Tawny Chatmon (b. 1979, Tokyo, Japan) is a photography-based artist residing in Maryland. In 2010, the then commercial photographer's outlook and relationship with her camera shifted when she began photographing her father's battle with cancer, consequently documenting the disease unexpectedly taking his life. With her father's passing, she gradually began to look to her camera less as a device for monetary gain and more as a way for her work to serve a higher vocation.
While the camera remains her primary tool of communication, the self-taught artist takes a multi-layered approach in her process. She does not restrict herself to following any set of rules and does not subscribe exclusively to traditional photography practices. Her photographs are often digitally intensified by exaggerating the hairstyles of her subjects (who are often her children and other family members), lending them the eyes of someone older and wiser, and elongating their form, drawing inspiration from the Byzantine period to signify importance. Thereafter, she typically combines overlappings of digital collage and illustration. After refining and printing, she frequently experiments with various art practices by hand-embellishing with acrylic paint, 24-karat gold leaf, and materials such as paper, semi-precious stones, glass, and other mixed media. In choosing to frame the achieved iconography in golden antique, repurposed, and contemporary baroque frames, the artist composes a touching counter-narrative that is more than just a photograph but a new, meaningful compositional expression.
Chatmon suggests that our life experiences and memories are largely responsible for who one ultimately becomes and that "what we are exposed to, what we are taught, and even the toys we play with as children" contributes immensely to shaping us into adulthood. A Black woman and mother of three Black children, she is motivated by "leaving something important behind" to the world her children will grow up in while creating imagery that celebrates and honors the beauty of Black childhood and familial bonds while at times addressing the absence and exclusion of the Black body in Western art.
Chatmon is among the eight African American artists featured in the 2022 Venice Biennale exhibition The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined, curated by Myrtis Bedolla of Galerie Myrtis. The exhibit explores the theme of Black life on the continuum of its imagined future presented in the Personal Structures art fair.
My work and life have gone through many phases that have led me to create the work I do today. I attribute this evolution to three major shifts: The decision to no longer pursue a career in dramatic arts, the birth of my first child, and the death of my father.
Before becoming a photographer, I was a performer. My early childhood consisted of traveling as an "army brat". After settling in the United States, my pre-teens to early adulthood was spent performing in plays put on by my aunt's theater company, dinner theatre programs, school plays, attending acting workshops, and the like. After receiving a small scholarship for dramatic arts in High School I briefly enrolled in a dramatic arts conservatory, was cast in an off-Broadway play, had been an extra in just enough films making me eligible to receive my Union card...and out of nowhere, I quit. Having no idea what to do next or how I would creatively earn a living, I turned to photography.
At 19 I was gifted my first camera. Photography was not new to me although considering it a career choice was. I floated through ages 20-24 self-teaching, exploring various genres of photography and using my camera as a means of earning an income. During this time, I also began learning photoshop and taking on graphic and web design jobs.
Photographing children was something that never crossed my mind before becoming a mother. After the birth of my son, my life naturally became about documenting his life. Ages 25-28 were almost exclusively dedicated to my joy of photographing him. This expanded to documenting these moments for family members which then lead to offering to do so for other families as well.
My first experience working in commercial photography came after being recommended by a client for a local commercial job. Afterward, I began to pursue other opportunities and was fortunate enough to shoot for (and/or provide images for) companies such as YMCA, Until There's a Cure, National Education Association, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
In 2010, my outlook and relationship with my camera changed when I began photographing my father's battle with cancer. What we thought would be a testimony of his victory turned out to be my documentation of cancer taking his life. With his passing, something in me died, but something else slowly began to awaken. I began to think more about the meaning of my life and began to stop solely looking to my camera as a means of income and began seeing it as a way to communicate my joy, my pain & my frustration. I began to think more about the world I wanted my children to grow up in versus the world as it is today.
Now 42, I look to photography as the first layer of communication. My work is ever-changing and constantly evolving as am I. The portraits I create today are always inspired by my children and my desire to contribute something important to a world I want them to thrive in. Each portrait usually begins as someone that I am close to in some way (my children, Goddaughter, a relative, or a model that I’ve worked with in the past), and by looking outside of traditional photography methods, and experimenting with various art practices, I am able to transform each piece into a new expression. Each is an important, meaningful, and intentional multilayered message. I choose to frame my work in golden antique frames that I collect from estate sales, galleries, auctions, and private sellers (the majority that previously held artwork of subjects that looked nothing like mine or reminiscent of frames hanging in museums of the past and present) and purpose-built contemporary baroque frames custom created for each piece.