MSW Interviews Alton Thompson: Global Educator, Musician, and Photographer

MSW: Today, I am proud to bring you MSW’s latest interview with Mr. Alton Thompson. When the opportunity to meet Alton Thompson presented itself a few weeks ago, I was eager to learn everything I could about this a global educator, fine art photographer, conductor, and musician. Not only is Alton suave and cultured, his enthusiasm and love for the arts becomes apparent within minutes of meeting him.

If you’re interested in meeting Alton and viewing his art work in a formal setting, you’re in luck. Alton will be at the Taipei Artist’s Inaugural Members Show at the Taipei’s Mayor Salon. The exhibit starts on  February 9, 2010 and ends on February 27, 2010.

Location:
46 Xuzhou Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei 100

Hours:
Daily 11:00am to 6:00pm

Event details are here.

MSW: Hi, Alton. Thank you for being here today.

AT: Hi, Carrie. It’s an honour.

MSW: When did you move to Taiwan and why?

AT: I visited Taiwan while on holiday in the summer of 2004. I fell in love with the place at once. Anyone who lives here can guess most of the reasons—natural beauty, fascinating cultures, welcoming people. I also liked the way musicians are trained here. I’m a native of Florida, so the climate was a plus. Some Taiwanese colleagues told me about some universities here that were looking for faculty. I was interested, so they helped arrange a few interviews. I was offered a position. I left my university job in Michigan and moved here.

MSW: You’re an educator, a musician, and a photographer. Wearing all of these hats must keep you quite busy. Where do you find inspiration and how do you mesh all of your interests together?

AT: Well, I’m still figuring out the meshing part. But there’s nothing unusual about working in different art forms. A long time age I stopped being surprised at the ability of a musician, for example, to draw or dance or act. Creative people tend to be creative in many ways. We could take your own career as Exhibit A here, couldn’t we? You sing, you write, you make visual art.

Art forms aren’t segregated by nature. For practical reasons we often treat them that way. But clay, paint, voice, film, JPG files—we all know in our bones that these are just routes that creative energy can take. We rightly call them media. They operate in the middle, between the source of art and the audience. The source of art is not a form. It finds one.

Artists tend to be artists first. We tend to be musicians, photographers, sculptors and poets second.

MSW: Music and photography. What strikes you as particularly similar? Particularly different?

AT: I’m finding that, regardless of the medium, challenges are similar. Whether you’re expressing yourself through a camera or a clarinet or clay or actors, your medium gives you thrilling potential and maddening limitations. And you’re expected to show something meaningful, something true, in the way you shape your material. It’s a paradox: people expect artists to tell the truth by artificial means. So you have this challenge of acquiring technique, of learning the rules so you can break them. The world we create also requires a frame of some kind. It might be a picture frame or a stage curtain, a moment of silence or the margin of a page, but there’s always a need to recognize that place where everyday life ends and the created world begins. Artists like to challenge this frame and obscure it in many ways, but it is never completely absent. Of course, we also owe our audience clues as to how our created world works. Once they give themselves to it, they want to be able to find their way around in it. They aren’t asking to be shown what’s behind every door, but they do like to have a few keys.

Differences? Other than the obvious distinction to be made between aural and visual information, I don’t see many differences. As a teen I would have told you that one reason I was pursuing music rather than visual art as my livelihood was because music moves while still images remain frozen. But that’s not quite right. Sure, music, like dance and drama, depend on our linear experience of time. But time plays a role in visual art, too. Statues don’t move, but viewers do. Eyes do.

MSW: You recently put music and visual together in your Taiwan Mussorgsky Project. How does that work?

AT: Most of your readers are likely familiar with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s a suite, composed in the nineteenth century for piano originally. Each movement depicts a work in an art exhibit. There’s also a theme that represents the viewer walking from picture to picture.

The piece is popular all over the globe, as you know. Countless versions have been made for orchestra, wind ensemble, synthesizer, rock band, you name it. I thought it would be interesting to test that universality a bit. I made a series of 400 photographs that are projected as a slideshow during a live performance of the music. The exhibit follows the music turn by turn. In the process it interprets this very Russian, very nineteenth-century music through visual images of modern Taiwan.

