Tom Oldham - “It’s a great gig”

Tom Oldham started out photographing dance music 26 years ago after he bid farewell to a job in men’s retail. He set out with a simple hope — for “something a great deal less boring than standing in a shop”.

After encouragement from his girlfriend at the time he turned his attention to photography, a happy escape from his current occupation. He went on to do a night class in Bournemouth and then a BTEC National Diploma in Plymouth at the Art College.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
© Tom Oldham

“It felt like a scary leap from a full-time salary but definitely worth the risk, given my circumstances at the time,” he said.

It was a risk that paid off as he is now an award winning portrait photographer who has worked with musicians, sports stars and other talented and interesting people in England and worldwide.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
© Tom Oldham

“It’s a great gig,” he admitted. “I never, ever dreamt that any of this might happen.”

He started out, like many, shooting what most interested him. At the time, that was dance music. He went from club to club, shooting parties, raves and and other gigs, contributing to local and, later, national magazines.

The exposure led to him working with a number of brands while he continued his work on the party scene until he felt he no longer fit in.

“I then was fearing becoming the chubby dad at the rave, which is never a good look, so I shifted my energy into portraiture, away from where my income was based and slightly into the unknown.”

Portrait by Tom Oldham
© Tom Oldham

So how did the 2018 Sony World Photography Award portrait category winner get where he is today?

The answer boils down to a combination of talent, drive and the Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen’s Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

    Portrait by Tom Oldham
    © Tom Oldham

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    The theory, which Tom’s mother shared with him (and is the best piece of advice he’s ever had, he said), claims the secret to a creatively fulfilling career doesn’t necessarily lie only in originality, but also, and perhaps more importantly, persistence.

    For Tom’s top five tips for taking better portraits, click here.

      Portrait by Tom Oldham
      © Tom Oldham

      After his first celebrity shoot, which he shamefully admits was “awful”, one can understand why persistence is key.

      “My first proper cover shoot was for a magazine I started with a friend, called Level. I drove from Plymouth to shoot at a hotel in Kensington with a band called The Cardigans.

      “I was lighting with tungsten continuous 800w Arri heads and when I went to plug them in there was only round pin plugs in the hotel suite. Not great.”

      With few other options, Tom was forced to shoot with natural light, via a small window at 2pm on a December afternoon. He shot using the brand new 3200 Ilford black and white film in a Hasselblad 503cm.

      “I’m still so delighted that I saved my skin by bringing that film with me that day. It was a proper ‘Last minute, just in case, you never know, bung it in the bag’ decision.”

      The interview part of the 60-minute appointment took 50 minutes, leaving just 10 minutes to create a cover-worthy shot.

      “I shot all the band, then the singer, with a mere two minutes left in our slot. I decided to invest 30 seconds with a friendly bit of chatter, which was an astonishingly bad call as it turned out. Nina Persson scolded me with a severe ‘Look, can we just get on with this?’ and that shame still burns hot twenty years on.”

      It was that December afternoon that Tom learnt the hard lesson that the talent is not your friend.

      “Be as professional as they are and crack on,” he said, and that’s exactly what he’s done.

      Since that December afternoon, Tom has met countless celebrities and each shoot has its own particular story.

        Portrait by Tom Oldham
        © Tom Oldham

        “It’s rare that a shoot is non-remarkable. Meeting Smokey Robinson was really special. Usain Bolt saying ‘Oh, you again!’ was cool. Cesc Fabregas nutmegged me. Dave Grohl took my spare camera and started snapping everyone on set. Ginger Baker called me a bloody idiot and slammed the door in my face.”

        But for Tom, it is better than a job in a shop.

        Ever the professional, he admitted that all that would go straight out the window if he were to shoot one particular celebrity.

        “I’d still like to photograph Stevie Wonder. I’d be like a giggly child.”

          Portrait by Tom Oldham
          © Tom Oldham

          He’s won numerous awards throughout his career, most recently his Sony World Photography Award for his series of portraits ‘The Last of the Crooners’, but there is a less glamorous side to all of this, something Tom admits few realize.

          “When assistants want to work with me they’re surprised when I need them to light a corporate headshot. It’s not all rock ’n roll, it’s accounting, marketing, travel, managing kit, social flipping media, lunches, meetings – if only it was just shooting.”

          To find out more about Tom and his work, make sure to watch his live interview on Visual Education or go to his website.

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