The Photo Issue: Parker Tilghman

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SFBG Your website is more cunningly organized than a lot of photographer's or artist's sites. How does it relate to your photography?
Parker Tilghman I feel like my site isn't fully representative of what I'm doing now. I'm in this weird exploration phase. I’m enjoying the medium as much as possible while I have access to tools at CCA. My website began as a creative outlet and a place to show my photography. It started with nightlife photography, but I got over it quickly. Once school started I didn't have time to go out and I stopped working in that way to focus on my studies.

SFBG One of my favorite photos from the “night.” series on your site is of Fauxnique.
PT That was from [her show] Faux Real. It was such a cool number. I took that the last or second to last night [of the run]. I just happened to be in the front of the stage, and I was really excited when I got it. I showed it to Marc [Kate], her husband, and he was all about it. She's so talented and I’m really thrilled about the success she has been achieving. 

SFBG “night.” also includes a photo of Veronica Klaus.
PT Veronica is probably one of my favorite women in SF. She's amazing – so sweet and full of life and energy. One photo of her is from a big gay wedding that I shot shortly after Prop 8 passed. The other is of her and Joey Arias. Joey and Veronica were co-hosting Tingel Tangel that month. We did it really quick and dirty in the downstairs basement of The Great American Music Hall. The people behind the event wanted it to be done that night and I said if I was going to do it I wanted to take the time to do it right. I chose a spot and I set up all of my lights, but didn't realize I was in front of the bathroom – someone took a major shit and it smelled really bad. Joey had to go on in about 15 minutes. I shot a few rolls and prayed for the best. It was classic.

SFBG Some of the bedroom and intimate interior shots from “lover no longer.” remind me a bit of the Boston School – Mark Morrisroe, David Armstrong, Nan Goldin – but they are mixed with outdoor scenes. Can you tell me a bit about that series and its subject?
PT He was this boy I was absolutely in love with. One of the first I felt I was actually in love with. He was living in NY and in graduate school at Columbia getting his MFA. Our time together was intense and very in the moment. He was here this time last year visiting me for a few weeks. The interior shots were taken in my apartment with a Polaroid Spectra. I would shoot without the flash in order to get these blurry, creepy images. I realized after we broke up that I never had a full head-on shot of him. It made sense because he was so far away both literally and emotionally. I was totally heartbroken but I  didn't want to be a bitchy queen about it. I wanted to honor him in some way.
There are a lot of nude portraits of boys I don't have on my site because everyone does that now. I have a beautiful collection of images of boys that I've encountered throughout my life. The images are a reminder of those relationships, sexual and otherwise.

SFBG You've made triptychs, and also series' of related but varying images. What attracts you to that approach?
PT I'm obsessed with repetition – and how it can express obsession. People are drawn to form connections when they are confronted with multiple images in the same work. I'm interested in forming a communication between the images, whether they have something visually in common or not. In life I tend do the same stupid things over and over again. The repetition is an aesthetic choice, but it also forms a rhythm I become comfortable with and great things happen in that cycle.

SFBG What was it like to photograph Daniel Nicoletta?
PT I love Danny. He is such an idol to me and when I met him I was starstruck in a way. I think about it now and it seems silly because he is such a sweet man. I grew up queer in a small town in South Carolina. He was one of the first gay photographers I learned about through reading about Harvey Milk. He doesn't have the recognition as a photographer that he deserves outside of SF. I feel that he has that potential now and I am very excited for him.
We spent a wonderful day together at Danny's house when I photographed him. Danny was a bit of a bossy bottom -- he tried to tell me what to do, but soon realized what he was doing and said, “I’m sorry, I'll stop.” That image was the one moment where he let his guard down. He was fantastic and I still remain in close contact with him.
Recently, I've been spending some time with Arthur Tress. I photographed him last week. These photographers are coming into my life and I feel I can learn so much from them. They were there through the AIDS crisis and the Stonewall riots. They paved the way for me to make the work I am doing now.

SFBG “RGB” might be the most striking series on your site, both because of the colors and the sudden bursts of motion.
PT The original installation is on three separate televisions screens turned on their sides.  It's fully dimensional and takes on aspects of 2-D, 3-D, and 4-D based mediums. They're animated GIFS. I took the photographs with a stereoscopic lens and compiled the images in Photoshop to make them 3-D.
Stereoscopic imagery has been around since photography’s inception and you can still get these cheap stereoscopic lenses from Japan for about $100. At the time that I was heavily immersed in color theory- and constantly thinking about red, green, and blue. I wanted to play with those ideas on top of underlying notion of digital identity.

