Photographer Tom Psomotragos – devoted observer
By ALEC SMART
Glebe photographer Tom Psomotragos has a diverse and interesting portfolio of images, ranging from commercial – weddings and events – to photodocumentary, to a series of informal portraits of Glebe residents taken with his creative partner Eulalie Moore.
Born in Karpasi, on the island of Lemnos, Greece, in 1953, Tom arrived in Australia in 1955 and grew up in the close Limnian community in Melbourne.
A qualified TAFE and secondary school teacher, Tom developed his photography from high school experimentation and also moved into cinematography. After establishing a commercial photography studio in Glebe he created the first digital photographic books in Australia.
In 1988 he began a long-term photographic study of an Eastern Arrernte Indigenous family group around Alice Springs.
Then, in 2009, he initiated Glebe 150, a series of portraits of Glebe characters and personalities (in conjunction with Glebe Chamber of Commerce), which involved a month-long exhibition in various outdoor and indoor locations around the suburb.
“We are a team, Eulalie Moore and myself,” Tom said. “We are doing profile pieces on people’s personal lives where they are comfortable. There are some great stories behind the photos..”
Tom’s portraits, the majority in black & white, are informal but engaging, capturing people at work or rest, some looking at the camera, others caught in a moment.
“One of my major projects is Welcome to Glebe,” Tom revealed, “a 13-year community art-based project organised and co-ordinated by Eulalie, who is also documenting the project. It is an intimate portrayal of a disparate and unique community that originally attracted me to living here... A community and home that I have not grown tired of and which regularly astounds me.
“Eulalie and I both have a long history with Glebe,” Tom continued, “and having photographed and documented over 600 individual portraits, we are capturing its history. We hope, through working with the community, to help preserve as much as possible of the foundation that has created such a place.
“We have noticed that pace of change is accelerating and unless a better understanding of the social and political changes that are being forced onto Glebe are carefully worked through and balanced with the existing social fabric, we will lose a disparate, living, thriving community to monocultural gentrification.
“In many ways this is both of our mission statement. To put up a mirror to you and say: ‘We have lost Millers Point, Pyrmont and now we may very well lose Glebe’.
“As distinct from my Eastern Arrernte series, which was a purely photojournalistic approach, Welcome to Glebe is a portrait-based project to capture my intimate community, those people that make up the social fabric of such a vibrant and rarely-glimpsed world, from street people to businesses, social housing to the exclusive end of Glebe and to the homeless groups in Wentworth Park.”
Wentworth Park Arches community
Tom’s Homeless series of images documents the street sleepers of Sydney, primarily the dwellers beneath the viaduct arches in Glebe’s Wentworth Park. How did that come about?
“When, in 2008-9, Eulalie and I started the Glebe project, a group of six homeless men moved in together under the arches of Wentworth Park,” Tom explained. “They formed a small, tight community, which I befriended and grew to know and photographed...
“The openness and warmth they extended to me continued over a period of seven years as other groups formed and were also included in the process, even after being re-housed. This series is that story but it is still the heart of the Glebe project…”
Tom also specialises in wedding photography and photo-documentary. Many of his wedding photos are not staged but beautiful and tender moments captured off-guard, with a natural feel, like reportage.
Was it a conscious choice to apply his observational/journalistic style to recording weddings, or a happy accident?
“It’s capturing the emotional and unselfconsciously lived moments that I love in this work - unsentimental, and real... As in most commercial or commissioned work, I have taken into account my subjects, to capture and render them as tenderly and positively as possible, even at times glamorously…
“I use my drama college studies to help marry this commercial work and my artistic approach… My passion is for photography as an expressive medium for what I would describe as embracing and extolling the human spirit. It’s a tall order and I expect to fail, but it’s at the core of my art practice.”
In Tom’s Landscapes series, there are a lot of close-ups of tree trunks, showcasing the distinction and diversity among Australia’s arboreal flora. What attracts him to photographing trees? “The snow gums – eucalyptus pauciflora – embraced me like torsos,” Tom explained. “Reaching out with invisible arms that captured the feeling of those long bush walks and cross-country ski trips with a close friend...”
Tom’s series of photos of Karpasi, the town of his birth on the island of Lemnos, Greece, reveal a rural simplicity, with glassless windows, old crumbling dwellings and even a tethered donkey used by an elderly woman to carry goods.
“The Greek series is my trip back to the Greece I left in 1955,” Tom revealed. “The old stone houses held together by mud and lime, no running water, no electricity, no plumbing, no toilets! A true rural village, with the last of the villagers who were alive back then. These images are the ghosts of that Greece that I left – each time I go back there are more ghosts.
As with my other art projects – my landscapes, international street photography series, bunker series [shot in WWII bunkers around Malabar, La Perouse, Middle Harbour and West Head] - there is a complex interweaving of personal and what I call transpersonal experience. Certain themes and symbolic representations reappear, which only make sense in a synchronistic embrace of these works...”