The Madison of 1972 was a very different place than the Madison of today. During the 1970s, the public perception of the college began a dramatic transformation. One of the players in that tectonic shift was photographer Tommy Thompson. His photography helped the public understand that the Madison of old was shedding its identity as a teachers college for women and becoming a vibrant and exciting co-educational university. Tommy retired this year, but thousands of his images remain, along with the influence on many students he mentored over the years. Kayla Marsh (’16) takes a look back over a career defined by change.
A picture of change
by Kayla Marsh (’16)
It was a dark year for Tommy Thompson. It was 1972, and Thompson had just taken over as the director of JMU’s photography department. Processing photos in Thompson’s first year as the university’s photographer took place in the cold and dreadful “worm room.” Sharing the Burruss Hall attic with another professor who was raising planaria — small worms used by science students — made the upgrade six months later to a real office in Godwin Hall feel all the more worthwhile. While the chemicals from working in the “worm room” stained Thompson’s fingernails and most of his clothing, nothing could stop his passion for photography at JMU.
“I did it all. I did sports and academic work. I enjoyed being a photographer. It was a neat time,” Thompson said in his gentle, southern accent.
(Photo of Tommy Thompson courtesy of The Breeze)
More than four decades later, Thompson is still at JMU, but just for a few more weeks. Although he retired from his job as a university photographer in 2000, he continued his work as an adjunct instructor in the School of Media Arts and Design, where he has taught photojournalism since 1975.
“I’ve always looked at students not as students, but as young photographers wanting to learn, and if I could trip a light on one out of the 18 [students I teach each semester] I thought I was doing pretty good,” Thompson said.
Thompson has seen numerous students become success stories. One former student, Maryland’s Portrait Photographer of the Year for four consecutive years and Kodak Gallery Award winner, Sandra Paetow, started out looking for federal work study that involved typing in 1976. Thompson’s department had one of the only jobs left.
“Well, you have to take pictures if you’re going to work for me,” Thompson said to Paetow while introducing her to the capital-letters-only typewriter.
Another Tommy Thompson success story happened in in 2004 — when Thompson mentored a student named Casey Templeton. Templeton, now 31, is a commercial advertising photographer based in Richmond, Va., where he works for himself. Though Thompson was no longer working for the JMU photography department after 2000, he still visited the department, where he met Templeton, who went on to become a nationally recognized collegiate photographer and also took photos for National Geographic and other major publications.
“He taught me to re-evaluate my standard of quality. He really pushed me to do better,” Templeton said.
He also taught the importance of maintaining quality relationships with clients. Thompson has built a platform in the School of Media Arts and Design and credibility for photography. He only teaches one class but takes it so seriously that it has raised the bar as far as how sought-after the class is among students. Thompson reminds students that they can always do better.
“I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for him. He’s continued to be a great asset for me, on my thinking, my industry and my work. He is the reason I am able to make a living doing this,” Templeton said.
SMAD professor George Johnson, who will take over teaching the photo class in the fall, has known Thompson since 1984 and has seen him work well with students.
“The photographers he’s had have just been phenomenal,” Johnson said. “The passion that the students had and the guidance that Tommy gave them is all it took to get them out there.”
Thompson’s own beginnings were humble. Out of high school, he wanted to be in the Navy but “didn’t like the bell-bottomed trousers,” and, at 5-foot-7, was too short, calling himself “the runt of the family.” After doing police reporting and surveillance photography, Thompson started working for Harrisonburg radio station WKCY as a newsman. Desperate for a new job, he worked for free starting out, but little by little began to get paid because of his quick ability to find stories, which led to a job at Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record. He would beat others to stories and get them on the Associated Press wire, which then distributed content to member newspapers.
The university hired Thompson four years after he started work at the Daily News-Record.
“I had a natural curiosity. Being in the news and having those credentials gets you into a lot of places. It was helpful to stay in the news business,” Thompson said.
When JMU hired him in 1972, he was part of then-JMU President Ronald Carrier’s plan to hire photographers and expand the public information staff. At first, Thompson was given six assignments but didn’t have a camera, equipment or a studio.
Just like he did with students, Thompson guided JMU, helping the university make the switch from film to digital photography. In the 1980s, with computers becoming essential to photography, Thompson kept pushing for new equipment to match the change in technology.
“I told the institution we were changing to digital, which didn’t go over well with artists who were used to putting things together by hand, the old way,” Thompson said.
And so the photography department said goodbye to the wet darkroom and brown skin from the chemicals that came with it.
While working at JMU, he worked for media companies such as United Press International, shooting photography in Western Virginia until the 1990s.
“There weren’t that many people around. I was good. I won a lot of awards—a variety at the time,” Thompson said.
Thompson has been able to bring his practical experience to the classroom, where he most recently has taught every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. Smiling in his gray polo and jeans, he’s approachable. He assigns his class a “read the background” project in which the CEO of a company may want his picture taken under a tree when it’s sunny. He draws a diagram of the lighting setup before sending them outside, and says, “Here’s the sun. You probably recognize it.”
He lists off every possible situation that could happen in a real-life scenario, but reassures them one thing that will always help them succeed.
“You have to use you intellect, which all of you have. Your creativity, which all of you have,” he tells them.
He takes his students on an assignment to practice what he taught. He looks up, waving to other students passing by the photo site, turns and says, “Now how’d y’all do?”
SMAD student Abigail Moore (’16) said Thompson’s class has helped her become more comfortable with the camera.
“He’s really passionate, so he is really into the class,” she said. “He has a good sense of humor and pushes you to step out of your comfort zone.”
When Thompson retires from JMU, he will continue to take personal and commercial photographs and keep up with new technology. He plans to set up his quadcopter, which can take aerial photos, something he’s always wanted more time for.
“I have plenty to do, it’s just finding time to do it,” he said. “I love just doing my photography. It’s just been amazing to see how receptive these young people have been to my techniques.”
Author Kayla Marsh, a senior from Louisa, Va., is studying journalism in JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design. She is also a copy editor for the student newspaper, The Breeze. After she graduates next year, Kayla hopes to work as a reporter or producer at a news station or as an editor for a magazine. She is still deciding between print and broadcast but says: “I hope to figure that out within the next year!”
Our thanks, once again, to Brad Jenkins, adjunct instructor in SMAD and adviser to The Breeze, for sharing this story with us. It first appeared in April 2015.