For Cutler Bay resident Thom Elliott, taking photos is more than just a hobby or a job; it’s a compulsion that gives him an opportunity for self expression.
His recent one-man show that ran through Mar. 31 in the exhibition room at Pitman Photo in Palmetto Bay wasn’t just a collection of photographs, it was a retrospective of a life filled with interesting encounters.
Dramatic black and white photos of Carol Burnett, Peter Sellers, John Wayne, Steve McQueen and other stars of film and television are from the years he spent working as a production manager on the filmed portions of Dateline: Hollywood. Photos taken in the plaza outside the Vatican or in Spain or other countries reflect his travels.
“I had just photographed Dean Martin who was sitting at the table across from George Raft,” Elliott said of his Hollywood days. “I walked over and said ‘Mr. Raft…’ He said ‘Call me George.’ I said, ‘George, may I take your picture?’He said, ‘Sure, but can you take pictures in this light?’ So I said, ‘Yes, George, just don’t breathe.’ So I was able to make friends with all of them. John Wayne was very cordial. I photographed him while my cameraman was setting up lights.”
All of that might never have come about if not for the perceptiveness and wisdom of a superior officer when he was in the military, Elliott said.
“I took a 30-day leave from when I was stationed in Germany,” Elliott said about his photos of flamenco dancers. “I was in the Air Force for four and a half years and I couldn’t talk about my job. So I did travel pictures essentially. I had never seen or heard flamenco dance music so I went back to the restaurant where I first saw it the next night and asked the maitre d’ ‘can I take pictures?’ He said, ‘yes but you can’t use flash.’ I said, ‘no problem whatsoever.’”
One of his photos captured a woman dancer in a striking pose with lighting that looked like a classic painting. It conveyed visually the very essence of flamenco dance music.
“When I got back to base I showed that big print to my commanding officer,” Elliott said. “He said, ‘Thom, I know you want to make the Air Force Security Service your career. Get out! It will kill your spirit. I can see you’re a photographer. You may not know it yet, but you get out and pursue that.’”
Leaving the military in the early 1960s, Elliott was sent by his father to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He took the accelerated course to get it done in two years and eight months.
“Since I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree, I had to take academic subjects, too,” Elliott explained. “I burnt out in my eighth semester because I was doing 15 credits and working fulltime.” He added with a laugh, “In fact, I just sent an email to the college, and said, ‘Is it too late to continue?’”
Although some of the photos he has taken he was paid for, many he took just for himself. That prompted the title of his exhibit, “People, Places, Things — Photos For My Heart.”
“It’s my passion,” Elliott said. “My parents didn’t care what I did as long as I followed my passion. They really supported me in that area. When I came back home my mother had framed all my flamenco dance pictures and put them over the main couch in the living room and I had never seen my pictures treated with such respect. And I broke down.”
For the future Elliott is planning more exhibits on different themes, some with digital photography instead of traditional film. There’s also a book of his collected Hollywood photos in the planning stages. And to anyone else who has a hobby or interest they enjoy but aren’t sure is worth pursuing, he offers advice.
“Follow your heart,” Elliott said. “Your heart will never lead you astray. You may not make money in it; you may not ever make money in it and eventually you may make money in it. However I found personally that I have never gone wrong in following my heart. Follow your passion, no matter what it is.”
For information on his work visit www.tom-elliott-photography.com.