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From RuPaul’s Bedroom to a Liechtenstein Chalet: Catching Up with Paula Gately Tillman

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The past decade has been one of challenges and triumphs for Paula Gately Tillman. The photographer has suffered loss, embarked on myriad creative endeavors, had her work acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art, published two books, and just closed a successful retrospective at the Creative Alliance. 

But these recent publications and exhibition also stand as a testament to the fact that Tillman is no stranger to wild, productive decades. Her solo show New Generations: The Photography of Three Cities and Two Eras provided a retrospective look at Tillman’s photography and personal life—comprising two portrait collections and a display of ephemera that includes books, photography, and postcards from years of artistic exploration. 

One of those eras was marked by Fringe, a collection of black and white darkroom portraits of musicians, LGBTQ icons, and other creative visionaries. The series was largely shot in the 1980s in New York, a time of artistic breakthroughs that is visually present in Tillman’s body of work. Fringe serves as a groundbreaking point in the documentation of pop culture history, explored more in depth in Tillman’s book Fringe, New York and Atlanta, 1984 to 1997. 

The second body of portraits marked her return to the Baltimore arts community. For New Generations, Tillman documented contemporary Baltimore artists within the comfort of their creative space and surrounded by their craft—capturing this group of artists in their most natural element. 

My Love Is A Thread Tied To You, available on the artist’s website, stood out as one of the most emotionally impactful objects on the exhibition’s ephemera table. The book contains a photography collection and accompanying text that details Tillman’s experience with grief and travels to Liechtenstein after the death of her husband, LeRoy E. Hoffberger. 

After seeing the show at Creative Alliance, I had the opportunity to interview Tillman and ask her about the work, as well as her long and exciting career.

 

"RuPaul" from the "Fringe" series.
"Jerrell Gibbs" from the "New Generations" series
Installation view of ephemera at the Creative Alliance
I'm not a paparazzi shooter. I never really thought about trying to shoot celebrities. I was just interested in it being organic. I was hooking up with people that there was chemistry with and they happened to be fascinating, talented. They were musicians or performers or drag queens. The drag queens were just over the top in the 80s because there was a lot of collaboration all the time in the artistic community in New York.
Paula Gately Tillman

One of the highlights of your recent exhibition, for me, were the personal items on display in the center of the exhibit space, like the postcard to your parents where you wrote to them about what it was like going to New York in the ’80s and starting your career there. What was that like?  

I became involved in photography seriously when I lived out in Snowmass, Colorado in 1983. I had received an announcement about a class being taught at Colorado Mountain College and continuing education in darkroom photography. From there I fell in love with black and white photography and when I started printing, I was really hooked.

A friend who was a photographer, who’s still a mentor and a friend, recommended me for a solo show at the Aspen Library and I was so flattered. She sent over her daughter to be a subject because portraits were already my thing. I photographed married couples, and I did everything in this house I rented with just a backdrop, a tripod, and natural light. Around that time there was a photographer in town from New York, very famous, who was teaching a workshop at Anderson Ranch. We met and he stopped in to see my show. He said, “Anyone with your passion needs to be in New York. You should go and sign up for classes in printing darkroom at the School for Visual Arts..”

I talked to my mother and father and I said, “I know I can find a job in New York. I know that I can do this. Let me try.” And my father said, “If you don’t get in the ring and try, you’ll never know, and if you don’t go, you’ll always wonder, so go. If it doesn’t work out, we’re here in Baltimore. Take the train and come home.” So that’s what I did. I went up to the school in New York. I registered for continuing education photography, darkroom, and a few other photo classes. I loved going to school. I would work my day job and then go to school at night. And in between I started slowly meeting a few people that I would ask if they would be a subject and pose for me.

