05/28/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tom Chambers Photos Recreate The Magical World Of Dreams

By Judith B. Herman

Dreams (or what many might categorize as nightmares) are inspiration for the wildly imaginative images created by photographer Tom Chambers.

Charmers, Tom Chambers

Restless horses baring their teeth, inscrutable crows, writhing snakes held by young children all have entered Chambers’ mind during sleep. “I’ll have to wake up and write them down,” he said in a phone call from his Virginia home.

Chambers works out the composition of an imaginary scene in a drawing before setting out to photograph each component—background, sky, creatures, people—that will make up the composite photograph. The models include his daughter (until as a young teenager she demanded a modeling fee), his twin nephews, and neighbor children. “I like to use kids because there’s a sense of vulnerability,” he said. “These are like fairy tales gone awry.”

Exactly what is going on in these tales or whether there is any symbolism in the recurrent motifs remains a secret. Chambers won’t say whether the unsettling images arise from his own wishes or fears. “I try to infuse my work with a certain sense of mystery,” he said. “I want to first connect emotionally, and then [viewers] can figure out what that image means to them.”

He does admit to a number of influences, though. Travel is one. While in the Navy he saw 22 countries. Afterward, his wanderlust still unquenched, he spent “a couple of years hitchhiking around.” It was on a family trip through Pátzcuaro, Mexico, around 2001 that he discovered a typically Mexican variety of votive offerings or “ex-votos.” The license plate–sized folk paintings on tin depicted disasters including fires, robberies, illness, and even being dragged by a horse, with an inscription thanking a saint for the miracle of survival. Although he is not a religious person, the mystical aspect of religion intrigues him. Struck by the resemblance of the paintings to his own series of enigmatic, nightmarish photo collages seen here, he pushed the series in that direction and titled it “Ex Votos.”

Another influence is magical realism. Feeling a kinship with the writings of Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison, in which supernatural events occur in everyday settings, he tries for the same blend of realism tinged with the otherworldly. “It’s really easy to take this Photoshop work over the top. My idea was that [an image] wouldn’t look impossible, but it would be improbable.”

The improbable scenarios inspired another one. “I was listening to the NPR program All Songs Considered when Bob Boilen, the guy who hosts the show, called me up. I didn’t tell him I was listening to the show; it would sound too made-up.” “Project Song” gave participants two days to write and record a song. Boilen handed Chris Walla of the band Death Cab for Cutie and J. Robbins from Jawbox images from the “Ex Votos” series. Watch what happened here. For Chambers, a fan of Death Cab for Cutie, this must have been a dream come true.

For more photos head to Slate.