Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen, 1920-1991), had a long and international career. Today he’s primarily known as a creator of drawings, his principal medium being graphite, and few are aware that he was also an active and multifaceted photographer.
This exhibition is the first one to focus on Tom as a photographer, simultaneously emphasizing his artistic process. Until the early 1950s, Tom drew without photographic reference – after that, he utilized either pictures taken by himself, ones he’d found, or had been given. Some of the images he discovered in contemporary – and by our standards modest – “bodybuilding” magazines, and from this inspiration he drew or painted more explicit works. The world Tom partly lived in, and partly helped to create through his art, was based in fantasy and fetish, including uniforms and leather. Images of these scenes were not readily accessible, so he was one of the people who made them so.
Tom shot many of his photographs in the U.S. – he appreciated the faces and bodies found in the diversity of American men, and also because Los Angeles provided the perfect light during winter months, when he spent time there.
Not all of Tom’s photographs still exist. He destroyed many to protect those depicted – this type of photography (and drawing, as well) was illegal at the time, obviously there were no labs willing to process his film. To be able to document his drawings and capture his models, he created a darkroom in his own home, and could thereby control the entire procedure from camera and lighting, to developing, to printing with different types of paper and soft tones. Most of the exhibited photographs were done in the darkroom by the artist himself.
This material is unique and has never before been shown to this extent and is on display with original drawings. It invites the viewer to witness Tom’s process by showing how he interpreted the photographs into drawings, combining several reference pictures to reach his ideal, and – most of all – amplifying the physical attributes and fetishes that fascinated him.
Tom of Finland is regarded as a role model in the fight for a more equal and fair world. He contributed to the sense of pride that became a major force in the early gay movement. Tom’s men are proud, happy and confident. They take and they give. They broaden the vocabulary of who queers can be, not defined by society, but by self. His artistry is also unique in that it crosses so many borders – it has spread far beyond the subculture for which it was created. Today we can see its influence in everything from fashion to identity politics.
Published: 2nd February 2020Tags: #TOMs100, Fotografiska, Fotografiska Tallinn, The Darkroom