Then I went to talk with an optical boutique off 5th Ave about a job for the Christmas holiday, and that was 1984 going into ‘85. I wasn’t crazy about the job, but one day I was in the store and here comes a man with long hair. Very, very gentle and very nice. He asked for some help with the glasses, and we struck up a conversation about photography. I told him I’m studying at the School for Visual Arts and I’m shooting black and white. He said it was his favorite kind of photography. He gave me his card and said, “When you quit your day job, call me.” 

Later, I looked at his card and it said: Brant Mewborn, Senior Editor, Rolling Stone Magazine. I called Brant Mewborn after I left the job. He invited me to come up to Rolling Stone and bring my photographs. He looked at my photographs as we talked. He said, “Well, you already have a vision, so you know no one’s going to teach you that. I have a band. Would you like to photograph us at my apartment on the West side, meet my fiancée and meet the band? We’re going to have a rehearsal.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”

That was my first opportunity. A real New York person—and not only a New York person, but a Senior Editor at Rolling Stone magazine—who could not have been nicer. I went over to their apartment and met everyone in the band. It was really sweet. Low key. Brant became a mentor and he invited me to rehearsals. He invited me to photograph them again when they were going to perform at CBGB’s.

So that’s when you began photographing musicians, when you got to New York. Was that also the beginning of Fringe and including other performers in your photography?

The beginning of that era. Not knowing that it would be friends, but it was the beginning of it. Brant just opened the window for me. He knew a lot of people, but he was not pretentious, and neither was his girlfriend. They knew a good friend [of mine] named Nelson Sullivan. He was my friend and a video artist who died later in ‘89, but he captured New York’s downtown scene. Later, I photographed RuPaul, Nelson Sullivan, Rhonda, Tish and Snooky, who founded Manic Panic. All of those photographs are in black and white and are all in Fringe.

It seems like it was a very organic process, where you met someone new here and they introduced you to someone over there. 

It was very, very organic. It was like, Brant is introducing me to his band. I’m shooting the band more frequently now. Now Brant invites me to his wedding, not as a wedding photographer. He just said, “Oh, and bring your camera.” And so, I did. It was a used Nikon 35 millimeter by the motor drive. Would screw on and off, but I was over the moon with it. At the wedding, there were so many scene makers. I was just taking photos. And I know people have said it’s street photography. Well, yes, it is street photography in that sense, but it is not.

I’m not a paparazzi shooter. I never really thought about trying to shoot celebrities. I was just interested in it being organic. I was hooking up with people that there was chemistry with and they happened to be fascinating, talented. They were musicians or performers or drag queens. The drag queens were just over the top in the 80s because there was a lot of collaboration all the time in the artistic community in New York.

Then the RuPaul introduction came through Brant. He called me and said, “I have a friend in town. I’d like you to meet Dick Richards.” So, I go over and because I had this history with Atlanta, going to school there and living there for a period of time, but Dick and I really hit it off. He was fun, had a great sense of humor, super creative. He  had this label and also a TV show in Atlanta called The American Music Show. He said, “I love your photographs and I have someone who’s recording an album on our label. When you come down to visit your friends, call me and we’ll set up a shoot.” You know, I never said no. I always said I’d love to. And again, very informal, very organic. I said, “What’s his name?” He said, “his name is RuPaul and you’re going to love him.” He was not kidding. Dick videoed my first photo shoot with RuPaul.

 

"RuPaul" from the "Fringe" series
"Miss Guy" from the "Fringe" series

Is that the video installation at the exhibition?

That’s the video. The entire video shoot was an hour [that started with] meeting RuPaul in his bedroom in the apartment. Dick sent me that video around 2010. He knew that I was going to have a show and I had asked if I could use some of that video. I hired someone from the video film department from MICA to help me edit. We worked together on it. I knew exactly the images that I wanted to put on there. I didn’t want it to be too long, and I did want to include that bedroom scene with RuPaul. I think it’s really great. I wanted to include me photographing RuPaul, showing him on the street with a mirror, and putting it up on the telephone pole. [I wanted] to show where we were at the time, where he was. He was 25. I’d flown down from New York to Atlanta to photograph him. That was when I met him and we were already on fire. It was just a fit for me.

