Few artists are as charismatic, friendly and cutting edge as Preston Thomas. He’s certainly a man of many talents. So many in fact, that his October is completely booked. This weekend features his photographic series Through My Lens, A Black Girl’s Magic at the Beverly Art Walk, next week he will be giving a lecture at the DuSable Museum entitled Dance Encounters Architecture for the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the week after that, The Frame Shop in Bridgeport is proud to host Wanderlust and Dreamland, Tripping Through La Habana, a series of photographs shot by Preston during his past travels to Cuba. Even though he’s running on only a few hours of sleep, we were able to catch up with him for a few minutes to talk about photography, his career and his thoughts on what he calls a “complicated” relationship with Cuba.
Where did you grow up? When did you first pick up a camera and start shooting?
Preston: Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. My older sister briefly dated a guy who was a photographer of sorts, and for some reason he gave her one of his cameras – a Minolta XG. She had no interest in photography and ultimately, no interest in him. She kept the camera and finally gave it to me. I think I was in my early 20s.
I remember going to the library and taking out a couple of books, one on general photography and the other about Ansel Adams. I began playing around with long exposures almost immediately. One day I was out making photographs of the “L” train. A woman ran past me and knocked the camera tripod to the ground. The damage was pretty extensive and getting repaired just wasn’t worth it. I think I was traumatized… I didn’t buy another camera for about 3 or 4 years.
Why photography and not another form of art? What draws you to this medium?
Preston: I’m also a musician and something of a burgeoning writer. I’m driven to create. I simply have to do it, sometimes there’s nothing else. Today we’re talking about what I do with my cameras, but I could easily discuss my music and my instruments of choice.
How much of your personal life and self is represented in your work?
Preston: Well, I believe that your personal life colors your perspective, it doesn’t matter how objective you think you are. And perspective is everything. I’m all up in my work… I make the decision about what to capture and when and how. All of my lenses are manual, most from the 70s and 80s, so I’m controlling everything about the shot, as I believe any camera only plays second fiddle to the lens.
At present, I shoot Pentax with K Series glass (film and digital), and a Leica M9 with Zeiss glass. I share this because the camera I grab when I leave the house has everything to do with the mood I’m in. My Pentax is like sketching with charcoal, and the Leica is paintbrushes… that’s the best way I can describe it.
Why Cuba? How did you end up there?
Preston: I lost my Mother in 2014, it was painful… still is. A friend of mine who’d lost his wife the previous year suggested we get out of town. Way out of town, like to Cuba. It had been a favorite escape of his since he lived in Poland. I agreed and a month later I was standing in the Atlantic under a night sky crammed with stars just off the shore in Varadero, Cuba. It was already unreal. After a few days there, we hired a driver and rode into Havana in the back of a ’56 Belair convertible. The unreal became surreal.
What are your thoughts on the current situation and resurfacing of old tension between the US and Cuba? How does your personal contact with the region change or inform your perspective?
Preston: Ok, so this is a real essay question. I sum it up on my website with “it’s complicated”. The role the US played back in the 50s by introducing Institutional Racism and Classism is still fresh in the minds of older Cubanos. They remember when Castro was a hero of the revolution and then watched their beloved country morph into a military dictatorship. Unlike China, Cuba is a poor Communist society. China benefited from the export of cheap Human labor, Cuba never had that. The Trade Embargo – being unable to do business with the US – would deal a decisive blow to any country’s economy. For Cuba, it was devastating.
Between the two trips, I’ve spent about a month there. I’ve made friends and had meaty conversations with many others. Almost every person I met thought I was Cubano, when they discovered I was Americano, they wanted to talk about everything under the sun. I’ve was welcomed into their homes to break bread, share a bottle of Rum or experience killer Mojitos.
I spent a few hours with a gentleman whose body shop restores many of the classic vehicles in Havana. He pointed out that if he were in the states, he could order parts and get them in about a week. In Cuba, however, it could take over a month and he would easily pay for the part three or four times. So he’s figured out how to make those parts himself. He’s hired artists, sculptors specifically, to use their skills to hammer out some of the parts from sheet metal. Something from nothing.
What or who inspires you most?
Preston: Photographically? Gordon Parks, Avedon, Basquiat (his approach to his art), old school hardcore photojournalists and the film Through a Lens, Darkly which forced me to shoot less and with greater intent. Anyone or anyplace can become my muse. Something speaks to me and I suddenly see whatever is before me in a grid. I see the photograph.
Where else would you like to shoot? Or who else would you like to shoot?
Wanderlust and Dreamland, Tripping Through La Habana will be shown at The Frame Shop Gallery .
20.October.2017 | 7pm | 3520 S Morgan, Unit LD, Chicago, IL 60609