The veteran photographer talks about his adventures capturing world events, the importance of helping students understand what it takes to be a pro, and the pre-PocketWizard days when wireless triggering involved a bunch of guys with headsets and packs strapped to their waists.
Alejandro Tomas sees his life of photographic adventures as having already provided him with “more than one lifetime worth of experiences,” he says. “Somebody once told me it's like an eTicket at Disneyland—you get to go on all the rides.”
What a ride it’s been for Tomas, indeed. He has seen historical events unfold before his cameras from the time he was a child growing up near the White Sands Missile Range, where his father, a Korean War veteran, was stationed. When he saw his friends winding up incarcerated or overdosing, Tomas chose to escape by serving in the Navy, and attended the Navy School of Photography. After graduation, he was deployed to Vietnam aboard the USS Enterprise. He photographed from helicopters and was involved in the 1975 evacuations in Phnom Penh and Saigon at the tail end of the Vietnam War.
After his service was done, Tomas attended the Brooks Institute on the G.I. Bill. Upon graduation, around the time when Ronald Reagan was elected President, he became a White House stringer working out of Santa Barbara. He began working nationally, then internationally, taking assignments from magazines like Forbes, TIME, and Newsweek. His travels took him to places like Nicaragua and Guatemala—not the safest of locations during the Reagan era.
In 1982, well before Perestroika and Glasnost, Tomas began making trips to Eastern Europe while working for Underground Evangelism (now renamed Mission Without Borders), a religious organization that smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. Tomas had his camera and film secreted into Soviet satellite countries in a fleet of cars outfitted with secret compartments. “I had access to this underground railroad, if you would, of safe houses, and traveled with this network of Christians,” he recalls. With the group’s primary mission being to support clandestine churches, Tomas took part in events worthy of any spy novel. He cites Erich Honecker’s East Germany and Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania as two of the most harrowing police states he operated in.
Shooting with a Nikon F3 for stills and a Canon Scoopic 16mm for motion, Tomas would eventually meet up with his film after it had been smuggled out. “It was like what you think World War II must have been like, with the spies and stuff,” he says. “It was really bizarre.”
One of his most famous images from this period he called “The Brothers Marx”; it was taken during a May Day parade through Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, under the watchful eyes of the Politburo. As the Cuban brigade marched through (they can be seen in the foreground of the photo), Tomas saw his chance. Feeling he looked similar to the Cuban soldiers, he slipped in between East Germans holding AK-47s. Pulled back by two men in black leather trench coats screaming in German, he thought quickly and brilliantly when an interpreter appeared from nowhere to begin the questioning. “When I got out of Brooks, the best job I could get at the time was a janitor position at the University of California Santa Barbara,” he recalls. “I pulled out this UCSB ID card and said, ‘I'm a visiting professor of photography here to capture your socialist wonderland in all its communist glory for my students.’ The guy paused for a moment and then he shut up after it was interpreted and he said, ‘Das ist gut.’"
Tomas was then ordered to stay where he was instead of going back out into the parade. “You mean I have to stay in this area where Honecker is?” he asked his questioners, employing a little reverse psychology. The answer was yes. Given a small amount of freedom in a VIP area, the American photographer was able to work his way to the top of a television camera scaffold and capture his iconic photo. He even got close enough to Honecker himself to photograph him with a 300mm lens.
"The Brothers Marx," © Alejandro Tomas
With a family at home to support, Tomas realized he couldn’t afford to continue risking his life with no insurance while working as a stringer. In the navy, he had fallen in love with aircraft of all sorts. He decided he wanted to photograph planes, and soon found ways to shoot for aviation companies in addition to covering aviation for periodicals. The work lasted until the bottom fell out of the industry in the 1990 recession.
Before that particular crash, Tomas made himself invaluable by being attentive to the business aspects of aviation photography. He quickly saw that when photographers went to shoot an airplane—with a new paint job, for instance—the manufacturer would have to delay its delivery or hold up production. “I came to understand they had a great need for photography—not only documentation, but the marketing shots,” he recalls. “I offered a solution that became very effective for them. I came in as a journalist and made them give me a shot list of what they wanted. They told me when the various aspects of what they wanted covered were going to take place. I'd show up in anticipation of these moments with the eye of a journalist, but introduce studio lighting on the fly. I had up to, oh, at times, eight assistants. I gave them all voice-activated headsets and Norman 200B's strapped to their waists. They had gels and diffusion material either taped to the body or accessible in bags.”
In that pre-digital age, Tomas had his assistants color correct on the spot for sodium vapor while he was color correcting on camera with gels. He could not only color correct back to white light in conditions with multiple light sources, but he could then color correct the strobes, color correct the camera, and increase the color gelling for dramatic effect to produce the candy colors prevalent in the 1980s. “A lot of corporate shooters were doing that at the time and trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,” he explains. “I could go in and cover a huge amount and create a lot of material and not interrupt the workflow or production or delivery of the aircraft.”
