Culture- ART FEATURE- Sinister angels: Chambers' unreal photography

It didn't surprise me when photographer and digital artist Tom Chambers mentioned how much he likes the ultra-creepy 1973 film, Don't Look Now. "I think books and movies influence me more than other photographers," he says, confessing a particular fondness for thrillers. I suspect a list of Chambers' favorites may also include The Innocents and Village of the Damned.

What these movies and Chambers' photographic montages share is a focus on children who appear at once angelic and sinister, vulnerable yet darkly powerful. Chambers' images, on view in the exhibition "Ex Votos" at the Staunton Augusta Arts Center, present supernatural worlds where children and animals interact in mysterious ways beyond the reach of adults.

Inspired by Mexican religious folk art paintings, Chambers writes in his artist statement, "My work is not used to document but to illustrate photographically the fleeting moods that can't be captured by a traditional camera or seen with a naked eye." For me, however, the scenarios he creates are less "fleeting moods" and more narrative excerpts that compel the viewer to ask in fascination– and sometimes horror– "What's going on here?"

For instance, in "Making Fire," a girl in a dark forest kneels over a boy's splay-limbed body, rubbing a stick between her hands to ignite fire in the middle of his chest. Or in "Black Dog's Retreat," a Labrador retriever sits on the prow of a boat watching a stucco house sink into a canyon's murky waters as a little boy peers from a second-story window. Always there is ambiguity– are we witnessing a miracle or an unfolding calamity? Is the dog coming to the rescue or floating away?

To create these dreamlike visions, Chambers first shoots color film, then scans the photographs into his computer, where he digitally layers and manipulates them, yielding compositions that play off viewers' expectations of photographic reality. He carefully attends to lighting, shadows, and reflections in order to make his phantasmagoric illusions seamless.

"Because it looks real," he says, "it helps with the shock value."

Chambers also skillfully taps into viewers' primal fears about fire, drowning, and domestic animals that suddenly turn wild. By including nostalgic elements such as chipping paint or an antique dime-fed mechanical horse, he emphasizes the chasm between adulthood and the magic-filled world of childhood. 

Like snippets of ominous fairy tales, Chambers' images prod the corners of our subconscious to leave us in awestruck wonder.

Tom Chambers' exhibition, "Ex Votos," hangs at the Staunton Augusta Art Center through September 29. 1Gypsy Hill Park, Staunton. 540-885-2028.