Tim Sugden – Photographer

A Series in Lefts and Rights


Tim Sugden isn’t a stranger to opening doors into new worlds and fantastical realms. He is a self-taught artist and photographer who has created a unique career out of a variety show of twists and turns. While Tim has always loved traveling, he is proud of his Oregon roots. He grew up in Milwaukie and Carver, and has been a longtime resident of Portland. One of Tim’s life challenges was learning how to live with dyslexia. Not one to shrink from a challenge he relates, “Being dyslexic and going through school before anyone really knew what it was, you had to find other outlets. Even though I don’t have a high school diploma or a college degree, it hasn’t stopped me.”

Finding work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Walt Disney’s World on Ice, and other smaller circuses and shows was the perfect outlet for Tim. Coupled with his easy going and humorous nature, he was able to find profound acceptance. “The friendships I developed back then are closer to me than my family. Those of us who really didn’t fit in were accepted for who we were. Those things that made you different also made you special. ”

Next, following a sort of natural progression that led out of show biz, Tim turned his attention towards a series of distinct yet related media publications. Counting lead photographer for About Face among his current roles, he has more than enough outlets to keep himself busy, and entertained.  “I’m a self-motivated kind of guy. I’ve never been afraid to do something—whether or not I’ve had the time to do it is a different story,” he says.

How did you begin working with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus?

I started out as a snow cone vendor in ’79. I was about three months from my 17th birthday, and I went over to the Coliseum here in town to ask them about a job. They asked me if I wanted to travel. I said yeah. They asked me if I was 18. I said no. They asked if I could get a note from my mom. Even though I was living on my own, I still got a note from my mom, packed up some stuff from my apartment, and went on the road.

The last week of that season we were in Nassau, Long Island and I decided I wanted to sell programs the next season. It was better money, not as much running, and you didn’t have ice dripping all over you all day long! My boss Jimmy Bullduke goes, “You gotta be able to sell a dirty cigarette butt on a stick before you can sell programs.” Being the facetious bastard I am I took some cigarette butts and some vinyl sticks that we had for balloons, I rubber-banded them on there and I stood there, selling circus cigarette butts. Some guy walked up and asked me what the hell I was doing. When I told him he goes, “How much are they?” I told him a dollar. He goes, “Here’s a five. Give me all of them.” The next year I was selling programs.

Tim Sugden Art Photo3How did your show biz career further develop?

So on Ringling I was in concessions, and then I went into the sales and promotions end of it with smaller circuses like Circus Gatti. After Feld bought Walt Disney’s World on Ice, with Michael Eisner, I took classes for sales and promotions and marketing through Ringling. I received a certificate for a two-and-a-half year program based on the ideals of P.T. Barnum regarding the front stage, or the concessions and the program salespeople. Basically, when you walk through the gate everyone you meet is in character, from the guy that’s sweeping the street to the person who’s serving you your hot dog or ice cream. Everybody is part of the show. When I sold programs I used to flip the program and spin it in the air. I was that first guy that anybody saw. I was the first door into that make-believe world and letting the rest of their world fall away.

So Ringling led to working with Walt Disney’s World on Ice, but how did that translate into other shows and circuses, like Circus Gatti?

I was on Ringling for 12  years and Walt Disney’s World on Ice for five. I also had a novelty stand on Disney—after I busted my toe and came home to heal and met my ex-wife, who I had grown up with, and we got married. We went out on the road for two years after that until my son was born. Then, I came off the road and worked with family for four years. Then Eric Braun, Sr., who was one of my best friends on Ringling, who married Patti Gatti, asked me if I’d come back out on the road and handle some of the concessions and forward promotions for Circus Gatti. I did that for a while, and then we produced Moscow on Ice in Canada in ’97. That was with Eric Braun and Brian Nichols.

Tim Sugden Art Photo2What is your earliest memory that set you off in an artistic direction?

I’ve always been an artist. I’ve drawn since I can remember, 4 or 5 years old. I studied art in high school, and did a little bit of photography in junior high, not a lot. They taught me things in school, which I’m sure translated, but as far as photography, I am mostly self-taught. It was just pulling the trigger a lot, taking a lot of frames. You learn what works and what doesn’t.

What got you into the magazine industry?

The whole thing goes back to when I met David Bentley the publisher of Face Value magazine. It was published in Portland in the early 90s. While David and I sold Kirby vacuums door-to-door, we spoke of launching a new magazine. In 1996, David and I launched SEEN magazine. I was the co-publisher of SEEN, the first magazine I had ever done. That’s when I got into photography, shooting product and ads for the magazine. Then in ’99 my ex-wife and her husband moved my kids down to Florida, and in 2000, I moved down there to be with my kids.

That must have been quite the U-turn in your life?

I supported myself when I first got down there with photography, doing portraits for a couple photography companies. I then did some marketing for a chiropractic clinic that specialized in auto accidents. I ended up becoming clinic director, and 50-percent owner there. We had two clinics over three years, but when my partner had liver failure, we decided to close in ’05.