Mussorgsky’s viewer strolling through the art gallery becomes, in the images, a sightseer making a walking tour of Taiwan with a camera. The ‘pictures’ are what she sees of the island through her lens.

sightseer with camera

The Sightseer  ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦

AT: Trying to explain this idea was difficult in the beginning. I didn’t have any pictures to show. Musicians were wary of messing with a masterpiece and models thought it was weird to have photo shoots at a mausoleum. It didn’t take off until conductor Apo Hsu introduced me to the perfect model for the part: Mandy Weng (Weng Chun Yuin). Ms. Weng is a professional musicologist with a taste for dynamic, tormented, big-canvas composers. She understood right away what I was up to. We brought the score along with us on shoots and discussed the musical turns being taken as viewers see each shot.

the hut on bird's legs (baba yaga)

In the House of Baba Yaga

island world

Island World     ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦

AT: Last year conductor Apo Hsu exhibited the Taiwan Mussorgsky Project in three concerts: two in National Concert Hall, one in Taichung. On April 10 of this year she will perform excerpts of it again at the National Palace Museum. I’m getting the photos ready for that.

MSW: When did you first become interested in photography?

AT: Visual art has interested me for as long as I’ve been looking at the world. When I was a child a drawing of mine won a Florida newspaper contest. That gave me my fifteen minutes of fame on the playground. As an adult I’ve spent many rewarding hours in art galleries. Baltimore had many treasures in easy reach—the BMA, the Walters, the Visionary Art Museum. That last one by the way, is one weird place. It’s like nothing else. An hour down the road is DC with the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, Corcoran and all that. Philly and New York lie a short distance up I-95 with all those museums as well. I saw them all.

I turned serious attention to photography as I finished grad school. It was something I had always wanted to do that had waited its turn. My colleagues always needed portraits for use in publicity, and as a musician I knew what they needed. I also felt I had something of my own to say in the medium.

encounter

Encounter ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦  2000

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA

AT: Around the same time a close friend of mine, Hope, was diagnosed with breast cancer. That set time on fire. You feel every moment going up in flames. You kick yourself for all the pictures you could have been making, but didn’t.

Photographs offer a way to catch and keep something, of course. I soon learned that, for someone whose outdoor movement was restricted, my photography could also provide a window. I could be Hope’s eyes on the world.

climb

Climb ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦  1999

Baltimore, Maryland USA

boy selling pumpkins

Boy Selling Pumpkins ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦  1998

Boalsburg, Pennsylvania USA

sky pillars

Sky Pillars ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦   2000

New York City, New York USA

AT: I learned that photography is a form of contemplation. It pulls you out of the worries and spilkus that so easily clutter our minds and places you in the moment. Notice what the light is doing. Notice that colour, that texture. Notice.

Hope died after a five-year fight with the disease. She was a healthier person on the day she died than most people will ever be their entire lives. Sounds strange to say that, I know. But it’s true.

Since then I’ve studied photography informally with Brian Parmeter, a professional photographer in Michigan. I made the transition to digital when I moved to Taiwan. Even today, though, I often get the feeling that I’m someone’s eyes on the world. It’s as if I’m sending dispatches.

grail

Grail ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦   2007

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

MSW: Which genres interest you most?

AT: Subjects interest me. People interest me, so I’ll always want to make portraits and collaborate with models. Narratives interest me. Taiwan fascinates me, absolutely. Any subject that fascinates a photographer is the best place to begin exploring.

Of course, you can mine any vein to the point where it’s time to try something new. Henrietta Shore once told Edward Weston that he needed to take a break from nudes. His most recent pictures, she said, were just nudes. “You are getting used to them. The subject no longer interests you.”

He agreed. If one can tire of looking at beautiful naked people, one can tire of anything.

I think more of subjects. Not about genres so much. To the extent that genres are sets of conventions. I’m interested in playing with the conventions. Learn it, then turn it inside-out. I enjoy Ang Lee’s approach to this in his films. He stars with a genre so familiar that we know it by the numbers: martial arts, cowboy Western, coming-of-age comedy, espionage. He then wrings so much story out of his characters that by the end of the film anything can happen and genre is irrelevant.

I think often about the way we view photos now. We look at them on computer screens. Everyone knows the drawbacks. You work to get the color and contrast exactly right, upload your photo, then cringe the instant you see how it looks on another monitor. Logos, ads and comments gather around the image like ants at a picnic. But I’m intrigued by that omnipresent glass screen. I like to play of the tyranny of that thing.

abundance

Abundance

counterpoint

Counterpoint ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦    2007

Taipei, Taiwan 台灣 台北

AT: I get concerned when new photographers feel a lot of urgency about genres, about deciding ‘what kind of photographer’ they are. Why limit yourself right out of the gate? Yet how often we see it: people buy their first camera that isn’t disposable and rush onto Flickr to post a manifesto. ‘I believe this! I reject that! I always do this! I never do that!’ Only yesterday they learned how to take off the lens cap, and already they decide what they will never do.