SFBG “marshall's beach.” is different from some of the other series' on your site in that it isn't populated. Instead, you photograph detritus. It made me think of a time when I was on a beach with friends in Bolinas, and everyone was shell collecting, and I was most attracted to this bright yellow plastic bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid.
PT That series is more or less a placeholder for my site, although I do find the images to be beautiful. I was out at the beach on my birthday. The best thing I found in the sand that day was a deflated Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon. I came back three days later and it was still there, so I kept it.
I saw this shirt on the pathway down to the water and thought, “Oh, someone's cruising.” I walked through the bushes, but they were gone. All that was left were their condoms and lube on the ground. I began noticing that all the trash was in pairs around the area. I don’t think I’m the kind of photographer who just goes out and shoots rolls of film in hopes of finding something. That’s a boring task to me, but I like the idea of queer documentation in whatever form that takes.

SFBG That story makes me think about the waterfront and different photographers who've used it either to create gay photography, or documented gay life in that kind of zone. Alvin Baltrop did so in the Piers in New York, and his photos are also now a record of a Manhattan that doesn't exist anymore. The other night I met an artist, Doug Ischar, who has a book of mid-1980s photos [Marginal Waters] of a sunbathing and cruising space in Chicago that also is no longer around. SF Camerawork had a show devoted to Alan B.Stone, who took pre-Stonewall photos of the Montreal coastline. And here in SF Denny Denfield was doing 3-D physique photography on the beaches.
PT Have you see Arthur Tress's images from the New York piers in the '70s? They're fucking stunning – beautiful and violently sexual. He wouldn't have sex with his subjects. The way he got off was by photographing these beautiful men in sexy, compromising spaces.
I like work like that because, while I'm a pervy gay boy at heart, I don't want sex to be the overwhelming projection. I love Mapplethorpe, but more for the technical perfection and beautiful tones achieved in his prints than the blatantly sexual subject matter. I don't want overwhelming sexuality to be present in my work because some people can't get past it and it hinders further exploration.
For me, it's more about having subtle undertones that are a little uncomfortable. You can feel its presence, but aren’t quite sure what is off. I think the magenta in the "Untitled." color series is a good example of that. It has this underlying tone of strange eroticism that isn’t immediately recognizable.

SFBG There's a specific alphabet on your main page, and around half of the letters aren't attached to images yet. What's to come?
PT I'm going to fill them up eventually. Knowing me, in a year’s time the entire site will be completely different. I like the format – if you get it, you get it. I live in the Tenderloin and within two days I got called a faggot twice walking down the street. I've been called a faggot my whole life, but I was in my own fucking neighborhood and I was just wearing boots and flannel! I didn’t even look that gay. I wanted to do something with the word 'faggot’ and liked the idea of removing it from the alphabet completely. I like making people confused.

SFBG The image in the Guardian's Photo Issue comes from “untitled (transparencies).” Can you tell me a bit about that series?
PT For this project I spent hours in the darkroom and sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. For me, it always starts as an aesthetic choice. I know a lot of people don’t like that idea, but I need something beautiful to work from as a point of departure. I wanted to play with pure color and investigate it was much as could within the photographic medium. I knew I wanted deep, rich color. I tried a bunch of crazy experiments with my film like pushing and pulling 5 or 6 stops at a time. I began using positive transparency film and printing it on normal color paper in order to produce a negative image. They're double-exposed and manipulated in-camera. I can’t give away all my secrets.  There were tons of problem solving moments where I thought I would have a nervous breakdown, but it was fun to run with and work through.
The images themselves are horrific if you really look at them. I was reading a lot of Julia Kristeva, especially her writings about abjection and the duality of horror. She really defined what I was doing. I think in terms of queer art and culture she has so much to say, without even realizing it. There are so many connecting channels, even though her writing can be excruciatingly painful to read.
I was excited about making something beautiful and ugly at the same time by mutilating the figures. It's something I'm proud enough to show, which is a big thing for me.

SFBG Your portraits of women have a mix of directness and depth.
PT Nude female portraiture is something straight male photographers do all the time. Being a gay male, the sexual tension was completely removed, which makes the gaze and the pose of the women very different.
A portrait shoot with me is like a two hour-long conversation. People ask about my camera because it's big and imposing and it freaks them out sometimes.
I was interested in showcasing these queer women and normalizing them in a way. One person told me it's like Cathy Opie without everything that makes them who they are. She's concerned with all the surroundings that make them queer, while I’m interested in them when they are most vulnerable.

SFBG You've combined photography with different forms, from installation to bookmaking. What do you like about changing formats?
PT This is going to sound arrogant, but I don't want to be just a photographer. I'm excited by having the opportunity to change and explore other mediums to achieve what I want. I don't even really foresee that stopping in the near future. At the same time I'm interested in refining and focusing on what I'm trying to say and getting past making things just because they're pretty.

SFBG What's next?
PT I'm still playing with processes and have recently begun shooting directly onto color paper with an 8x10 camera to make paper negatives. I’m creating large wall installations of several small images. The color and detail I have been achieving is simply out of this world.

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