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Visit www.tam-tran.com to see more of Tran’s work.
On exhibit

A self-portrait by Tran.
A self-portrait by Tran.
For emerging artist Tam Tran, the third time may be the charm.

The local photographer, with only two past exhibits on her resume, was selected for inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the signature survey of contemporary art that showcases up-and-coming talent. The Biennial is on display through May 30 at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. Of the 55 artists participating in the Biennial, Tran is the youngest, at 23, and the only one from Memphis.

Tran’s previous shows were at Otherlands Coffee Bar in Midtown Memphis and at last summer’s group exhibit “Everywhere, Nowhere, Somewhere …” at the now-closed Power House Memphis gallery downtown.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, her work in the Power House show caught the eye of a representative from the Whitney. “They asked me to send a CV and some pictures,” says a surprised Tran. “After that, plans were made by e-mail.”

For the 75th edition of its Biennial, the Whitney chose “Raising Hell,” a series of portraits Tran snapped of her 4-year-old nephew playing superhero and wielding a broomstick as a weapon. “He was wearing pajamas and a cape, running through the back yard,” she says. As in many of her photos, Tran presents her nephew as a multifaceted character who experiments with various identities. Each of the five pictures captures a different moment in the battle between the boy and an imaginary foe. Seen from different angles, he appears either huge or tiny, a tough warrior and a young boy.

Tran (BA ’08), who works as a graphic designer/art director at Splash Creative, is largely a self-taught digital artist. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Memphis, concentrating in Internet and Web-based design areas. As part of her studies, she took three black-and-white photography classes, including a required digital class. “The intro to black-and-white photography classes taught me the science behind film development as well as my way around the darkroom,” she says.

Photography instructor David Horan was especially helpful in compiling a portfolio. “He helped me create a body of work that goes together, that conveys a message, a feeling, an emotion,” Tran says.

“Tam always had a desire for exploration, and was never afraid to take chances,” Horan remembers. “Sometimes I think she was mad at me because I pushed her to stretch her boundaries, but ultimately she would dive in anyway. The results were usually positive. Even if an idea didn’t produce the best results, she always kept going. I’m very pleased that she was chosen for the Biennial.”

Tran was born in Hue, Vietnam. Her family moved to Memphis, where they had relatives, when she was 6.

Much of her work is a journey of self-discovery. In self-portraits, Tran transforms herself into images that are offbeat and often unrecognizable. She challenges viewers to decipher the pictures for themselves.

“I use my camera to convey myself and my views to the world. It’s easier for me to do that with a camera than by painting or drawing,” Tran says. “My camera is always with me, it’s my third eye. The photographs I make are visual records from my life, and I take them because I’m curious and sentimental. These photographs translate my prospective of the world that I’m in and the self-portraits, particularly, help translate myself as a woman, as a girl, in a world where I am of the weaker sex, the weaker ethnicity.”

While much of her experience has come from “playing around” with her camera, Tran says she identifies with photographers Elliott Erwitt, Duane Michals and Francesca Woodman. “Each has a quirk about them that inspires my photography,” she says.

Her next project? “Finding a gallery to represent me to kick-start my career as an artist.”

The third time may be the charm for Tran, but she’s no cliché. — by Gabrielle Maxey

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