Tommy Thomas was an unorthodox free spirit to the very end. He died on Sept. 21, 1994 at the age of 71, and was buried in a shirt covered in jellybeans, wearing bright red socks. He was never a "suit-and-tie" kind of person - not in life, not in photography, and not even in death. Tommy never settled for living with other peoples rule's.
In the 1950's he experimented with 3-D photography - and he really EXPERIMENTED! While 3-D camera experts stated to always keep the camera level, he suggested "deliberately tilting your stereo camera when taking a picture"
to utilize the diagonal compositions & drama that tilting it would
create. He suggested shooting pointing up or looking down to create
more interesting angles of perspective. Tommy's attitude was "If you and your friends consider the stereos that you now take as being the greatest, then - they are!"
specialty, and that which we all knew and loved him for, was trick 3-D
photography. Tommy would spend hours and hours, sometimes days,
creatively and ingeniously planning a single shot. Sometimes many
exposures were involved, sometimes special effects, sometimes specially
built ingenious props were utilized to make the shot work. He was
frequently successful, and he was always uniquely creative. "The Bodiless Cowboy" was his most famous image, appearing in "The Stereo Realist Manual"
book by Morgan & Lester published in 1954. The chapter he wrote in
this book describes many of his techniques - giving diagrams, charts
and examples to easily help the reader start making their own
"Stereolusions" (the title of that chapter, and a word he coined
own trick images were so unusual that he offered them for sale in the
1950's under the name "Stereolusions". Nowadays these are highly
collectable and for good reason. These were duplicates of his slides of
"The Bodiless Cowboy", "Peek-a-Boo"',
"The Monster", "Portrait of the Photographer", "The Great Profile",
"Double Exposure", "The Blonde from Outer Space", "The Primary Colors",
"The Little Poker Player", "Shattered', "Bikini Babe", "The Girl in the
Ice Block", "Portrait of a Salad", "Alan Young as Twins", "The
World's Fastest Lenses", and more. Each one was a gem of a slide.
For example, he once wrote me a description of what went in to creating "The Blonde From Outer Space": He said,
"My own personal favoritest of all! I built a wooden device that would
set atop a very sturdy tripod, that would allow me to rotate my Realist
upon its own center (the viewfinder). Then I spent weeks roaming around
L.A. after dark, photographing neon signs. I actually took hundreds and
hundreds of color stereos, exploring all the various possibilities.
Then, rather excited about it all, I talked Snoka and her brother into
going to Las Vegas with me, to help me take this one photo. We had to
wait until four in the morning for the traffic to subside enough so I
could set up in the middle of the street with all my clumsy apparatus.
Snoka and her brother helped me set up, then guarded my back and held
back the traffic for me. It was a full one minute exposure: for 58
seconds I didn't touch the camera, just let the neon lights burn in
(small aperture) and during the last two seconds I rotated the camera
upon its own axis. This, as I knew, left me with a black sky
(completely unexposed) "circle" in the center. Several weeks later,
hiring a model (I was going all out) and having an "outer space "
outfit made up, I took the second photo against a huge velvet
background . . . upon the still-undeveloped film, of course. Being much
younger then, after all this work, if it hadn't turned out just as I
had planned, I most likely would have killed myself. "
During the period of 1954-1955 Tommy wrote a monthly column entitled "Modern Stereo" for Modern Photography magazine. His attitude
was always one of how to keep stereography easy and fun - if it got too
complicated he felt people would lose interest. He outlined and
explained how to create those trick shots he was famous for, plus other
important aspects of stereo photography such as mounting, multiple
exposures, fantastically easy close-ups with a stereo camera,
fill-flash, and much more. I'm sure many, many people were inspired to
try new and exciting things after reading his columns. Later he wrote
me "Nothing secret or sacred about
any of the explanations. In fact, I've always had the feeling that it
added to the enjoyment of the stereos to explain to people just how
they were made. So, if you wish, please do so yourself!"
In 1978 David Starkman & I decided to publish our own newsletter about 3-D photography under the name "Reel 3-D News".
We were inspired after researching the subject through the periodicals
of the 1950's. We used to cut out ads, articles and any mention of 3-D
in these old magazines. We felt fortunate to have found most of Tommy's
old columns, and wanted to reprint them to share with more modern 3-D
enthusiasts. Through asking around, and a lot of word of mouth, we
managed to find a phone number for Tommy. I called him up. It was the
beginning of a pen pal friendship that I will treasure all my life.
I found Tommy (now Tom) living in Arizona. An early retirement had allowed him the kind of life many of us dream of, but never make happen. He lived a simple life - didn't travel, didn't buy lots of things, simply enjoyed his family, his photography (now flat, but still marvelously creative) and his world. We corresponded for 16 years, sharing all kinds of subjects, including 3-D. Every 3-D convention throughout the world that we attended during that period I wrote a detailed report of the programs, people, location and benefits of attending. He was interested and enjoyed hearing what was happening in 3-D from Nimslo to Toshiba, Stereo Club of Southern California to the International Stereoscopic Union.
Every letter I received from Tom included at least one photograph, usually glued onto the letter, and set into a box within the letter. These were always something amazingly wonderful - always snapshots, but never ordinary. I've kept every one, and will always appreciate the relationship we shared and the mementos he left with me.
Tom Thomas was unique. He was a kind soul, a creative vital force, and a generous spirit. He will be remembered for his contributions to stereo photography, but some will never forget him for all the other wonderful pieces of our hearts and lives that he touched.