And what is it like now, looking back on these photos that document the early stages of really big artists and visionaries now in the present, like RuPaul and the founders of Manic Panic?

It’s amazing. It’s thrilling. I look back and can remember where I was when I photographed Tish and Snooky and first met them. The person that made the introduction was Dick Richards who called up Fenton Bailey, who’s now one of the co-producers and co-founders of RuPaul’s Drag Race. He (Fenton) took me over to meet Tish and Snooky and they were so warm and gracious. I photographed all these people when they were musicians, bands, performers in New York in the 80’s.

When I was working on the show and selecting the images, I selected some that have not been shown before, [like] the one of RuPaul in the backyard in my friend Nelson’s house. Nelson sadly died in the 80s, as I mentioned, but he is in the Kino Library archives in London, England. My friend David Goldman is the owner of all of his original archives, but Kino licensed Nelson’s work to Balenciaga, Kenzo, different designers, or whomever comes to buy time of his footage from the 80’s or the late 70’s.

Tish and Snooky have been in business 45 years. They are going to conventions for women and entrepreneurs, as well as still singing backup for rock bands and running Manic Panic, which is global now. RuPaul is an icon. Michael Musto, in the glasses with the beret, was the writer for The Village Voice for years and he’s writing today for every [media] outlet. He’s in everything. Larry Tee, in that metallic vest, is in Berlin, Germany. He’s a fashion designer over there. He wrote You Better Work with RuPaul and another writer. Miss Guy, in the featherhead dress, was on European tours. He had a hard rock band called Toilet Boys. He’s now doing DJing and photography, and still in different band gigs as well. They’re all living in New York except for RuPaul, who’s in LA. 

It’s very rewarding. It’s fascinating to me actually, because at the time, I had no idea. I wasn’t even thinking or dreaming of what will happen with these photos. I was in love with the visual part of what I was looking at, the excitement of it, the connection with the artists. Later on, when friends would look at the photographs, they would say, “You really captured this moment in time, this moment of history.” I didn’t know that RuPaul would become a global star. I had no idea. He was 25 in his little apartment. But I did know that he was the most amazing subject. He was about the funniest person, genuinely fun. He could crack me up. And he was driven.

 

"Taha Heydari" from the "New Generations" series
"Vlado Petrovski" from the "New Generations" series

Switching gears a bit, in New Generations you focused on photographing Baltimore artists in their studios, which I loved and found very interesting since studios are artists’ safe havens. What was the shooting process like? Was it a byproduct of the pandemic and safety protocols? 

I was invited to come back to the Creative Alliance in 2020 by the former creative director, who saw my book Fringe and said I should apply for a solo show, which I did. I went down there during the pandemic wearing a mask and talked to Thomas James, who was the Visual Arts Director. My first idea was I could show some of the photographs from Fringe that I haven’t had the opportunity to show in a public setting. And he said [that was] great because he saw the book from the former creative director, Gina Caruso. “But my other idea,” I said, “I just photographed one of the artists that I know from the Hoffberger School of Painting, Jerrell Gibbs.” Five of the artists [in New Generations] are from the Hoffberger School and I started with Jerell.

We went into the garage [of his house] where he didn’t have a setup for painting, but he had some of his paintings there. That’s the first photo shoot I did with him. He invited me to come back and photograph him. He said, “I’m in a studio now and I’d love for you to come back and shoot me for the show and my studio.” And I understood that, and I said “I’d love to.” The studio was amazing. I said, “This is so exciting to see you in this studio and these paintings around.” His work and sketches were around him when he was standing in different locations [of the studio]. I said, “The work will be in the photograph as well.” He said, “That’s fine. Those are some of my ideas I’m working on now.” 

