Remembering Bill Thomas: nature photographer, author, friend

While planning the next two years traveling the state shooting nature photos, writing books, and leading nature photo workshops, I’ve been channeling my old mentor and friend-in-the-'70s Bill Thomas, which was inevitable. What I am doing today is exactly what he was doing when we met in 1978, except he was traveling the world. And he told me I could too.

At 27, I was eager but not sure that photography was my calling, despite encouragement from the manager at Hazel’s Camera Center and a local art critic who, during my first exhibit in the MCPL Fine Arts Lounge, stopped me in the middle of Kirkwood Avenue and told me he was “stunned by every image.” [In 1978, you could discuss art in the middle of Kirkwood.]

Bill was an accomplished writer and photographer who, two years after he had been awarded the 1976 National Geographic Award for Photography, was launching a new career phase. He walked into Hazel’s, where I sold cameras, with a stack of fliers about a freelance nature photography workshop he was holding at his wooded home east of Nashville. I was the first to sign up.

In his mid-40s when we met, Bill led the life I dreamed of: professional nature photographer. He had been the Cincinnati Enquirer travel editor before he left in 1966 to launch a freelance career. Between 1974 and 1978, he had published seven books – two coffee tables, five travels and one on kites.

The workshop was held at the A-frame in the Brown County woods, with a small pond in the front yard and a larger one up the hill in back, where Bill lived with his family. He wrote his books on the ground floor, via a well-worn path in the rug where he mentally composed his sentences before committing them to paper on a manual typewriter. No Undo commands in 1978.

The Elizabethtown, Ky., native had his two coffee table books –The Swamp [1976] and American Rivers: A Natural History [1978] – displayed along with copies of his National Geographic and other freelance work when a dozen or so aspiring photogs arrived on a sunny Saturday October morning seeking his wisdom. Over a day and a half, he talked; we talked; and we all hiked and photographed on the property.

During that workshop weekend, I shot a self-portrait reflection in a pond bubble from Bill’s canoe that won Honorable Mention in a Bloomington Area Arts Council photo contest – the only photo competition I ever entered. More importantly, Bill and I formed a mutual admiration society of sorts.

I don’t recall how many times we talked on the phone, but it was enough that the lengthy chats became fodder for family banter. I never was much on phone talk. Bill would stop by the camera store when he was in town. We talked over beers at The Brigantine, now the Trojan Horse. To this day, during my photography lecture every semester, I quote advice he imparted at an upstairs booth at the Brig.

The last time we talked one-on-one was probably late 1979, right after Bill had recommended me for the first Indiana Arts Commission grant for photography. The commission had asked him to review and make recommendations. He was surprised I had not gotten it. We briefly spoke at a slide show he gave in Ellettsville when his 1980 book American Rivers was published.

For Bill, the two-day workshop in 1978 was a prelude to the rest of his life. Following Brown County, he spent his career leading his Touch of Success Seminars at exotic locations from the Arizona desert to the Hudson Bay to the Serengeti.

The last time I was in touch with Bill was in the early days of the Internet. He was still leading seminars in the late 1990s and early 2000s – my favorite was a float along the Alaska shoreline from Seattle to Anchorage on how to shoot the Alaskan coast. I think we only had one exchange. He died in 2009.

While my career path naturally differed from Bill's, the fact that he had been a newspaperman influenced my decision two years later to attend graduate school in journalism, hoping to eventually combine words and pictures the way he did. It took three-and-a-half decades to get there.

But now that I am writing and shooting travel and coffee table books, I am more than just channelng Bill Thomas. A few weeks ago I purchased copies of The Swamp, The Island and American Rivers off Amazon for both inspiration and context.

I wish I could let him know how it all turned out.

Here is Bill’s Wikipedia entry.

Photographs: Top, Stillwater Marsh, Nov. 26, 2016; Center, Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve, Turkey Run State Park, Oct. 30, 2016; Bottom, Charles C. Deam Wilderness, Hoosier National Forest, April 13, 2016.


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