Artist Interview – Tom Backer

I first discovered Tom Backer’s work in the early 80’s when he was documenting the burgeoning So Cal punk rock scene. Backer’s extensive photographic collection of early punk shows, although unheralded, rivaled the work of better known punk rock documentarian’s like Edward Colver. I was a fan. However, as the 80’s progressed Backer disappeared from my radar and I wasn’t sure what happened to this talented photographer. But as fate would have it, I was fortunate enough to run into Backer’s wife Jennifer recently who pointed me to Tom’s website and gave me an update of what he’s been doing these last few decades. Well it turns out that Backer has been busy in his studio producing wonderful new work consisting mostly of assemblages and reliquaries. After seeing his new work I was blown away, and knew I needed to get his work on the OC Art Blog. So I am pleased to introduce Tom Backer  and his work to the OC Art Blog community. Enjoy!

Tom Backer

Tom Backer

I remember your early work was more traditional photographic work documenting the early So Cal punk rock and surf scene. Tell me how you have transitioned to the work you are doing now?

I was going to a lot of punk shows and I was trying to inconspicuously take photos of the scene I was involved in. The punk rock photographs were taken between  1979 – 83, The Cuckoo’s Nest, Starwood, Godzilla’s, Palladium when I was just starting out with a camera and took a lot of poor images of great bands I was witnessing. The lighting was tricky for a newbie with a camera. The stage was light then dark then light again in a matter of seconds or very low lighting, I quickly learned that timing was critical and a flash on the camera was essential. It was a balancing act of light and dark. A great lesson to learn and something since then I have always tried to accomplish in my art.

Bad Religion

Bad Religion

It was a natural progression from straight photography into the assemblages.  Back in the mid 80’s when I was in college, before digital photography, the photography department was focused on craftsmanship in the darkroom, creating quality prints and attaining skill behind the lens with film, creating an excellent archival print. It was and is an important aspect of art and it taught me the importance of attention to detail.  I was heading in a different direction, attempting to convey an elusive transitory feeling or emotion through the subject’s performances that my camera recorded.   I was proficient in photography and enjoyed manipulating light and the subject matter with long exposures and experimenting with lighting, but the schools focus on the technique of printing seemed to me to overshadow creativity.  The print was becoming the most important part of the process and it lost me artistically. The defining moment for me was when I was enrolled in a painting class and the instructor asked me if I considered myself a photographer or an artist?



She helped me recognize and acknowledge that there was/is a distinction between art photography and documentary photography.  That conversation got me thinking about the creative process and what my goals were in expressing myself artistically. I immersed myself in the art world and found that I loved three dimensional objects, the tactile quality, textures, and shapes. I love manipulating things, taking things apart and putting them together.   I am fascinated by the masks of the Inuit, how they function symbolically, their invention and the fact that they used what they found and had at hand.  I’m also entranced with religious reliquaries the different shapes, beautifully adorned, painted and containing relics that can inspire passion in the viewer.  And of course the assemblage artists of the world!

A Silver Fruit Knife

So I started  experimenting with one of my photographs and including it in a sculpture I made,  combining my photography with other mediums,  and I was loving the result.  I was getting nearer to my goal. When I enrolled at CSUF for my master’s degree in art photography, studying with Eileen Cowin, she encouraged me to expand on creating objects utilizing my photographic images. I realized that my photography didn’t have to be the centerpiece or the foundation of the work. It could function as a signifier to the main idea. It freed me and allowed me to explore themes and subjects I wanted to express three dimensionally and put ideas I had into a cohesive body of work. The breaking down of the theme or idea visually, and metaphorically, juxtaposing, manipulating and linking together objects and images that for me have symbolic power and emotion and building it with a craftsman’s attention to detail, that is what I am striving to accomplish in my artwork.   It feels like I’m always trying to create a haiku poem, sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not.



Do you still shoot photos?

No not like I used to. When photography went digital I didn’t keep up with the process.  But I still like to take photos and sometimes use images I take digitally in the assemblages.

How did you start making art?/Why do you make art?

The ritual of creating something is what I love about making art. Locating, sorting, classifying, research, deconstructing, constructing. It’s a mental, spiritual and physical process that helps create order for me. I believe my family’s nomadic existence in my early years crystallized my need to bring things together and make sense of the world.  Moving around the world and boxing up the few possessions that we could travel with; protecting the small cache of our things, gave them a power almost like talismans.  It helped create continuity with the past in a world that was for me unstable and constantly changing. It became a ritual of sorts when we would get to our next destination and reclaim our things, bits of ourselves. That experience continues to influence the way I work today, 51 years on. I’m still putting things and ideas that are important to me into box like assemblages.


How would you describe your subject matter?

Most of my current work investigates the spiritual and darker side of life.

Do certain themes occur/reoccur in your work? 

Spiritual/sacred, fantasy, narrative

What do you read, listen to, or look at to fuel your work and find inspiration?

I listen to a lot of instrumental music when I’m working, Harold Budd, Biosphere, Black Lung, Jah Wobble, David Sylvian something that’s in the background and subconsciously working on my psyche. I read a lot of Nordic Noir, I just finished Enon by Paul Harding and I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place a memoir by Howard Norman.  I love to read other people’s perspectives on subjects that I also am interested in.  I’m also in the ocean a lot surfing, immersing myself in that element almost daily, gazing at the horizon, experiencing the nuances and power of the ocean humbles me and leaves me feeling like a grain of sand, which I enjoy.


What new projects do you have planned?

I’m continuing with the assemblages and collages to see where it goes. I would love to get involved showing my work in galleries and shows.

How can people find your work? Where would we find you on social media?

Currently I have a website and I maintain a blog called Calenture which can be found at


4 Responses to “Artist Interview – Tom Backer”
  1. Rob says:

    Amazing work, by a very humble artist.
    Inspires me to want to do more…
    Well done Tom and good to see your work getting this coverage.


  2. Mark says:

    I have admired Tom’s work from the first time I saw it many years ago. The article shared some new depth and perspective to his work.

  3. tom backer says:

    Thanks for the kind words you guys! I appreciate it.

  4. Carl says:

    Tom’s art is killer!

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