Artists thrive on ambiguity, experience, open borders. They are not terribly interested in limits, other than to test them.

MSW: How would you say that your photography has changed and grown since moving to Taiwan?

AT: That’s hard to say right now. I keep learning. I do more playful things here. And I notice I don’t make black-and-white images as often as I once did. Some of that has to do with the strengths of Taiwan as a locale. Living on a tropical island and shooting B&W—it’s a bit like going to a seafood restaurant and ordering steak, isn’t it? You can do it. But you would need a good reason.

colocasia

Colocasia   ©Alton Thompson 唐博敦 2009

Taipei County, Taiwan  台灣  新北市 三峽

MSW: Who are some of your favourite visual artists?

AT: For photography, the usual suspects. I’ve always enjoyed Edward Weston. You never forget that powerful nude image of Charis Wilson.

I like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, the portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer Miru Kim, and sculptor Ariel Moscovici.

In painting, anything by Marc Chagall. The surrealism of Rousseau. Anything by Matisse. One of my favourite paintings is Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

As a photographer I’m enthralled with the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. Powerful images, like that grieving scene at the end of Veronique. It interests me that he began as a documentary filmmaker. As he explored human nature ever more deeply he found he needed to work with actors—fearless actors. But he kept shooting the stories like documentaries. Of course, Ingmar Bergman is another film director who gives you one unforgettable image after another. We live in exciting times for films here in Taiwan. I do enjoy the work of the directors this island produces. I like the way Ang Lee always goes, in his subjects, where the ambiguity is. And you get these gems of images. As in Eat Drink Man Woman, when you see the chef and his friend joking with each other in a dark hallway outside the kitchen.

Sculpture—well, so many . Anything by Constantin Brâncuşi. The first time I saw Taipei 101 I was struck by its resemblance to Endless Column.

Rodin, of course. In Baltimore I was surrounded, indoor and outdoor, by compelling sculpture. Like many Peabody students, I bonded with the Naiad by Alice Turnbull. I like Alberto Giacometti . On the subject of Taipei 101, I find much to enjoy in the work of Ariel Moscovici. He’s the sculptor of Between Earth and Sky, that circle of rose-coloured stones you see at Taipei 101.

I enjoy looking at very ancient art, and timeless art. Medieval art, Asian temple art. Mythic themes, the kinds of theme Brâncuşi and Moscovici carry forward. I’ve also interested in popular forms and the way they eventually inspire great art. Many great opera characters in Mozart or Verdi, for example, originated as puppet show characters crowds encountered at town fairs. I wonder what ballets and great stories will emerge from the Pili puppet shows, manga characters, and Second Life fantasies that surround us now.

I saw an impressive treatment of the opening act of Carmen once by Opera Memphis. Everything–the fort, the uniforms, the factory, the women’s gowns–was beige, khaki and brown. It was a monochrome scene. Then came the moment when Carmen slyly produced a rose from the folds of her dress—and that red just leaped off the stage.

Wow. If we get into stage works, this conversation could go a long time! Maybe it’s best to draw a line here.

MSW: Do you have any projects in the works right now?

AT: I haven’t settled yet on a new big project, but I want to make more series. I am collaborating with models who have a real presence, and that in itself suggests projects. I am setting up a studio later this year. I plan make portraits, especially images of performing artists. I’d like to make some figures studies, and I’m interested in documenting art works. It’s not easy for sculptors, for example, to get good photographs of their work. That’s an area where I think I can help. Still, I will always want to shoot outdoors and use natural light. Taiwan itself is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

MSW: Do you have a favorite photograph?

AT: Thanks for asking that, Carrie. I just had a wonderful mental image of works by Cartier-Bresson and Weston, flipping past like the ‘album view’ on a music player!

As it happens, my favourite photograph is the work of an amateur photographer. And it’s a sunset photo at that!

In November 1969 the astronauts of Apollo 12 were returning from the moon in their ship, Yankee Clipper. They incidentally became the first people to witness an eclipse of the sun by the earth. This is the last moment before the sun slipped behind earth’s shadow.

Image courtesy of NASA

Isn’t that sublime?

Every place we’ve ever travelled, every being we’ve ever met, is contained in that round shadow. It’s all there. And you can cover it with your hand.

MSW: Any thoughts for photographers starting out?

AT: Only some advice I can pass along. We’re all starting out.

Shortly after Michelangelo died, his apprentice went into the studio to gather the artist’s personal effects. The apprentice found a note in the desk, in Michelangelo’s handwriting. The note was addressed to him.

It said, “Draw, Antonio. Draw, Antonio. Draw, and do not waste time.”