When I came back to Portland, I worked with new startup PDX Magazine for about a year, and after that went over to work with everybody at MapClicks. I took over the Dine and Drink map, and that’s when I started getting heavily into photography again, shooting food and ads—everything from hair salons to little shops and stores.

Tim Sugden Art PhotosWhat’s the difference between taking photographs of food and people?

Food doesn’t tell you what its best side is. [Laughs]

What are your favorite subjects to shoot?

I love shooting food because every food shoot comes with a meal. [Laughs] Next would be my art. I’ve been shooting a lot more art pieces in the last two years, and I think I’m going more that way with my preference. I also enjoy shooting fashion, and the stylized portrait shots for About Face. It’s very challenging, but also interesting and fun.

As far as your own art, when did you start doing gallery shows?

I really have to thank Carole Bordak from Forever Art for that. She liked my take on things, and my eye as far as composition. She’s the one who really pushed me to go ahead and process images and put them out there to sell. That’s a big step as an artist. It comes both with that adulation and rejection at the same time. A few months ago the gallery closed, but she still does pop-up stores and I am continuing to sell through her.

Do you think your work has an obvious PNW influence?

Answer the question regarding things you never think about!

It’s more about nostalgia for me, and feeling that connection with my youth. I like Portland because Portland is a great mix of old and new. You’ll have something very new in steel and glass next to something that’s old and wood and dilapidated and rusted. For me, in what I shoot professionally for the magazine and the maps, as well as in my own art, I enjoy that high contrast in color and texture, as well as subject—it’s that couture dress in a junkyard.

How do you approach your shoots?

I do a little bit of research, and then I ask a lot of questions and basically do my own interview. I may have a concept before I show up, but for the most part, nothing is preconceived before I walk through the door. The person’s look and surroundings are going to dictate where that’s going to go. Ads alike. I tend to rely on free flow because, on one hand it’s more creative, but that spontaneity comes through with the image and is a little bit more natural than what I might envision.

The image’s job is to stop the eye and draw you in. The editorial or the ad is the information you absorb after that. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I want that picture to be the thousand words the writer didn’t think about saying.

What is the process you go through with your drawing?

It starts with a single line on the piece of paper. I approach drawing in the same way I approach photography. There’s nothing preconceived. When my life is calm enough that I can sit down and draw, I have the music on and nothing in my head.

Are there other forms of media you enjoy working in?

I’ve been thinking lately about painting—perhaps painting with the images that I shoot. Just shooting a subject as it is, that’s not really art. It is also very difficult to sell. You want to take what’s there and try to make it yours. I don’t change the image; I try to translate it in a different way by altering the feel or the texture into something that looks more like an illustration or painting.

How would you define your work with About Face?

I’m the main photographer for the magazine. If something else needs to be shot, I assign that out. I shoot 90 percent of the magazine, as far as editorials, and probably about 60-70 percent of the ads as well. On one hand, that lends to the look of the magazine and creates continuity. However, I do consciously try to change the look of my images as I’ve progressed, and then bring in one or two photographers for each issue if I can, to bring in a little more diversity.

Which were your favorite shoots?

Artistically—Jay Moody of Jagged Edge Studios, Buzz Siler (Siler Studios Gallery), David Iler of Alchemy Jewelers. Most interesting—Jim Riswold of Wieden+Kennedy, Bibi McGill, Beyonce’s music director, David Giuntoli from the NBC-TV show Grimm and Robin Lopez of the Portland Trail Blazers.

What’s the next step for you?

Fame and retirement! [Laughs] I am publishing Northwest Wine Pairing and Cookbook with Chef Earl Johnson. It is going to be a series of cookbooks that come out, one every six or eight months. I would like to get the first one out by Christmas of this year or spring of next. Earl has a unique set of talents. He’s not only a five-star chef who taught at Cornell for five years, he’s also a sommelier. The book is really about showcasing his knowledge and talents, and mine at the same time, to produce a book that is going to be easy and fun to use but interesting and different from most cookbooks.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

The next five years are really going to be about defining and refining what I’m going to do, but also trying to simplify my life a little bit—getting control of my ADD. [Laughs] I am working on my art. I am doing some stuff with Cheesy Flicks and Grindhouse Comics, which is not really defined yet. I am also donating time to Styled for a Cause (styledforacause.weebly.com). It’s a nonprofit designed to allow those whose self-esteem and sense of self worth have been compromised by cancer the opportunity to have a full makeover and photoshoot with professional artists and stylists.  I lost my grandmother, mother, and spouse Gina to cancer.

I sit on the board as well as the marketing committee for the Portland Chamber Orchestra. We are working to broaden our audience by having performances that go outside the box of a typical chamber orchestra. And we are introducing chamber music to junior high and high school students with performances and programs.

Greatest influences on your life?

My kids have been a big inspiration—two kids and five grandchildren. Artistically, it was H.R. Giger, Michael Parkes, and Ansel Adams. Aside from that, I just kind of go my own way. I’ve had a life of a lot of lefts and rights, most of them ninety degrees. I’ve always welcomed change because that’s when you’re really living, when you’re learning and discovering new things. I’m willing to try anything, fail or succeed. We only learn from our failures. We don’t really learn from our successes.


About The Author: Jenn Dawson