’m playing with in this work.
—Tom Butler, interviewed by Alexandra Olczak.
Alexandra Olczak is the Print Sales Gallery Coordinator at The Photographers’ Gallery, where Butler’s work was exhibited in 2017.
If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend these previous features: Textural Landscapes, images by Iris Hutegger that combine photography, embroidery, and sculpture; All Lines and Diagonals, photo-based collages created using several decades’ worth of artistic material; and Threads, a set of images interrupted by embroidered threads that meditate on our relationship with nature.