As I worked along, I contacted some of the other Hoffberger students and they were also in studios. I said to Thomas, “These photographs of Jerrell are really successful, and I feel I could blend some of these with Fringe.” The independent curator that wrote the forward for my book Fringe, Kristen Hileman, looked at Jerrell’s photos and she said, “you’ll be photographing a new generation because you’re returning into the community now.” And I said, “Oh, New Generation. That could be a title.” I had to google all of the different generations to see who I was going to include in this. I didn’t want to set up an age range. I wanted it to just be organic. I just went with it and as I continued, I had a few suggestions [for subjects] from professors, but basically it was artist to artist. [I would ask,] who do you recommend? I was embracing Baltimore again and the arts community in a new community of artists, many that I didn’t know. And because I learned how to do Instagram really well, everyone could reach out. I’d introduce myself or I would say, “So and so recommended you. Would you like to be a subject in this new project?” 

Everyone said yes along the way and then I thought, well, they would say yes because they’re showing their work. They’re very professional in their practice. They are working hard. They want to show this is what they do. I understand that and I understand how important that is right now in this age range.

I made a list of everyone as I went along and it was just a reintroduction for me into the community, going into their homes. Some had their studios in the upstairs of their home or in a [separate] building. And I just loved being in the studio with them. I wanted to hear their stories, their hopes, their dreams. They would show me their paintings or their other work that they were making. Going through the community in Baltimore and meeting the artists that I photographed, [I thought], everyone is so talented. Everyone is so worthy of the recognition they receive and more. It was just an eye opener. There are so many new artists and galleries that it was an adventure for me. I was just back in this wonderful world with the art being imagined, created, painted, photographed, gilded.

Being in these studios during the pandemic, we had masks on. We would all say to each other, “We’re boosted, we’re vaccinated.” And we were careful. It was very emotional at times to be with them. One of the artists, Will Watson, had a book that my husband had written in his studio. He said, “Look, I have this book that your husband wrote, Measure of a Life.” Very, very touching.

 

"Linling Lu" from the "New Generations" series
"Jayne County" from the "Fringe" series
Installation view at the Creative Alliance by Vivian Doering

And after shooting was done, what was the curating process of combining both projects? As you describe, you combined two different worlds, one being Fringe with New York in the 80s and the other being the new generation of artists.

It was a slow process. I knew the space that I was going to be in and had already decided I would have 10 photographs down each side of the wall, and the black and white photographs would be perfect in the back. I knew early on that I wanted video clips from the photo shoot with RuPaul.

I also knew I wanted a table in this space for ephemera. Andrew Walters, my friend who I collaborate with, talked it through [with me] and I [told him I] wanted to show the catalogs and the books that I had published over time. He agreed that that would be a great thing to present because it all shows the history of my work.

I also knew that I wanted a catalog with this show. So again, this was a big project. I’m fortunate to have a team that I work with, like Jenny Sherwin, who is the editor supreme. She edited Fringe with me. Kristen Hileman writes the forwards. Doug Miller is IT, and there’s a lot of IT incorporated in this. A lot of Zoom meetings and FedExing back and forth drafts for Jenny and I to review and edit. 

I have a lot of ephemera and archives that I’ve saved over the years in boxes. I just started going through things and I love doing that because I’m really going back and looking at my work, what I was thinking about in the 80s, and what I was thinking about with new generations. The postcards that are in the table I wrote in 2015 to my late mother, my late father, and to Roy. He was still with me at that time. I was quietly thinking and reflecting back on those days and thanking them. I was deeply touched that different people would come over to me and they would tell me, “Thank you for sharing such personal writing, your feelings to your mother and father about how you felt during that time, what you were feeling when you were there, and what you were feeling when you knew your work was went into the collection of the BMA.” It was very touching for me. 

I wrote the postcards in 2015 when six of my gelatin silver prints of RuPaul, Tish, Snooky, Jayne County, Hope Nicholls, and Miss Guy went into the Baltimore Museum of Art. They were acquired through Kristen Hileman, who was then the senior curator of contemporary art. She had been following my work and I was invited to make a big presentation to her and another member of the museum in 2015. My late husband was able to see those works hanging in the museum.

