Tom Oldham’s credentials precede him. He’s shown at the Gibson Showroom in London, was accepted into the 2015 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize with his image, Gilbert and George — as well the 2016 Open Series in the AoP Awards for his work with Riders For Health in Liberia. In 2016, on the longest day of the year, he committed to staying up for 40 hours straight, shooting a portrait per hour from midnight to midnight in a project called The Longest Day. In June 2017, he exhibited a project shot in Lesotho, entitled The Herder Boys of Lesotho, at the White Space Gallery in London. And those are just the highlights.
When you look at his work now, it’s hard to imagine that he started out as a club photographer. “I’ve been into photography since I was 21, which is quite some time now I’m afraid,” he tells What We Seee. “I started out shooting raves and parties, then clubbing for magazines, which was all well and good but not exactly a lifestyle one would describe as ’sustainable’. Portraiture came to me through editorial work for magazines and I saw it as a means of extending my career well into a ripe old age.” But it’s turned into so much more. He has a compelling, versatile portfolio — and a knack for tackling complex subjects. And it seems like there’s only more to come. “I will tire of it I think when I finally have photographed all the faces,” he says. Luckily, we’ve got some time before that happens.
And his latest work, Eldmóður, lays out exactly what a talent he is. Showing for a two-week exhibition at the Show Space in London, he looks at elite athletes that emerge from a brutal landscape.
Tom Oldham’s portraits have evolved — and his latest project, Eldmóður, is one of his most ambitious. He wanted to explore what exactly makes some athletes able to push themselves to the brink — and past it. And the result is a powerful, engaging series that tackles commitment, determination, darkness, and more. The name, Eldmóður, is telling. It reveals what drives Oldham to study his subjects. An old Icelandic word with no direct translation, it is often translated into English as “passion” or “the fire within”. And the athletes of Iceland have more than their fair share of it. Out of 300,000 athletes who enter the World Crossfit Open Games every year, Iceland consistently comes dominates the podium, despite only having a population of 320,000. The recent European Crossfit team was 75 percent Icelandic. Whatever Eldmóður is, they’ve got it.
So Oldham went to Iceland, with its never-ending winter nights, to see what makes the Crossfit athletes tick. “When shooting, Tom was told that the ‘pain cave’ (a space all participants of this sport have to be willing to enter) was only 70% mental and that the body could take much more,” the description explains. “This came from a female crossfit athlete who was wearing a swimsuit and was about to swim in an icy pool. In November. Tom believed her.”
The series captures the connection between the full days of sunlight in the summer, the deepest dark of their winters, and the athletes’ ability to accomplish the extraordinary. Does a savage environment lead to greatness? You’ll have to visit to find out.
Before The Doors Open
It’s taken years for Oldham to get to a place where he can capture athletes and people with such integrity. “Once you get on top of the technical requirements, the ideas can just flow with ease,” he says. “It’s left brain and right brain in simultaneous harmony. I don’t get nervous so much any more, just excited. It can appear daunting when very famous people walk into the room but we’re all as professional as each other when it comes to the job in hand. Mostly.”
It’s not that there’s a total absence of fear when it comes to his work, but the fear isn’t to do with the creation itself. The act of creating is natural. “The fears come before releasing a new project for me, not really on embarkation,” he explains. His passion for each new shoot and endeavor carries him through — but, like many great artists, the nerves come when it’s time to show. “It’s the horrible, counter-productive, ‘Is this actually any good at all?’ feeling, usually just before the doors open on a new exhibition. I’m so gung-ho about shooting new projects that the self-doubt never enters my head at that stage.”
There’s nothing to doubt about this project. It’s an opportunity to see a great artist on show in the middle of London. If you can, you owe it to yourself to go and discover what Eldmóður is all about. You can see it from February 14 to 28, at the G.F. Smith Show Space.