Artist Statement

Thoughts and preconceived notions of self intrigue me. Discovering them, slipping into those prescribed aspects, and pushing through those boundaries is to me fascinating.

My images invite spontaneity and collaboration which mirrors my creative process. I utilize a specific visual language of codes, symbols, masks, and other forms of concealment to evoke feelings of love, loss, rage, and contentment.

Photography is the means by which I strive to understand myself, our world, and the role others play in our evolution.

The Work

There is so much detail to be captured in a face. Cicero (106-43 BC) once stated: “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” To capture a subject’s personality, there are many things to keep in mind, and photographer Chris Forbes reveals wonderfully with his work a unique personality through flawless lighting, posing, and composition. Portraiture is truly an art, and Forbes’ work dives deep into the details so that you end up with variously wonderful images ranging from elaborate indoor lighting set-ups to quick-catch street pictures.

His personal web site is a photographer’s feast. It’s part photo chronicle and part journal, the stories and pictures capture all of Forbes’ creative qualities: his love, rage, optimism, darkness, and determinism. Raw and powerful, fascinating and intriguing are words which come to mind when turning the pages. The image quality is exceptional, and they are both beautiful and scary.

Frankly speaking, the majority of Americans lead pretty sheltered, relatively well-off lives compared to what the rest of the world is enduring. Forbes cracks open the door to expose the raw underbelly of our country in a disturbing, but deeply personal manner, not to exploit but rather as a surgeon with an intent to cut to heal.

Forbes’ art is like no other.

-Luis Blasini, Author
San Diego, CA 2012

A Conversation


By Maria Guzman

Based in San Francisco, Chris Forbes was born in Philadelphia, where he received is B.F.A. in 1998 at Tyler School of Art at Temple University. His work has been included in both solo and group shows. Chris continues to work as a freelance photographer and has been featured in several publications, including Photographer’s Forum, YGA, SPOT, Vogue Nippon, and Spunk Arts Magazine. Recently, he has added film to his repertoire, and his latest project, Skinnyfat, will be released soon. The independent film was the Official Selection at the Frameline 2010 San Francisco LGBT Film Festival.

Hi Chris! When we were sober for that one hour at The Tonga Room, we got into a conversation about portraits gone berserk in pop culture and gay culture. Can you summarize how this project came about? And secondly, I understand that you have bumped into quite a few influential iconoclasts: can you discuss how certain people have influenced you so far? 

Hey there! It was great getting a chance to talk to you over the weekend. The new series just started with a basic idea that had been stuck in my mind for some time. I’m not really sure how long it had been there but I knew I had to make an image with myself wearing a gas mask. And I had to be nude. Other than those two things I wasn’t sure where I would be, what I would be doing or what I really wanted to say with it. So I just started shooting and trying different things … seeing what jumped out at me and letting the images happen without too much structure. I really enjoy letting the art evolve into what it needs to become and just hanging on for the ride. Though I have to say that being naked and wearing a gas mask is a very weird sensation. 90% of your body is free to feel everything around you from the slightest breeze to the warmth of sunlight on your skin. But the other 10% is totally confined within this mask. My sight and hearing were pretty limited and breathing became a bit of a chore. However, that disconnection between my head and body brought up the idea of man vs. machine and how in the age of Facebook, we so heavily relying on devices and computers as a way of communicating and interacting with one another.

As for influences, I think Cindy Sherman was my earliest. I remember being obsessed with her Untitled Film Stills and amazed that she was portraying all of the various characters but not quite understanding it all. I love not knowing everything when it comes to art … being forced to come to my own conclusion and being ok with not finding an answer. It keeps me interested. And that is what it really comes down to for me, being able to create art that takes the audience to a certain point and then invites them to come up with their own thoughts and conclusions.

Your description of how the mask affected sensation brings up a topic that we briefly touched upon-the image of the male body in media. Do you feel that it is exoticised based on difference, as it tends to be with depictions of women in mass media?

Yes and no. Being gay I find myself bombarded by two different sides. I feel that the male image, in the mass media, tends to be more idealized than exoticized. It seems to be more about the “perfect” body … or at least what they are selling as the perfect body. Muscles, lean, square jaw, little to no body hair, a good complexion and abs of a Greek god. You will almost never see and advertisement with the run-of-the-mill/average joe and if you do they are used as comic relief or as an example of what not to let yourself become. To me it’s the selling of masculinity to the masses. The queer media tends to be more complicated when it comes to the male image. The selling of the perfect body is still there but long gone are the days of just being gay. There are so many subgroups and factions to choose from and each one has it’s own image.  Taboos come to the forefront as do racial generalizations, and stereotypes, and with that comes the male form that is exoticised. But you have to keep in mind that this is the media’s job … to sell you whatever product they feel that you need by any means necessary. Sex sells. Pretty sells. Ideals sell.