Details:

13 thoughts on “MSW Interviews Alton Thompson: Global Educator, Musician, and Photographer

  1. Steve

    Alton was one of the first photographers I encountered on Flickr and he’s still responsible for some of my favourite images of Taiwan. He is a real inspiration. Thanks for grabbing him for an interview.

    Reply
  2. JoAnna

    I love your interviewing series, Carrie. It’s refreshing to see you reach out to artists in all genres, not just travel writers like we see on so many other travel blogs.

    I think of all the photos you posted for Alton’s interview, “Grail” is my favorite one. It looks like the world is reflected in that glass.

    Reply
  3. Trisha Miller

    Great interview! And amazing choice of photos – they clearly demonstrate that Alton has the ‘eye’. People can study great photographers and practice techniques and achieve a unique style, even amass an impressive portfolio…..but the ‘eye’ is something that you’re born with, or not. I don’t think it’s something one can learn.

    I think it’s very interesting that Alton’s favorite photo is one from NASA. They have some amazing images, some made even more impressive by the fact that they’re taken by a computer, not a person. What they lack in emotional depth they make up for by offering a mind-boggling scale and scope, making our universe seem almost tangible. It seems a very fitting choice for an educator, and one who appreciates visual art so deeply.
    .-= Trisha Miller´s last blog ..How To Manage Your Blog While Traveling =-.

    Reply
  4. Jason of Two Backpackers

    Carrie, excellent interview! This is the first one I have read of your series and I must say I am impressed. As an amateur photographer, it’s encouraging to hear that most importantly it just takes practice. Shoot, shoot, shoot and eventually your eye will learn. I always look at others’ photos and think, “how will I ever find or take a picture like that?” It just takes time and lots of pictures.
    .-= Jason of Two Backpackers´s last blog ..Guatemala Independence Day =-.

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Jason,
      Absolutely. I think that is what is so exciting about the whole process of creating. I learn from every photo I take. I’m sure most photographers will agree with your statement. I’m really glad you like this series. It is, by far, my favorite series on MSW.

      Reply
  5. Chris

    Yeah, alton is a wonderful man, that’s for sure! Thanks for posting the interview. Hey, and that photograph of the glass, with the sky and clouds in it is unreal. Very advanced, no? So beautiful! Thanks for sharing the interview with us.
    .-= Chris´s last blog ..Discount Tire Stores =-.

    Reply
  6. Alton

    I’m enjoying the comments. I’m delighted to learn readers found the discussion worth reading long enough to get to the comments section! Thanks, everyone, for sharing. Thanks to Carrie for providing us with this forum and sparking the conversation.

    I admit to a little ambivalence about the word ‘educator.’ Teaching is a glorious endeavour but I find that word conjures different images for different people. Some think of an inspiring guide and mentor, others of a policy wonk who creates bullet lists and uses words like ‘transition’ and ‘partner’ as verbs. So I prefer to sidestep, if I may, any trend toward typecasting in that direction. It puts things into clearer focus to say that I am, by temperament, an artist, and by training and specialisation an orchestra conductor. My interests in visual art, academia and other pursuits grow from this centre.

    Our subject of interest here, of course, is photography in world travel. It’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it? We can go anywhere once we dive in. Thanks to advances in technology in the recent years, more people than ever are taking the plunge.

    Reply
  7. Alton

    Hi, everyone. Thanks again for your comments. I appreciate your thoughts and your taking the time to share them. You’ve given me a lot ponder.

    Hi, Jason. Thanks for visiting. I’m confess to some curiousity about your handle. Please pardon me if you addressed this mystery elsewhere on the Net and I missed it. Two backpackers?

    JoAnna and Trisha: you caught me out. ‘Worlds’ large and small are a running motif with me. One idea the Mussorgsky project plays with is the resemblance between an island and a planet. Each is a kind of oasis, isn’t it?

    Steve: it’s good to ‘see’ you here. Aren’t you a Flickr Old School kid, like me? It would be fun to discuss Flickr experiences one day over at (plug coming up for another Carrie project) the Taiwan Photographers web site.

    Carrie: welcome back. Many thanks again for the experience.
    .-= Alton´s last blog ..Bio Portraits =-.

    Reply
  8. Alton

    Chris: I’m honoured by your comment. Still, I can’t lay claim to any ‘advanced’ technique by the image. That’s just how the glass looked. My task as a photographer was to nonscrew up!

    There are some things human beings will always have feelings about. Cup, water, sky… world, moon, sun… child, woman, man. Many things. We are symbol-making creatures, aren’t we?
    .-= Alton´s last blog ..Bio Portraits =-.

    Reply
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