Crozet Calendar Clinic: Tom Pallante

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Tom Pallante’s photograph of Miller School was featured in the 2011 Crozet calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

by Sam Abell

“Photograph what you know.” This excellent advice is something most aspiring photographers hear early in their creative lives. Then, if they are like me, they soon forget it and set their sights on the opposite notion—photographing what they don’t know.

They leave home, travel far and wide, investigate other cultures and embrace the exotic, all the while keeping up a steady photographic record of what they’ve seen. Between trips their camera stays in the closet, awaiting the next journey into the unknown.

Thankfully the annals of photography—like the history of the other visual arts—are filled with meaningful work done by individuals who stayed home and made deep visual records of what they intimately knew.

Tom Pallante is such an individual. He is Dean of Students at Miller School and for 13 years has taught photography there. As such, his mind is in photography and his life is on the campus. He knows it well—around the clock and across the seasons.

“Living on such a majestic campus offers numerous photographic opportunities, and I have been at this vantage point many times—day and night—either to photograph or simply to walk the dog. It’s a low vantage point allowing for good ‘sky space’ above the imposing buildings of the school.

“This particular evening we were returning to campus and driving past Old Main. There was a brilliantly clear moon on the horizon. I continued home, then rode my bike back to central campus after grabbing a Nikon D70 (a dinosaur by today’s standards) and a tripod. I was new to the world of digital photography and this was my first time shooting at night with a non-film camera.

“The clouds began to spread out and covered nearly the entire sky, helping balance the bright moonlight with the interior lights of the building. But I was less interested in the details of the lights exploding from the windows or the brilliant moon. Instead I concentrated on the colors and light gracing the middle ground of grass, trees and the walking spaces between the buildings.”

Up to this point Tom’s story is broadly familiar. But then he departs from almost all other local photographers by also using large format cameras and vintage processes. In doing so he is part of an influential “slow photography” movement composed of individuals seeking more from image-making than the instant gratification a digital camera provides.

“I studied traditional photography as an undergraduate student at the College of Wooster. There I became fascinated by my professor’s use of photographic processes to “create” images with techniques such as cyanotype, Van Dyke and liquid emulsion.

“In graduate school my mentor was a much more refined, traditional photographer. He used large format cameras with a greater focus on “capturing” images by concentrating on composition, light and exquisite printing. Those two paths shaped my interest in the more “hands on” approach of the photographic process.

“In short, I like my work to have its own thumb print. To achieve that satisfaction, I use a variety of antiquated processes, most recently the wet plate collodion process and also making tintypes with 8×10 and 5×7 view cameras. I also shoot a lot of negatives using photographic paper rather than film.

“I’m very interested in the history of photography, the evolution and use of the photographic image and the process involved in capturing images. I like the unique properties of the “one and done” processes such as the wet plate process. Each plate is unique to itself. You have one shot at getting it right.

“The subject matter I work with is usually ‘close to home’— my family, personal belongings, backyard and nearby areas. My involvement currently is more that of an artist. Portraits of students I work with and my kids are what most interest me. In addition to portraiture, I am also fascinated by capturing light itself. I am drawn to the ‘glow’ of working with old lenses. I own a couple vintage lenses from the late 1800s. They are imperfect in many ways but also unique.

“When I do not have people to photograph, I will walk in the woods or my backyard and look for interesting moments of light in nature. I especially like the rugged growth of the Virginia landscape and often photograph with a sense of wonder and fascination about the places I encounter. I’m interested in what came before and how the buildings and trees—now tangled and broken down—got to this moment.”

In keeping with the theme of photographing what you know best, Tom also makes images of the daily life of his family, especially his two children. “Before they were born, I exhibited prints of my work. That’s something I’ll continue to do once they finish their schooling.”

Tom Pallante is on Instagram, Facebook and at www.tompallantephotography.com.

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