As a hobby photographer myself, I can appreciate the skill and artistry involved in shooting Thomas Allen’s precise and dramatic book art. As a photographer first, the Michigan artist creates his book carvings specifically to photograph; the media is inseparable from the presentation.
“I cut, crimp, crease and convert the covers of vintage paperbacks into three-dimensional tableau and photograph them–an idea that feeds my penchant for pop-up books and other things 3D. The subjects are bit players who, for a brief time, found fame printed on the glossy surfaces of dime novels. My mitts and an X-acto knife work together to persuade skirts and gumshoes to return to the stage for one final performance in a slightly different production. The spotlight is aimed at gams and mugs long enough to immortalize them on yet another flat, glossy surface – film. The result is a re-imagined look at a product of pop culture whose sales relied more on seductive, eye-popping visuals than literary content–thus proving that you can judge a book by its cover!” ~Thomas Allen
By controlling the lighting and depth of field, Allen alters the ‘reality’ of characters from pulp fiction covers. Shooting with film in a 4×5 view camera, he rotates and tilts the camera’s elements to direct the narrow plane of focus for an intensely dramatic feel.
A plethora of awards, exhibitions and published works decorate Allen’s CV. With his mother’s blessing (I love his mother), Allen switched university majors in 1985 from Criminal Justice to Art and has not looked back. Drawing and printmaking appealed until he took a photography class with a particularly inspiring teacher. Altered books – initially children’s primary readers used in autobiographical collages – were the subject of his first professional portfolio.
Subsequent projects have included the interpretation of science with books and cutouts, and of mythology using altered anatomy books – an attempt to show that fact validates fiction.
A 2001 fellowship from Minnesota State Arts Board was awarded for Allen’s proposal to create art based on his physical ability to cut with a knife, his skill with lighting and no other props.
“This is where my work with vintage (pulp) novels began. The first photograph to surface from that was RED (2002). I had the book in my collection (secretly taken from my uncle’s house some years earlier). I was cutting it and found that if I folded the pieces in a certain way and looked at it from a precise angle, the characters would look 3-dimensional, like the ones found in pop-up books (which I adore).” ~ Thomas Allen”
“Everything catapulted from there. I eventually turned my attention to those types of books because (a) they were from a very exciting period in pop culture where cover images were used to sell books and (b) the range of expressions, emotions and characters was very broad and plentiful. I was also fascinated with the notion that a character’s expression/glance/position could be removed from it’s original context and made to mean something else by how it was cut and paired with characters from other covers.” – Thomas Allen
Last year Allen was asked to create series of positive and uplifting photographs based on notable children’s books for The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Tower of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He chose Stuart Little and The Phantom Tollbooth. From Allen’s blog, where he has generously shared the fascinating creative process as well as the dedicated images: “Basing artwork on children’s literature is part of The Johns Hopkins Books + Healing initiative and sings of their committed relationship with the national REACH OUT AND READ program.”
Allen has moved on from altered books as subject but writes, “I am, and will always be, an artist who builds/fashions/fabricates/constructs things for the camera. For me, the act of making something to photograph is just as important (if not more important) than making the photograph.”
In his email giving me permission to use his images for this post, Thomas Allen included this delightful conversation with his daughter:
Miren: “Daddy. Grow up!”
Me: “Grow up? If I do that then I’ll have to stop being funny. Which would you rather have—funny daddy or boring daddy?Miren: (Thinks for a moment) “Funny.”