Beautiful Terrible Things: The Work of Richard Tuschman

Baldwin Photographic Gallery: August 22 – September 28

By: Daniel Tidwell

In the moody, contemplative, and visually ravishing work of Richard Tuschman, the real world melds with digitally created realms, resulting in seamless images portraying the isolation and loneliness of modern life. A self-taught model maker, Tuschman painstakingly crafts miniature sets, photographs them, and then digitally inserts real models into the images to act out his dark, visual dramas.

“The idea of digitally marrying dioramas and live models evolved quite organically over many years of working in both the fine art and commercial spheres,” says Tuschman. “It is really a product of my temperament, sensibility, and acquired skills.” Building these evocative dioramas initially evolved out of Tuschman’s love for the work of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, along with ready access to materials from his day job at an architectural supply store.

Pink Bedroom (Family)

Through graphic design work, Tuschman learned Photoshop and eventually fell in love with the infinite possibilities of the digital medium. “I had always loved working with photographic images, but Photoshop felt much more intuitive to me than the darkroom,” says the artist. “I dove into it and developed a style that digitally married painting, assemblage, and personal photographs, launching a twenty-plus-year freelance career in commercial photo-illustration.”

The demands of the commercial world eventually felt too confining for Tuschman, and so he began to focus more on his own work. “As much as I love what is possible in photography and Photoshop, I also still love making things with my hands,” says Tuschman. “I had also grown accustomed to working by myself on a relatively small scale. Eventually all of this came together in the technique I am using now of compositing real-life models and miniature dioramas.”

As a former painter, Tuschman strives to imbue his images with a painterly quality. “I love the physical presence of paintings, but for me, as medium, photography is unsurpassed at describing and emphasizing the visual richness of our physical world, its poetry and its subtlety. I think this is especially true where the image is expressively dependent on very delicate shadings of light.”

Pink Bedroom (Odalisque)

Subtle, expressive light is key to the tone and impact of Hopper Meditations, a recent project inspired by the work of painter Edward Hopper. “I knew I wanted to create a series of open-ended, staged narrative photographs about human relationships,” says Tuschman. “I had always been attracted to Hopper’s paintings for their use of light, humble settings, and psychological resonance.” The resulting works are stunning, with rich coloration giving way to an undercurrent of foreboding and isolation conveyed through Tuschman’s adept portrayals of the characters in each photo. Even when others are in the room, the protagonists in the photos feel very alone.

Pink Bedroom (Family) from the series is one of the artist’s favorite works. “In the foreground, a woman lies on an unmade bed reading a magazine. Her male partner stands a few feet away staring out the window, and a small girl is in the background walking away into the next room. Including the little girl was almost an afterthought, but I was fascinated how her addition changed the whole emotional dynamic, transforming the couple into a family.”

Another recent project, Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz, portrays a Jewish family living in the neighborhood of Kazimierz in Krakow, Poland during 1930. The images in this series are brooding and dark—evoking a palpable sense of the impending Holocaust. “Death, the fraying of family bonds, and feelings of grief haunt many of the images,” according to Tuschman, “but these are also punctuated by moments of love, longing, and tenderness.

“The idea came to me when I visited Krakow while I was working on the Hopper series,” Tuschman says. “My wife is from there, and my family’s roots are from the area. So in many ways it felt more personal to me than the Hopper series. I am now working on a series about my childhood in the 1960s, for which I am recreating in miniature parts of my childhood home. In a sense, each project has become increasingly personal.”

Not surprisingly, Tuschman’s influences include old masters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Titian, as well as modern painters such as de Chirico, Morandi, and Hopper. He also cites photographers, including Edward Steichen, Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Gregory Crewdson, Paolo Ventura, and Hellen van Meene as influences.

Tuschman admits that his work has a palpable darkness, and he cites a quote from singer Tom Waits that in some ways encapsulates his approach to image creation: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” Ultimately, Tuschman is committed to creating an affecting connection with the viewer. “I am trying to make images that are beautiful, but also carry some emotional weight. The challenge for me is to balance the two properly in order to avoid slipping into sentimentality.” 

Richard Tuschman is exhibiting at Baldwin Photographic Gallery, Middle Tennessee State University, August 22 through September 28. An artist lecture is scheduled for September 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Bragg College of Media and Entertainment, Room 103. A reception will follow in the Gallery. Parking is available in the parking lots behind the Bragg Building beginning 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.baldwinphotogallery.com. See more of Tuschman’s work at www.richardtuschman.com.

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