Nostalgia collides with anxiety in Tatum Shaw’s photography

"Shell Angel" (2019) by Tatum Shaw, whose photography captures a nostalgic and humorous look at life in the South. Courtesy of Tatum Shaw
Caption
"Shell Angel" (2019) by Tatum Shaw, whose photography captures a nostalgic and humorous look at life in the South. Courtesy of Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

‘Plusgood!’ art book finds humor and longing among the country club set

Tatum Shaw, 41, is an artist who’s used to straddling multiple realities.

For one, he’s currently dividing his time between a new home he just bought in Atlanta and his husband Robert Kendall’s preferred residence of Portland, Oregon, where Shaw moved in 2004 to work at the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy.

But Shaw missed the South and the diversity of life here. He pined for all the things he feels like Portland’s “monoculture” lacks in a place where “everyone sort of agrees with each other,” he says. In Portland you get the feeling Shaw’s Southern-ness and his straight-laced look make him the weirdo amid the “Portlandia” hipsters.

“I really have been trying for the last 15 years to just get back to Atlanta,” he admits. “I mean, you have a large gay community. And you also have a large Black community. You have a large Republican community and a large arts community. So many different people just kind of making it work, which I just think is so entertaining.”

Shaw is engaged in another tug of war, too, between his work life and the art world where he’s had sporadic exhibitions (mostly in Portland) and glowing write-ups in niche art magazines. And then there’s his money job, working as a freelance ad copywriter for companies like Apple, Nike, Target and for an upcoming Olympics commercial.

But his passion is fine art photography. “I wish that I could make that more a full-time thing,” he says. “But the advertising stuff pays much more.”

Photographer Tatum Shaw divides his time between Atlanta and Portland, Oregon.
Courtesy of Robert Kendall
Caption
Photographer Tatum Shaw divides his time between Atlanta and Portland, Oregon. Courtesy of Robert Kendall

Credit: Robert Kendall

Credit: Robert Kendall

That dual identity also defines Shaw’s point of origin in Cartersville. His mother had humble roots there, growing up on a farm. His father’s upbringing was more “country club.” Deciding where he stands in that equation is another act of push-pull.

“Which am I? Or which do I identify with?” he wonders. “It’s fun to be privy to both sides, I guess.”

Still, he downplays his pedigree when he says his father, Julius, now retired, “worked in carpet.” In truth, Shaw’s grandfather and great uncle founded Shaw Industries, the world’s largest carpet manufacturing company.

Contrary to the photographic traditions of documenting the abject poor (Walker Evans, Mary Ellen Mark) or the striving middle class (Bill Owens, Larry Sultan), Shaw’s photographs offer a fascinating keyhole into another world — a decidedly WASP one, with blondes as far as the eye can see, manicured lawns and polo shirts tucked neatly into pressed shorts.

The results can look eerily like a film still with its perfect light and attractive people, as in an image from Shaw’s series “New Songs.” In the photo his family members stand around a yellow convertible; his nephews hang out in the front seat. One of the little boys gazes out from behind Bieber bangs with a knowing look somewhere between Ferris Bueller and Sally Mann. It’s not documentary work necessarily, just the visual reality from which Shaw weaves his storytelling.

There’s also a streak of wiseacre humor in many of the images, like a color photograph of two blonde women at dinner, the older one admiring the small child in the other woman’s arms. But the way the older woman grasps a sharp steak knife in one hand as she strokes the baby’s head looks more like the setup for human sacrifice than maternal adoration.

Tatum Shaw's family members have grown accustomed to posing for his photographs. His niece is the subject of "Summer" (2020). Courtesy of Tatum Shaw
Caption
Tatum Shaw's family members have grown accustomed to posing for his photographs. His niece is the subject of "Summer" (2020). Courtesy of Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

“Sometimes something I think is funny comes across as being creepy,” says Shaw of that pleasingly off-kilter gaze and the half outsider, half insider vibe that comes through much of his work.

Shaw’s images are featured in “Plusgood!” an art book by Savannah-based publisher Aint-Bad. A fever dream of summertime dis-ease and a whole lot of WASP iconography inspired by Shaw’s childhood, “Plusgood!” get its title from George Orwell’s “1984.” It’s code for ultimate happiness within the dictates of authoritarianism, and it’s as concise an expression of childhood’s freedoms and constraints as there is.

For Shaw, that combination of sentimentality and anxiety is rooted in his Nana’s house in Cartersville, a Valhalla defined by Kent cigarettes, Sunbeam bread and a chlorinated swimming pool. The colors in “Plusgood!” are saturated like a David Lynch film, and the mood is, well, off. The work is about nostalgia for the sunbaked languor of summertime, but it’s also about memory as an incomplete, often flawed bead on the past.

At many turns “Plusgood!” suggests the faulty vantage of childhood itself, when the world seems decidedly strange and adult semiotics are garbled and open to misinterpretation. The book’s overarching vibe is deeply silly with a sidecar of wistfulness.

“My memories from being a kid feel like the trippiest things that I’ve ever experienced,” says Shaw. “There are so many childhood memories I have that should be good memories. But I am like, ‘Why was I so scared by that?’ Little things where you misinterpret the world around you because you just don’t get it.”

“Plusgood!” comes with a charming dedication “For Nana.” Shaw’s grandmother is one of the many Sphinx-like female figures who seem to consume his consciousness, at least in his art-making. His work is defined by powerful blondes, like the outrageously pregnant Portland friend posing in the altogether on her deck, looking like a summer-ripe fruit.

"Three Masked Girls" (2020) is from Tatum Shaw's series "Off Days." Courtesy of Tatum Shaw
Caption
"Three Masked Girls" (2020) is from Tatum Shaw's series "Off Days." Courtesy of Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

Credit: Tatum Shaw

Shaw’s latest projects are a departure. “Off Days” is about a world leached of color during COVID-19. A more documentarian series, it includes images of a handsome brick house with a giant skeleton on the lawn and a trio of little girls sitting on a curb wearing surgical masks. Those black-and-white, melancholia-laced images capture 2020′s zeitgeist. “The times were sort of in black and white,” says Shaw. It “lended itself to this up-in-the-air feeling.”

Still in formation, his project “Positive Purpose” is a glancing reference to the cryptic banner that read “Lives That Matter Are Made with Positive Purpose” displayed by OK Café during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. “Read the room,” Shaw scoffs.

The work reflects time Tatum spent in Atlanta during the 2020 presidential election and the height of COVID-19 anxiety. Like so much of Shaw’s life and work, it’s complicated. Reality for Shaw is happiness with a disclaimer: It’s all very plusgood.

For more on Tatum Shaw, go to www.tatumshaw.com.

ART BOOK

“Plusgood!”

Photography by Tatum Shaw

Aint-Bad

96 pages, $40