In Conversation: Tatum Shaw on “Plusgood!”

Tatum Shaw is a photographer born and raised in Cartersville, Ga. He moved to Portland in 2004 to work as a copywriter at the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. Now freelance, he splits his time between Portland, Oregon, and Atlanta, Georgia. His photography has appeared in Apartamento, Oxford American, Bloomberg Businessweek, Nylon Guys, American Chordata, and Atlanta Magazine. His first monograph, Plusgood!, is out now.


According to the future laid out in George Orwell’s 1984, the English language will be decimated to only a small list of government-approved words known as Newspeak. Nothing is beautiful, marvelous, or fantastic. If something is deemed better than good, it’s simply referred to as “plusgood.”

These images were conjured with the desire to create an escape button to a world of sunshine, inspired by my earliest memories of happiness. Simply put: to seek more goodness.

Kyra Schmidt: Tatum, thank you so much for taking this time with me. I’d like to start at first base: Your artist statement references George Orwell’s 1984 and earliest memories of happiness. Can you speak a little more toward what drove this series?

Tatum Shaw: Hey Kyra, I’d be delighted! Plusgood! is, quite simply, about chasing a good feeling. It started when I broke with an aesthetic I’d adhered to for about ten years. I ditched the 35mm rangefinder and went digital. The newfound clarity had a sense of hyper-realness that kind of tripped me out. The camera was also way bigger and more conspicuous than the rangefinder, and so I couldn’t bring it around all the time and capture on-the-fly moments as easily. Because of this, I started setting up little shoots for myself.

The first one was on vacation in Palm Springs, my husband in the pool with the lemon. That yellow and blue felt so good to me, and brought me back to my Nana’s pool when I was a kid. I sort of put a pin in that and came back to it later. In the meantime, I set up more shoots with friends. The photographs that I was drawn to all had a slightly surreal quality to them that gave me that great feeling again. I realized halfway through making the work that a lot of good feelings I’m after originate from childhood memories, many of which I’ve abstracted and reimagined in the images. That’s where you get the Sunbeam, Kent Cigarettes, and all the yellows and blues.

It then mutated from there. Using a mix of still-life, snapshots, altered family photos, constructed vignettes, and some lucky quotes I pulled from a Tom Ford interview I’ve tried to recreate something that acts as an escape button to this world of sunshine. It’s particular to my experience, but I hope it resonates with others.

The title comes from the Newspeak language of George Orwell’s 1984, which means “better than good.” I thought it fitting when talking about the feeling of joy in an otherwise anxious time. Like it’s illegal or something. But I also just love how that word looks. Again, it felt like this overabundant “goodness.” Felt so good, I had to add an exclamation point! Which I don’t think Big Brother would have approved.

Kyra Schmidt: I love having more of an insight into the work! The images feel nostalgic for me, but even often sarcastic. They are intertwined with what appears to be blown up and cropped advertisements. Can I ask where these images come from?

Sarcastic! Yes, for sure. I’m glad you got that. The ads come from a couple Ebay purchases I scanned. I plopped one of my images in the Kent ad as a sort of brain fart joke, but ended up liking the result so much I kept it in. It seemed to fit with the whole memory confusion idea behind the work. Having one foot in the very real past, but inserting my own present-day version of it so it forms this thing that’s in both worlds. Like a glitch in the recollection. I also like how, when flipping through the book, they feel like ads within it. 

Kyra Schmidt: Speaking of ads, there’s a level of artifice throughout the book. Were you interested in highlighting this thingness/objecthood?

Yeah I guess that’s just my attempt to make a strong image, and doing it in a way that’s new for me. My previous work is all spontaneous, and of a snapshot aesthetic. These were much more deliberate and, in a lot of cases, pre-planned in advance.

My day job is an advertising copywriter, which involves using my imagination to think up scripts, so it was fun to use that part of my brain in my photography for this. To think up a new image, and then make it happen. I don’t know why I never did that before. Once I realized what I wanted the project to be, each image I made took on an ad-like quality.

In the way that an ad sells a product, I wanted to sell a feeling, or a memory.

Kyra Schmidt: And you absolutely do. For me this work celebrates the absurdity of life (to reference Albert Camus). Raw moments, both glamorous and unglamorous, that represent unbridled humanness. Was there a methodology to sequencing this series into book form?

It’s definitely absurd. Stupid, even.

The challenge in sequencing the images came from finding the balance between making it surprising yet structured, so it didn’t become a huge mess. The only way I could think to achieve that was to approach it like I was editing a video clip. Where you’re being fed seemingly random visual information, but have some recurring editorial threads that tell your brain there’s an intent here. To help with that, I laid out the quotes from the Tom Ford interview big, in all caps, to act as title cards (or supers) in that way. Little blips that hopefully reinforce the overall idea.

Kyra Schmidt: The quotes from the Tom Ford interview are an excellent addition to the book. They made me physically smile, but also reinforce these absurd little moments of happiness. Is there further significance to the inclusion of the Ford quotes?

Tatum Shaw: I was just reading the interview during a day when I was working on the Sunbeam floating over the pool, and they seemed to conjure the same feeling as the images. He was talking about his son’s childhood, and it went hand in hand with the memories from my Nana’s. Just total childhood bliss. Plus his son’s name is Jack. So perfect! It felt like a name from an old nursery rhyme or something. It gave the work this sort of narrative effect that I really loved.

Kyra Schmidt: What was your favorite part of making this series? Do you have a favorite image from the book?

Tatum Shaw: My favorite image from the book, and my favorite to make, was the Sunbeam hovering over the pool. I thought of it a couple months before while driving in California and got so excited about it. I would think about it every day. We went through, like, twelve packs of bread to get the right shot. They kept getting foggy in the humidity and falling in the water. I was stoked to create something that looked so close to the way I imagined it. Hugely satisfying.

Kyra Schmidt: Thank you so much for your time. To send us off, what is up next for you? Will you continue working on Plusgood!?

Tatum Shaw: Thank you for the great questions! Like everyone else, I’m trapped in my house, so I’ve been shooting some more still-life images in line with Plusgood! that I could include down the line if there were a show? Or part 2?  Otherwise I have no idea! I think this is the first time I’ve ever finished a project without already having another one in the works. It’s sort of scary, but exciting to have a clean slate.

To view more of Tatum Shaw’s work please visit his website.

To buy a copy of Tatum’s book, visit the shop!