World-renowned portrait photographer and lifelong Barrington resident Thomas Balsamo celebrates an impressive 35 years in photography this month. Thomas, who is known for his remarkable portraiture, recently shared with us his reflections on his very full and ever-changing career.
As he looked back, Thomas honed in on ten valuable lessons that apply to photography and to life.
10 Lessons we Learned from Talking with Thomas:
1. Find your passion, as early as possible.
Thomas’ uncle Charlie loved photography. When Thomas was a child, his uncle took him under his wing, showing him all he could about the medium. “I loved the darkroom, and the safelights,” Thomas recalls.
On Thomas’ 10th birthday, his uncle gave him a Kodak Instamatic x-15, and Thomas’ passion was ignited. “I fell in love with capturing life’s moments,” Thomas says. “It wasn’t long before I surpassed my uncle in terms of photographic ability.” Thomas believes in exposing children to as many things as possible, early on in their lives. When something piques their interest, he believes you should do all you can to support their exploration.
2. Follow your dreams, even when it’s hard.
Early on, Thomas learned that his new habit was an expensive one. The cost of film and other supplies mounted with Thomas’ growing interest.
At the age of 12, Thomas started a lawn mowing business–using his dad’s ride-on mower–to offset the cost of his photography purchases. As his clientele grew, he continued to save. Soon, he had enough to build his own darkroom in his parents’ basement.
Eventually Thomas became the youngest employee of the Barrington Camera shop (formerly located at 200 South Cook Street). He felt lucky to work as a stock boy for $4.00 per hour. “I remember walking there from Barrington High School [he’s an alumnus] in the blizzard of ’79–that was a fun walk!”
Through his work on the BHS yearbook and newspaper, he learned to collaborate creatively with others–a skill he relies on today.
3. Humble yourself to learn from others.
Soon after high school, Thomas stumbled upon the works of Yousuf Karsh. Known for capturing a glimpse of his subjects’ souls through their eyes, the Armenian-born Karsh became famous after taking Winston Churchill’s portrait. Thomas was instantly inspired: “His work inspired me to my life’s quest of capturing peoples’ essence through portraiture,” Thomas says.
Thomas also considers the late portrait photographer Arnold Newman as a key influence. In the years before Newman passed away, Thomas was selected as one of 10 photographers to attend Newman’s master class–a true honor.
4. Give everything you have to the moment.
Thomas has heard from his clients time and again that his portraits are their most valuable possessions. To produce these treasured images, he knows he has to focus on only the moment at hand. “Each portrait is the most important one to date,” he says.
“I have devoted myself to developing my methods of capturing the essence of individuals rather than a mere physical record,” Thomas says. “I am so happy to have been led down this path.”
5. Elevate others every chance you get.
In 2003, after photographing a few children with autism, Thomas was inspired to create a book-length project featuring these children. He partnered with author Sharon Rosenbloom, a speech and language pathologist and parent of a son with autism, to produce Souls: Beneath & Beyond Autism, which unites Thomas’ unparalleled images with Sharon’s valuable insights.
The result was a gorgeous, humanizing book that honored individuals with autism and raised awareness in the general public. The book also won the Autism Society’s Literary Work of the Year award in 2003.
6. When opportunity knocks, answer.
When Toys R Us approached Thomas in 2007 about creating the “Faces of Autism” campaign, he jumped at the chance. Thomas photographed children with autism, and created beautiful, relatable images that appeared for 4 years in Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores around the country.
The campaign perfectly married Thomas’ superlative portraiture skills with subjects rarely represented. “I have used my skills and talents to aid philanthropic causes whenever possible,” Thomas says. “This was a great opportunity to give children with autism a voice.” Since 2007, the campaign has raised more than 6 million dollars for Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to funding research to prevent, treat and cure autism.
7. Give a voice to those who can teach us the most.
Thomas formed a partnership with GiGi’s Playhouse, a national organization based in Hoffman Estates that serves families with Down Syndrome, to create a photographic gallery with the purpose of raising awareness about the genetic disorder. The Million Voices gallery, which travels to sites ranging from churches to stadiums, seeks to start and deepen the conversation about how to better serve individuals with Down Syndrome and their families.
Click here to find more information about the Million Voices project.
8. Embrace change and continue to hone your craft.
Thomas’ career has spanned the shift from film to digital photography, and he has continually invested in education and equipment to master new techniques. “I miss the darkroom, and the smell of fixer,” Thomas says. But while he may be nostalgic, he fully embraces new technologies.
“Photography is so much more than the technical piece, though,” Thomas says. “I have to connect with my subjects, and gain their trust. Then when I see the moments unfold, I capture them.”
9. Share what you know: teach and mentor whenever you can.
Thomas has learned so much from his mentors, including Arnold Newman. He believes strongly in giving back. He has taught classes at colleges and conferences, and still receives e-mails from students who found his teachings invaluable. “I teach them how to let the artist inside out,” Thomas says.
In 2011, Thomas taught photography to 28 children with special needs. Their images, and the images that Thomas took of them as they learned, were compiled to form a book called Express Yourself.
10. Keep growing.
As Thomas looks ahead to his next 35 years, he envisions continuing his fine art portraiture and expanding his business to include video production. He recently created World Touch Productions in the hopes of using video to offer greater exposure for nonprofit organizations and other philanthropic causes. He has already produced videos for the Crohns and Colitis Foundation of America, GiGi’s Playhouse, A Ride for 3 Reasons, and Walk On Farms, among many others.
Click here to subscribe to World Touch Productions’ You Tube channel, and stay tuned for Thomas’ latest video projects.
Thomas is honored by his longstanding client relationships, rewarded by his philanthropic involvement, and looks forward to continuing both in years to come. “Thank you to my clients for your trust and support during these 35 years of following my passion for portraiture.”
Throughout the month, Thomas is blogging his reflections on 35 years in photography. Click here to read “35 Moments,” Thomas’ 35-year retrospective.
Portraits by Thomas
World Touch Productions: A Video Production Company
25920 West Tara Drive
Barrington, IL 60010
Studio Hours by Appointment Only
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