 

Gallery view, photo by Vivian Doering

That was one of my favorite parts of the exhibit, seeing the postcards and also the text and photograph book, My Love Is A Thread Tied To You. They were very touching and I loved how personal they were. What was it like to write about your experience in the book?

Well, thank you. My Love Is A Thread Tied To You is interesting because no one has really seen this book publicly. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. My late husband and I used to travel to Europe each year. We had long time friends who lived in Liechtenstein. We would stay in a chalet from the 1800s, renovated of course, into a small hotel. I had a huge collection of film that I’d shot over there of these mountain ranges. After Roy died, I was in grief counseling and I told my counselor I was making a trip back to Lichtenstein, that was 2019, and I would stay in the same hotel, meet the longtime friends and have a visit for a week. She said to me, “Be prepared to do some writing.”

When I arrived at the hotel, the owner’s son remembered me and it was a warm reception. I went up to my room and I knew that I would see everything that was familiar to me, but I didn’t expect the impact. There was our room and all of the little tables, the chest, the painting by the door, the flowers in the window, the draperies. I said to the young woman who was with me, “Everything is still the same.” And she said, “This is the soul of the house.” Nothing changed. I could hardly breathe when I got to my room. I was already texting Jenny, my friend and editor. I said, “I don’t know what I’m writing. I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m sending these things. Just hang on to it. But I’m going to be writing.”

I stood there every day for a little while, each day near the door, and I started writing the story. I wrote it down on my phone because they didn’t have any paper and pen in the room, so I kept typing everything on my cell phone and sending it back to myself. When I came back home, I told Jenny, “I’ve started writing a story. The words are just coming slowly.” And she said, “That’s fine. It’s called a dreamscape when you write from the heart.” 

That year I took a photo class at Odyssey with Phyllis Berger, who was teaching the class, and during that class I made my first two collages. I put myself in the hydrangeas and the wedding dress fabric that I was married in, and wrote I was the Klimt bride because Klimt was one of Roy’s favorite artists.

That was one of my favorite pages in the book, actually.

Really. Well, Roy had said, “Oh, take some pictures of the hydrangeas near the hotel. They’re so pretty.” And I did. Roy took the photo of me lounging, but of course I didn’t have this gown on. [Later] I said, “We’re going to Photoshop this like a Barbie doll. We’re going to cut the fabric, put it on me, and put me in the hydrangeas.” It was so much fun because it was his idea, the hydrangeas. This is where we honeymooned. So, this is how it became that image. On our honeymoon, he was actually writing Measure of a Life. He was sitting at the desk, fearful that he wouldn’t live long enough to finish his memoir. But of course, he did. I’ve had several comments now [about the postcards and the book]. It has been fascinating.

Photographs and the memories are treasures for all of us. Cards are the sentiment of what we feel for one another. That’s how I feel about it. And I saved all his cards, of course. My Love Is a Thread Tied To You has all of the notes we gave to each other. The table was a big hit. Just the look of it, the design of it, and how people at the opening would gather around. They were reading, they were looking through. It was like a little library right there at the opening. 

I’m so glad we were able to organically talk about all of these topics, so thank you so much for your time.

Wonderful. I’m pleased you like the show in general. It’s exciting for me because I know that you’re in the new generation.

Absolutely. It comes full circle.

 

"Will Watson" from the "New Generations" series
"Nelson Sullivan" from the "Fringe" series
"Edgar Reyes" from the "New Generations" series
"SHAN Wallace" from the "New Generations" series
"Schaun Champion" from the "New Generations" Series
"Snooky and Tish Bellomo" from the "Fringe" series
"Dave Eassa" from the "New Generations" series
"Hannah Brancato" from the "New Generations" series

Images courtesy of the artist and Creative Alliance

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