"Hopi Guards Stealth," © Alejandro Tomas
Tomas recalls how he shot the photograph above for TIME magazine at the unveiling of a Stealth fighter jet in Nevada. Few photographers with only digital experience will be able to relate to the color-correction acrobatics film shooters went through back in the day.
“I was up there with all these other photo jockeys, and I tried to do something different. I took a Nikon 20mm lens on my Nikon F3 and put tungsten film in the camera, and then magenta in front of the lens to create a royal blue shift. I then backed it out with a telephoto reflector on the Norman 200B and backed out the magenta, backed out the tungsten to white light, and then put in a tungsten gel on top of that. The lone guard who was guarding that particular Stealth turned out to be a Hopi Indian, so I call it ‘Hopi Guards Stealth.’ If you know anything about the Hopi culture, it's really a contradiction, this weapon of war. I was able to time the movement, handheld movement of the telephoto reflector and the tight concentric beam it would throw out on the subject as he was pacing up and down with his M16.”
Tomas was an early adopter of Adobe Photoshop, and is still amazed at the digital tools photographers have at their disposal. But he hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned during a time when you had to get things right in-camera, and he passes them on to his students today.
Tomas credits the work he did after the aviation industry crash, shooting up to five assignments a day for the New York Times in Santa Barbara, with sending both the quality of his work and his ability as a photographer "through the roof.” The experience of mastering his craft by meeting rigorous professional demands informed his approach when he joined the faculty of Seattle Community College in 1993. “We're a commercial program,” he says of the school’s Commercial Photography Program, where he teaches today. “By that we mean to our students we don't care if they want to be a fine art photographer, a journalist, a product photographer, or a fashion photographer. It makes no difference to us. We tell them, ‘It's taken for granted you're a master of your craft and you're a very capable technician, but you must be a constant businessperson.’”
The program stresses that what photographers bring to clients’ tables must be different than what the competition offers. It teaches them to consider what, as business people, they offer in the way of service. What value-added services do they contribute beyond a great photograph? What problem-solving and solutions can they offer clients? Can they solve client problems at a logistical level? Tomas and his colleagues push students to ask themselves these questions as part of a holistic approach to preparing graduates for the future. It's an approach that has made the program stronger and more competitive: Each year over 150 applicants wait on a list for 32 photography major spots.
Tomas credits EDU [now PhotoVideoEDU] with making an important contribution to giving his students a well-rounded education as well. “Bill Gratton of the PhotoVideoEDU [PhotoVideoEDU] program has been incredible over the years,” he says. “He's one of our strongest supporters, if not our strongest supporter, and really understands what we're trying to do here in the program. We are so fortunate he has become the supporter he has, and brought so many wonderful opportunities to the program. The quality of the products of the MAC Group goes with saying, but Bill brings that additional 'not just salesperson’ technique. He comes in as an educator, and his presentations are incredible. He astounds the students every year when he throws the Sekonic meter on the ground—slams it into the ground. He picks it up, puts whatever fell off of it back on and proceeds to use it. It's just a great demonstration of the durability of the products MAC Group carries. Like I said, he isn't just there to sell the students; he's there to really help them to come to understand what the business of photography holds for their future.”
“Not only that,” Tomas continues, “but he's brought so many people—national speakers—and connected us with so many folks over the years. It’s just immeasurable, his contribution to our program. We are so deeply grateful he really believes in what we're trying to do in the way of education. There's so many schools I’ve seen which really not only are, to a degree, locked in the past, but also really have no inclination to help their students come to understand what it takes to be a photographer; whether it’s a fine art photographer, journalist, or a product advertising photographer, it really is a business at every level. Bill is one of the advocates for that type of photographic education, and there are a few folks he's connected us with around the country who are like-minded. It's a great feeling, because for so long we felt like an island in that regard educationally.”
Tomas feels strongly about the program he’s helped build and the quality of the products they encourage their students to use. He sees MAC Group gear having a fundamental impact on his students. “With the equipment such as PocketWizard and the various advantages of the ability to get precise metering now with the Sekonic we use, the L-358, I'm very encouraged by the kinds of tools we have at our disposal now to be able to create images. The students are now creating images I could never dream possible without this equipment. They so easily adapt to it,” he says. “For me, back in the day, I really struggled with a lot of the technical, to be honest. I feel I had a good eye, but these kids today I'm seeing are eye‑brained. They're able to grasp the technicals so quickly. I kind of wonder if it isn't the ease of the tools—the use of the tools—and not just their ability to see. Of course, they've been immersed in technology since they were how old anymore.”