Yes, I agree. I sometimes get disturbed by neurotic reactions to new forms media. For instance, to fear television and its “evils” seems an act of disavowal but also cutting oneself off from a portal into one of most influential apparatuses for disseminating culture. I was watching John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” series on YouTube, and found his ominous discussion about the selective aspects of advertising very relevant to our discussion. There’s also this great essay in a book I’m reading, “Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine.” It is about the fear of fame by feminists, specifically women. In her essay, “Celebrity Jeopardy: The Perils of Feminist Fame,” she wonders why feminists who achieve some level of fame are immediately “trashed” or “revered”-what does this do to their potential as activist or just great thinkers? She makes a great point about choosing to participate in the pursuit of visibility, which can be applied to most artists today:

“But by claiming that women should eschew success or power, we’ve done ourselves a disservice. Vilifying leadership and fame results only in our icons being chosen for us-not by us-and so we end up either with overtaxed activists…or, as is more common these days, with pseudofeminists…as our media-anointed leaders” (Fudge 126).

I think that the same can be said of most underrepresented groups, too. Thoughts?

I’m so glad you brought up John Berger. His book is amazing and should be required reading for all young artists. It really challenged the way I looked at the world. I think “… our media-anointed leaders” is such a great line. It sums up our culture today that is so full of pseudo celebrities. Our culture craves it … we have this insatiable addiction for fame. Yet, if artists continue to forgo the pursuit of fame or visibility, then we are going to have to accept the leaders that are chosen for us. Though the question still remains: why do we fear fame? Is it selling out to be famous? Or more specifically do we somehow feel that fame will cheapen and undermine our goals and aspirations? It’s a tricky thing, fame. I see it as a double edge sword. What are your thoughts on fame and where do you see it going in the future?

I’ve recently been trying to write effectively and in doing so, the matter of language is always illuminating. For writing projects about pop culture there’s a tendency to write in this casual vibe. But what if the topic is pretty serious? If I stop to think about it, the pop culture crowd IS the most critical-when I keep that in mind, the piece writes itself almost. Perhaps it’s like your self-portrait process described earlier?

As for fame, it helps to think of it in terms of words that is not as specialized-visibility. This is a way of understanding it for what it is. It’s not a god-given “it” quality and it’s not a matter of working hard anymore. Really, it never was. To be honest, I’m really excited by the growing networks online and off, and look forward to further developments in communication.

I also see a return to spirituality in a big way. The overwhelming presence of virtual gratification and “humanism” via the 21st century has to take its toll. Wouldn’t it be wild to have a return to say, Byzantine creep-o art all of a sudden? But maybe psychology has effectively replaced spirituality in a way. What with Oprah and Dr. Phil offering us self-understanding for tuning in.

Andy Warhol was spot on when he said that “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought about all the technology so readily available and how that would have impacted his art. I agree that words have tremendous power. Lately I have been trying to become more aware about the things I say and put out there. You made a valid point about how an ill-chosen word can break a connection with your intended audience. Honestly, as excited as I am to see where things are going to go with communication I’m more interested in how our society is going to react to these changes. I feel that the pendulum has swung so far to one side that it’s soon time for it to come crashing back. Does that mean we are going to have a greater importance placed on spirituality? Maybe.

And celebrities, for the most part, are no longer people that we idolize or try to emulate. They have become caricatures and no longer seem human. They are becoming nothing more than a cheap punchline. It’s an interesting time ahead of us. I definitely see things changing in the art world especially in photography. There is this new (re)found love for everything lo-fi. Getting away from the instant gratification of the digital and embracing the much slower process of working with film. Needless to say … the line has been drawn.

Finally, do you anticipate that people will automatically associate the mask with war? If so, what would you say about that connection? 

I’m sure that people will see the gas mask and think about war or terrorism and probably most recently 9/11. That’s to be expected and I’m fine with it. It’s such an historically iconic object that it would be almost impossible to remove that connection. I certainly had that initial flush of recognition when I bought the mask and even when I put it on for the first time. But once the work is out there I have no real control over how it is viewed.  It’s just part of the process.