Tatum Shaw’s eerie photography is inspired by nostalgia

With a handful of editorial and personal projects under his belt, Tatum uses his conceptual muscles to create images that feel both real and imaginary

Photographer Tatum Shaw describes his work as having an “overall off-ness”. Imagery that looks like a fever dream through facial expressions, or surreal light quality is his sweet spot. “I don’t mean it to sound like I go out of my way to make nightmares. A lot of my work is inspired by my own nostalgia or anxiety or a mix of both,” he tells CR. “Or sometimes I just think something is funny, and that’s enough too. My favourite photos are a mix of spontaneous and staged, where I create the artificial environment of a shoot, but then allow for real moments to enter that I didn’t plan.” 

Shaw’s earliest inspirations come from the music videos he grew up with in the 80s and 90s, where he cites iconic images from the likes of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Herb Ritts and Mark Romanek. “Mark’s videos, and the images he made with people like Harris Savides, had a huge impact on me as a kid. And of course he incorporated a lot of photography references in his work that I wasn’t aware of at the time,” Shaw explains. “I wrote to him in portfolio school and he was nice enough to write back. That was the first time I was like ‘Oh! These are real people. This world isn’t that far away’.”

All images: Tatum Shaw

Splitting his time between Portland and Atlanta, Shaw’s interest in photography was sparked at advertising school in an art direction class. “We were learning about layout composition and it struck me that composition could be applied to the crappy digital snapshots I had been taking for fun,” he remembers. “It sort of mutated from there as my interest grew and I became exposed to more and more photographers.” 

Alongside his photography, Shaw also works as a copywriter in the ad world and initially making photos gave him freedom from the creative limitations the ad campaigns he was working on for big brands imposed upon him. “It was more documenting things I saw in an interesting way. But lately, I’ve been using the conceptual muscles acquired from my job as an ad creative, and incorporating those into my photography to think up new images and then make them real,” he explains. “The two worlds seem to be merging. I don’t know why it took so long for me to make that leap, but I’m really enjoying it.”

Balancing both keeps Shaw from getting burned out from the other and has allowed him to have images published in Apartamento, Bloomberg Businessweek, American Chordata and Time Magazine. “It’s always nice to have an excuse to photograph someone. I’m pretty shy about asking people to take their photo otherwise,” he says of the opportunities he’s had so far. “I’m also surprised by a lot of the creative freedom granted in the few editorial assignments I’ve been given. Everyone seems pretty hands off.”

While Shaw has the creative side down, he feels he’s not much of a technical person. “Luckily, my husband is and helps me out with some of the more math-y part of photography, Photoshop and book design,” he says. The other challenges for Shaw have been getting his work seen. “Instagram feels more and more like QVC, and photography seems to be getting put on the back burner of whatever is going on with their algorithm,” he notes. “And then to get work published is another feat. I lucked out on Plusgood! with a publisher seeing an Instagram story. I don’t know how I’ll get my new project made into a book or shown in the physical world.”

Plusgood! is Shaw’s first monograph, and was published by Aint-Bad last year. “[The book] is inspired by my earliest memories of happiness at my Nana’s pool. It’s such a potentially corny notion to present, so I wanted to make sure it didn’t come off as Pollyanna. So instead I made it into this sort of organised presentation of a kitchen sink approach,” the photographer explains.

“I wanted it to come at you the way memories do, so sometimes it’s straightforward and clear, and other times it’s confused and nonsensical. Still other times it’s sinister or anxious. The attempt is to sell that feeling in different ways. That’s why there’s a mix of portraits, still life, old family photos, and things that are somewhere between a photo and a manipulated advertisement. So I could express the idea to the viewer in ways that feel surprising.” 

The title of the project is taken from George Orwell’s 1984 and the Newspeak language, which felt apt to Shaw as he was working on the images during the Trump era. “It jumped out as a perfectly dumb way to express the idea. It’s happy, but it’s also fucked up,” he reflects. 

Shaw creates images that often feel like stills from a movie of someone else’s dreams, and he has a canny ability to photograph something mundane like a child holding a football or a line of fruits and turn it into something beautiful yet unnerving. “It’s so tough to answer this without sounding like a dweeb. I guess I hope [my images] are a brief escape or a perspective they can relate to,” he says.