Here in America, we like to say that a man’s home is his castle. The basic meaning of that phrase is that you are entitled to privacy and security in your own home, and that neither the law nor anyone else is allowed to interfere with either without substantial reason.
A secondary meaning is also relevant: whatever role a man plays in the world, whether he’s CEO of a corporation or hawks candy on the subway, within his own home he’s the master of all he surveys. Unfortunately, not everyone has enjoyed these privileges, as the most basic rights of privacy and security have often been denied to gay, lesbian, and transgender people, while traditional gender roles have long worked to deny women the right to claim ownership of their own lives, let alone their own households.
Things have gotten better recently, as laws have been changed to remove some of the bias against sexual and gender minorities and a younger generation of Americans seems far less concerned with policing people’s private lives than was the case in, say, my parent’s generation. Even before these changes, however, some gay, lesbian, and transgender men and women have simply claimed the privileges granted without question to heterosexual men and created their own castles, where they have chosen to live out their own definition of what it means to be a king or a queen.
“I decided to photograph LGBTQ Americans because I felt there was a need for a contemplative photo series of the community,” writes Atwood, “Many LGTBQ series depict scantily-clothed young subjects romping through the forest or lounging on the beach. There was a need for a series highlighting our manifold personalities and backgrounds. And I wanted to create a body of work that would strengthen the identity of and be a source of pride for the LGBTQ community, as well as feature role models.”
Kings & Queens in Their Castles, a large-scale photography book by Tom Atwood, celebrates the diversity of the gay, lesbian and transgender community today through portraits of some of its members in their homes. “Home” is broadly defined in this book — sometimes the subjects are literally inside a house, and at other times they’re outdoors, perhaps seated on a porch swing or working in their garden or, in the case of Mary Celley and Sue Williams of Brooklyn, Wisconsin, tending to their bees.
The portraits in Kings & Queens in Their Castles are about as different from conventional studio portraits as they can be. The photos are not shot in a neutral or idealized studio environment, but in whatever aspect of their home environment best represents them. While in conventional portraiture emphasis is usually placed on the person, particularly on his or her face, in this collection Atwood uses a wide-angle lens and deep depth of field to give equal emphasis to the human subject(s) and their environment. Many of the subjects are shown in full figure, sometimes while looking away from the camera, and they’re shown in a variety of positions within the photos, not centered in the frame as is typical of a conventional portrait.
Atwood captures a remarkable feeling of naturalness in many of these portraits, although I suspect that what looks casual is, in fact, the result of a lot of hard work accompanied by reflection and selection. Other portraits are posed for maximum symbolic value, to the point where they could serve as writing prompts or source material for essays on the symbolic meaning of the pose selected and objects included.
Actor Leslie Jordan (Sordid Lives, Will and Grace) appears even more diminutive than he does in real life and seems to be overwhelmed by the task of continuing to load the open dishwasher before him. Is his apparent fatigue the result of a late-night party or just too much indulgence in junk food (he holds an open pack of tortilla chips and an empty salsa container)? And inquiring minds want to know, does Jordan really have an Oriental rug in his kitchen and store his Emmy on the kitchen counter? Author John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The City of Falling Angels, in contrast, sits on his couch in a sparely elegant New York City townhome that screams “successful writer lives here!”, tastefully decorated in earth tones and with a classic city street scene visible through a mullioned window.
The publication of Kings & Queens in Their Castles is the culmination of 15 years of work by Atwood, during which time he photographed over 350 subjects at home. Over 160 of those subjects are featured in this book, including about 60 celebrities, such as Alan Cumming, George Takei, and Alison Bechdel. Many other portraits feature people you’ve probably never heard of, like Georgetown student and disability activist Lydia Brown, photographed in her dorm room, farmer Justin Alexander Wade, photographed taking a smoke break in Edgefield, South Carolina, and manufacturing worker Russ Duncan, photographed in his dining room in Kansas City, Missouri.
Atwood, recipient of a number of awards including Photographer of the Year from London’s Worldwide Photography Gala Awards, is a master of his craft, and has produced a series of artistically pleasing photographs that also capture the essence of each subject. Kings & Queens in Their Castles is a coffee table book for our time, celebrating the diversity of the gay, lesbian, and transgender community and offering inspiration and hope to people who may not be sure the world has a place for them.
This book is also pervaded by a sense of fun, even camp, as is evident in the identification of some of the individuals (example: Holly Taylor is identified as a “compost maven”). The result is a beautiful book that’s both a serious work of art and a lot of fun to browse through.