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Tom Shillea: Creating Art with Light and a Camera

The back wall of Professor Shillea’s office is dominated by a student’s painting of dark, encroaching thunderheads. His desk is sleek glass, and cameras of all sizes and shapes dapple his workspace. A guest can immediately tell Shillea is a professional when working with light from the tender, almost dim glow in the office. Unfortunately, soft light is not conducive to plant life, and when paired with the lack of windows one can understand the choice of a plastic bonsai tree over biological. This is the office of a man who has been in the Oval Office, and seen the Camposanto Monumentale of Italy, the streets of Rome, Florence, Venice, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Valley of Temples in Sicily- all through the lens of a camera.

In 1983, Tom Shillea, Director of Art Programs at Northampton Community College, spent four hours taking pictures of Coretta Scott King, widow of the late Martin Luther King Jr. In July 2015, one of these portraits was selected from thousands of King to appear in African American Women, a book published jointly by the Smithsonian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Shillea is not unaccustomed to photographing celebrities, and throughout his career has also taken portraits of Ronald Reagan, Sissy Spacek, Malcom Forbes, Mario Andretti and Thor Heyerdahl. These opportunities presented themselves after a producer working for the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C. commissioned him for a project entitled Gallery of Famous Americans.

The portrait of King was taken in Washington, D.C., where she was staying to serve as Keynote speaker for the annual Congressional Black Caucus event, because President Reagan had just instituted MLK Day as a national holiday. The photos were taken in King’s hotel room, and Shillea describes the session as “intense.” He states that King was a dynamic personality, and during their time together silence was a nonentity. She was constantly in motion, while speaking of politics, singing operatic arias, or finishing lunch.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture learned of the portrait of Coretta Scott King through the chief curator, Doctor Jacquelyn Days Serwer. She was visiting the college for an event and Shillea’s position as Director of Art Programs at NCC brought the two in contact during an administrative lunch. During conversation he mentioned the pictures of King, and at Serwer’s request he sent a portfolio of the ten final images. Of those ten, the museum chose three for their collection. A year later Shillea received a letter from the museum informing him that of the three, one would be published in African American Women.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Shillea said. “You never know when an opportunity is going to come your way, but you have to be ready to grab it and do it. Put yourself in the right spot, and then you take advantage of it.”

Shillea found himself in this “spot” after receiving a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology. He then moved to Philadelphia and opened a photography studio, dealing mainly in commercial advertising, but also in fine artistic photography. In 1981 he had an exhibit of his platinum prints on display in the Rosenfeld Gallery, which is where Garfinkle saw them and proposed Shillea’s involvement in the Gallery of Famous Americans project.

Shillea views photography as a quickly fading magic thanks to the growing impact of technology in the field. To him, The magic lies in the darkroom, specifically the moment when the latent image on a blank paper becomes a visible image, appearing like a ghost after sloshing developing chemicals around in a tray. Before that moment, a photographer has no idea what their picture will look like, only relying on faith in the craft and their skill with a camera to arrive at that gratifying moment of recognition. Arriving at that magic moment requires three steps: taking a picture, developing the film, and making the print. Today, technology eliminates all but the first of those steps with the sole click of a button.

“There is no moment of recognition where it goes from a latent image to a visible image; smoke and mirrors.”

According to Shillea, the skill required and difficulty in producing a photo is what makes traditional photography an art. “To be a photographer you really had to be a technician, a chemist, and a craftsman. So it was an art, a science and a craft. And that’s what I always found fascinating about it.” Traditional photography produces a tangible product, the physical print, while digital cameras simply create a file.

Of all the arts, Shillea states that technology has uniquely afflicted photography more than the other arts by becoming too democratized, specifically through the smartphone. This should not imply that Shillea hates the digital camera—in some situations he states it can be very useful. He regularly uses one and even teaches a digital photo class.

“I have a foot in the nineteenth century, the twentieth, and the twenty-first in terms of photography.”

At present, cameras are seen more as a tool of documentation than as a vessel for art. “The art is dead because it’s too easy; it’s more of a hobby than art now.”

Shillea believes today the most successful photographers need to have their own studios, and while the opportunity exists to demand thousands of dollars per session, they would need to be a professional of the highest caliber. In his mind, though, it usually takes a minimum of ten years “slugging rats” to get to that point.

“I never encourage my students to study photography as a career—as a matter of fact I discourage them. It’s too hard. But some ignore my advice go out there and prove me wrong, which is good.” To succeed in the field today a Type A personality is key, which entails dedication, passion, total confidence in oneself, and a ruthless drive to beat competition.

Even though Shillea’s work has been published in American Photographer Magazine, How Design Magazine, and various newspapers and other publications, he finds his most meaningful portraits are private pictures of his family: His wife, whom he has been photographing for nineteen years, his son, and more recently his granddaughter (whose own art hangs on his office wall).

Overall, Shillea finds that fulfillment in his career comes from the artistic side of photography. “Cameras are very powerful; very famous people will do really weird things that you ask them to do to let you photograph them, it’s bizarre… The camera can get you into things and places that almost are impossible to get in any other way.”