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As a photographer, Thomas Cummins is somewhat of a night owl. Since 2006, the San Antonio native has been exhibiting photographs shot mostly during evening hours. Presented in the format of transparencies mounted over light boxes, Cummins’ photographic works reveal his strong interest in exploring the way things appear in darkness, an approach that reflects his fondness for horror movies and the aesthetics of film noir.
Initially intending to study architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, Cummins found himself more attracted to drawing and printmaking courses, and ended up earning his BA and BFA degrees in studio art. Although he took only one photo course at UT Austin (in how to use Photoshop), he found out that the art department lent out digital cameras to students on weekends, so he started taking pictures. Once hooked on his newfound creative outlet, Cummins went on to study photography at the Maine College of Art, where he earned his MFA in 2005.
Cummins’ earliest photographic works, many of which are self portraits, were shot while he was in graduate school and exhibited at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in 2006, following the artist’s return to San Antonio. In several works from this group, Cummins shows himself interacting with various forms of architecture. In “Spectator,” he is seated in the foreground of a large empty auditorium with only a fragment of his head visible and his hand on his forehead in a pose of concentrated reflection. In “Alleyway,” he stands between two buildings in a barren alley, also lost in thought as he stares at a light meter held in his hand. In “8,” he is shown twice, standing outside the entrance to a private residence, and inside the building on the second floor, approaching a brightly lit room.
Like Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist who pioneered the medium of light box photography in the ’70s, Cummins was drawn to the light box mode after noticing how effective the medium is in bringing a cinematic quality to commercial advertisements at bus stops and in movie theater foyers. To achieve a dual presence in “8,” he employed a practice that Wall had also used in early works, superimposing two transparencies within a single light box. Exhibiting in a light box also intensifies the light that Cummins captures in his compositions, which in the self portraits is more dominant than his obscured facial features. In “Alleyway,” the blue light of street lamps in the distance suggests narrative content by lending ominous overtones of impending danger, while the white light of the room about to be entered in “8” becomes an effective metaphor for the unknown. “8,” in fact, is particularly masterful in the way it refers to the cycle of birth, life, and death.
In the majority of Cummins’ photographic works, people are intentionally absent so that he can imply the human presence simply by focusing on electrically charged light. In responding to “Latch,” we may begin thinking about what is taking place in the room at the right, or who might be hiding in the darker room at left. Once again, a distant bright light — seen through the slits between vertical sections of shutters — evokes connotations of what may lie beyond normal consciousness.
In 2007, Cummins began photographing buildings in the Monte Vista neighborhood where he lived as a child. He also started using a panoramic camera to create more expansive documentation of a site and more dynamic compositions that are proportioned like the screens used in movie theaters and flat panel televisions. Electrical lighting continues to be a primary focus in “Maryland Apartments at 329 W. Huisache Avenue,” which directs our attention to the differences between interior and exterior lighting, with the white light inside the apartments representing the human presence, and the green light of street lamps (produced from mercury vapors) highlighting the exterior grounds. Since the time that Cummins took the picture, colored vapor lighting has been superseded by white LED lighting, so “Maryland Apartments” has also become something of a period piece that documents the last vestiges of a dying technology.
For his subjects, Cummins tends to gravitate towards buildings with which he has some personal connection, and he begins each project much like an archeologist seeking to discover something about a site’s history. This approach is most evident in a sequence of photos that he took of the abandoned Big Tex Grain Company building, which, like the neighboring Blue Star Silos where Cummins maintained a studio at the time, was condemned a few years ago due to asbestos exposure. Uncharacteristically, the artist’s “Blue Star Granary Flags (Before)” was photographed during daylight, because, with no electricity to illuminate it, the building was lost to total darkness at night. Rather than emanate from electrical lighting, color in this work is to be found in a series of hanging red banners which, along with a few old couches, appear like discarded remnants from the past. A year later, as the building was being torn apart, Cummins was finally able to photograph it at nighttime, with the roof removed and nearby street lamps sending light into sections of the interior. In comparing the two versions, we become witnesses to evidence of a changing urban environment at a transitional moment that has led to the development of condominiums on the site. From an interpretive perspective, we can imagine two entirely different types of narratives taking place, as the strongly contrasting settings convey strikingly dissimilar temperaments.
One of the benefits to artists working in San Antonio is that there are career development opportunities available such as the travel grant that Cummins received from Artpace, our city’s nationally recognized laboratory for artists-in-residence and special exhibitions. With such assistance, Cummins traveled to Copenhagen in 2009 to retrace the footsteps of the 19th-century existentialist philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who was the subject of the artist’s master’s thesis. Interested in Kierkegaard’s experiences at different phases of his life, Cummins researched and then visited areas where his subject spent time as a child and as an adult. One of the buildings seen in the distance in “Amagertorv.” “Copenhagen, Denmark” is the location where Kierkegaard hung out with his teachers when he was a student, while the interior corridors of a shopping center in “Jorck’s Passage.” “Copenhagen, Denmark” are situated right next door to the philosopher’s last home. When dramatically backlit in their light boxes, these images become compelling ghost stories, in the sense that the patterns of light caught by Cummins’ camera suggest the continuing presence of Kierkegaard’s spirit.
Much of Cummins’ recent efforts have centered on outdoor spaces in San Antonio that have held a high level of importance for him in both childhood and adulthood. One such location is the backyard behind Sala Diaz, an experimental exhibition venue where Cummins is currently exhibiting, and Casa Chuck, the former home of the late Chuck Ramirez, a conceptual artist who unearthed new meanings in pop culture artifacts with the same passion that Cummins does with architecture and surrounding landscape. A social catalyst whose energetic personality was a driving force behind the many festive gatherings held in his backyard, Ramirez died tragically in late 2010 following a bicycle accident around the corner from his home. To celebrate the life of Ramirez shortly after his demise, Cummins took several images of the legendary backyard, in which the Fiesta-like magenta lighting and Ramirez’s famed “long table” for community dining function as emblematic references to the warm conviviality of San Antonio’s artist community, and the enduring spirit of Ramirez.
Cummins’ memories of childhood include moments of innocent wonder experienced during frequent visits to Brackenridge Park. In his photographs of the area, which were taken at around three in the morning, he has transformed the park’s greenery into an idyllic neverland that we enter in the foreground from a darkly lit bridge that directs us to a world of enchantment, as suggested by the dreamy ethereality of scattered blue lighting. Could the blue light burst traveling along the bridge’s railing even be Tinker Bell?
Discerning eyes will discover similar light bursts in Cummins’ newest body of work. On view at Sala Diaz through Oct. 18, the series looks back upon the sites where Cummins attended kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. In “Kindergarten,” a tiny spec of light in the shape of a starburst emerges from a distant street lamp over the empty patch of land that once housed the Jefferson Methodist School, which was adjacent to the church that is still standing. This spark of light seems a perfect symbol for the magic that the artist felt about the place from his childhood perspective. Equally significant is the tree in the foreground. Cummins mother was a teacher at the kindergarten and one of his most heartfelt recollections is of a communal tree planting in memory of one of his mother’s young students.
In “Elementary,” the concentration of light is on the building itself. Viewed from a distance using a wide angle lens, St. Luke’s Episcopal School would be hidden behind lush tree foliage were it not for the golden light in which it is bathed. As in other examples, our eyes are drawn into Cummins’ pictorial representation of memory by a single starburst of light, one that imbues the imagery with qualities of warmth, security, and divinity that can be the cornerstones of a fortunate child’s innocent universe.
*Top image: “Brackenridge Park Bridge,” 2011, photographic transparency in backlit light box, 36 x 60 in. Courtesy image.