Tom Butler working in his studio. Photo contributed by Sarah Bouchard

British-born artist Tom Butler has a bone to pick with photography.

Believing photography alters the human memory, Butler aims to challenge viewers of his work by both revealing and concealing a photograph’s subject, exposing the journey of the paper image itself through rubbings, paintings and bronze casts. Some of that art will be on display during a show opening this Saturday in Woolwich.

“My elevator pitch for the whole thing is as human beings our brains are such extraordinarily complex things, I don’t think we fully understand what it is when we look at a photograph,” Butler said.

Splitting his time between Britain and Maine, Butler has served as a visiting artist and critic at Bowdoin College, Maine College of Art and Design, and Maine Media Workshops + College. He has had solo exhibits featured all over the world, including Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

Butler’s show challenges viewers to see photographs through a sculptor’s eyes.

Originally an excuse to get out of high school gym class, Butler took a photography course and discovered light was an artistic medium that could be altered and manipulated, he said.


After losing his father last year, Butler said he sat down and examined numerous photo albums his father made to keep track of the years. While he was glad to have the photos, Butler said it made him question the power of his own memory.

“Am I remembering them or the photograph of them? What would my brain be like if I had none of these photographs?” he asked.

In this exhibit, Butler attempts to manipulate and “devolve” photographs taken by other photographers.

Butler said he was inspired by the 1830s photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, who said photography would one day replace pencils, sparking Butler’s idea to deconstruct a photo back to its purest form.

Using Victorian cabinet cards from the 1860s — antique photographs pasted to cardboard — Butler made pencil rubbings to expose any creases and tears to tell the story of the image’s journey, potentially revealing something about the owner.

After Butler found a photo postcard of a young woman from 1910 in an antique shop, he said he could tell the person who originally owned it cared about the subject because it was well preserved.


Tom Butler’s “Don’t Show This to Anybody.” Framed, 11.5 by 9 inches. Colored pencil on paper. 2021. Photo contributed by Sarah Bouchard

The woman in the photograph was wearing a fancy hat and a new jacket, striking a pose for the camera. On the postcard, she wrote to someone named Mitt, describing her clothing, how much she weighed and what she didn’t like about her body. She then asked him not to show anyone the photo, Butler said.

“Don’t die when you see this. Don’t show this to anybody or I won’t send you any more,” she wrote on the postcard.

This inspired the title of Butler’s show, “Don’t Show This to Anybody.”

“Both subjects are gone, and yet here I am looking at it,” Butler said.

He said by creating a pencil rubbing of the photo rather than displaying the actual image, he kept Mitt’s promise.

Butler also painted over a number of cabinet cards using thin white paint called gesso.


“The gesso is sanded back and repainted until the figure sits at the brink of visibility, like a fading memory,” he said.

Tom Butler’s “Madison,” from the Ghostcards series. 6.5 by 4.25 by .625 inches. Cabinet card on custom wood panel, gesso and wax. 2021. Photo contributed by Tom Butler

Working with the metal casting shop, Green Foundry in Elliot, Maine, Butler had six cabinet cards cast in bronze. He said, like pencil rubbings, the bronzing process shows all the dents, folds and dings in a photograph.

Only measuring a millimeter thick, “a photograph was actually incinerated in the casting process,” Butler said.

Tom Butler’s “Anderson,” from the Bronzetypes series. 6.5 by 4.25 inches. Bronzecast cabinet card. 2022. Photo contributed by Sarah Bouchard

With over 115 sculptures on display, Butler said he hopes visitors leave the gallery thinking, “I can’t imagine a world without photography, but I’m glad somebody else is.”

The exhibit runs Aug. 13 through Sept. 18 at the Sarah Bouchard Gallery located at 13 Nequasset Pines Road in Woolwich.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sarah Bouchard’s last name and the name of the exhibit, “Don’t Show This to Anybody.”

Tom Butler’s “Bright Corners.” 1.9 feet by 60 inches. Lexjet satin cloth print. 2020. Photo contributed by Sarah Bouchard

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