Tom Stone is an artist living and working in San Francisco. His photography chronicles the lives of many of the homeless youth in that city. The portraits are austere and haunting, and capture personalities that are all-too-often overlooked.
- Alright, so firstly, I’m very impressed by your portraiture. From what I’ve seen, it looks like you focus mainly on homeless individuals. Can you talk about what draws you to them as subjects?
I was inspired to the work by homeless youth, street kids, throughout my life and from movies like ‘Streetwise’ (1984), which won an Oscar or was nominated, and ‘My Own Private Idaho’, et cetera. And just seeing kids on the street.
In the case of streetwise, I came at the film from a photoessay done by the filmmaker. So I saw these people current day (at the time) and saw them in shots from the film. That tied into an open question I’ve always had about trying to understand the cycle of poverty, and how these kids end up on the street.
I’ve worked with real young kids, like at daycamps when I was younger, and would think, “Ok, three of these kids will end up homeless. And maybe will be in just a few years!” Anyway, I was interested in that cycle.
- That’s interesting. I think your photos share a pathos with Walker Evans’ work with James Agee in ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’.
- I get that.
- And I think the defining element is the extreme candor of the portraits, catching these subjects in their in-between moments which are truly illuminating. Can you talk about how you get your subjects so comfortable with your presence and the presence of the lens?
As I’ve stated on my site and elsewhere, I take great inspiration from Dorthea Lange, while my work also overlaps a bit with those you mention. And certainly other more modern aspects draw stuff from the likes of Arbus, et cetera. But clearly my process is far different. Technology just makes everything different.
I work with a D200 and D300 alternately, but I usually have a very small lens, like the 50mm f/1.8, whatever it is. Sometimes I need a larger lens if I want to do something wider or such, but I’m really focused on minimizing the camera.
As I mentioned before, I was drawn to this by a desire to understand the cycle of poverty. That means I’m in it for the story, and so the interaction is really about that: the story. So we just talk about motivations, and anger and love and whatever, and family and parents and friends. I connect with that stuff. Everyone does of course, and I try to catch it with the camera as we go. But it’s never about the camera.
- And how do you meet your subjects? Just on-the-street encounters?
Yes, on the street, but chosen encounters. Every I shoot is unposed of course. But that doesn’t mean I’m not setting up the interaction. I notice folks who have expressive eyes and faces that tell a story. That’s obvious, I guess. And then I just double about and figure out how to come up to them based on sunlight and activity, et cetera.
Realistically, it’s more instinctive that some calculus or such. Basically I’m deciding various stuff as I go up to them, say Hi and address them based on what drew me to them, and let them take it from there.
- So you’ve said that you’re drawn to the question of how this cycle of poverty is perpetuated. Do you see your art as a method of addressing the issue, or just documenting it? Or is this even a meaningful distinction at all?
The point of the art is definitely to participate. I’m not big on documenting for the sake of documentation. That seems more bureaucratic than artistic.
I’m in it to make a point, and to make a connection, through me, to the audience. And to force consideration and understanding, and discomfort with the way things are. Now I’m not going to stand here and say this is that or whatever policy is good or bad. It’s not about that. It’s about people. And when people care, don’t be surprised by a groundswell of good. Might just happen.
- Well I think that definitely comes through in your work. There is a very evident driving morality to my eye.
- But I try not to moralize.
- Right. It’s moral in the sense of compassion, I think.
- I write stories. But I try to keep my specific point of view in check, let the situation and person speak for themselves as much as possible. Though obviously as an artist, there’s a presentation.
- Certainly. Have you always photographed homeless individuals, or did you have another entry point into photography?
- The photography was about poverty. I was working on maybe doing a video documentary on streetkids, and the photography was the research tool for that. I was surprised when it stood on its own.
- Well, that’s a valuable accident then.
- Indeed. But in-line with my intent.
- Reading your online bio, I see that you’ve had a career in business as well as art. Can you talk some about the relationship of the two, and how you manage to juggle them? And what, if anything, binds them together?
I guess it’s maybe a bit odd, but my “eye” comes from my days in technology and banking. Perhaps that’s a bit overstated. But I’ve learned to sort the good from the bad pretty quickly and obviously I’ve been an artist since I was a kid.
But whether at Morgan Stanley or elsewhere, well, you’re always marketing. And you’re always worrying about presentation. And you’re always thinking about the audience I guess. Now obviously fine art and photography, et cetera, is business. But I have a difficult time merging the two. I kind of wear one hat or the other.
So I prefer others to deal with the business stuff. Anyway, maybe that almost answered, or got along the way.
- That makes sense. Do you see yourself doing anything else with your work? Like, you mentioned that your photos sarted as studies for a film. Is that still an interest or pursuit, or are you more or less immersing yourself in photography now?
I’m certainly interested in film, but it’s different and not really a part of this. In film, I’m more of a director or producer. Not really a cameraman. Which is to say, I’m not much of an artist with a motion camera. WIthout a lot of other people and processes involved. And at a level I like to be comfortable doing everything myself before I farm it out.
Anyway, with the poverty, what I’m interested in more is organizing ways to help people, as opposed to merely figuring out more ways of telling the story. And there’s certainly other stories I’m interested in telling.
- Well hey, that pretty much does it for my questions. Is there anything you want to add?
- All good!
- Well thanks a lot, we really appreciate your taking the time to talk. One last little question: when you look at the Duckrabbit logo, what do you see first, a duck or a rabbit?
- A duck. It was fun; take care!