For emerging artist Tam Tran, the third time may be the charm.
|A self-portrait by Tran.
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
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
The third time may be the charm for Tran, but she’s no cliché. — by Gabrielle Maxey