Tommy Kha

Tommy Kha (b. 1988, Memphis, Tennessee)

Tommy Kha divides his time between his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and Brooklyn, New York. He received his BFA in photography from Memphis College of Art in Tennessee and his MFA in the same field from Yale University, New Haven. Kha was the recipient of an En Foco Photography Fellowship and was a winner of The Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward Emerging Photographers Competition in 2018. He is a former artist-in-residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in New York; at Light Work, Syracuse, New York; at The Fountainhead, Miami, Florida; and at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York, New York. His work has been widely published in Vice, Slate, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

The visibility of minority narratives is an underlying current in Kha’s work. Many of his photographs are self-portraits, wherein he explores boundary and periphery, self and other. Through the medium of the performed self, Kha uses his physical body as a pivot from which he can explore the many angles of his, and others’, multilayered identities. Stereotypes about what it means to be gay and Asian American, two facets of Kha’s identity, abound even in the South’s most progressive cities. Kha plays with and against these stereotypes in much of his work.

Watch (2015), from Kha’s Mi Chien, Mi Loup series, places the photographer across the bar from an imposing man blanketed in tattoos. Kha, his body not even fully in the picture frame, stares, transfixed, at the screen of a GT2001 touchscreen video game machine. The picture is a humorous meditation on the concept of masculinity. The tattooed man, featured in sharp focus at the center of the image, is a monumental figure. He commandeers the image and the space, which is, after all, his bar, even if, right now, he is taking a well-earned coffee break. The black T-shirt, stoic gaze, elaborate facial tattoos that extend even across the man’s eyelids, and thick arms also inked with badges of toughness send a message, and we get it … the man is manly. In contrast, Kha is dressed in a stylish blazer adorned with the affected elbow patches of a college don. His clean-shaven face and relaxed expression are in stark contrast to the contemplative, grizzled face of his companion. 

Kha possesses a masterful eye for color and composition. Downstream (2015) places a young African American woman in a drainage ditch. The vibrant green grass and tangled kudzu almost overwhelm the viewer with their richness. The subject, with her rich brown skin and reddish-brown hair, is centered in the image, and the brilliant blue reflection of the sky creeps toward her in the ditch’s shallow waters. The photograph’s title suggests that we, too, are moving ever closer to her, and she stands waiting for us. 

Kha’s command of composition is once again on display in an interior scene titled Section (2015). Vivid yellow and orange flowers float above a man’s head, which is just visible over a row of plastic hangers. The diagonals formed between the man and the floating bouquets, aided by the convergence of the uninterrupted rows of fluorescent lights just behind his head, quickly focus our attentions on the subject. In Rehabilitation (III) (2015), from Kha’s series In Order of Appearance, we see another example of Kha’s mastery of composition and use of color. There, a chandelier, glowing white, contrasts with scarlet drawn drapes, edged in gold trim. The festive red is perfect for this suburban yuletide scene. Yet, the lit Christmas tree is strategically placed below a smoke detector, and, almost hidden behind the chandelier, a haloed Buddha peeks out from his shrine, wonderfully complicating the image.

Kha’s photographs capture one man’s navigation between the South’s fraught social history and its current realities. His ruminations on identity and otherness compel us to question what we think we know about the racial and cultural landscape of today’s New South. Even as Kha poses complicated questions through his photographs, in them he also exquisitely balances composition and color, drawing the viewer in to examine his carefully framed scenes.

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