I want to write about my first and most influential news photography mentor, Tom Beesley (1945 – 2007), and explain how he influenced me in such a tremendous way. I miss Tom, but I will expand on that at the end of this post.
Tom was a longtime member of the Texas Press Association and earned a reputation in news photography to the point he was asked on occasions to speak at newspaper conventions. He is the only person I know personally who had a news photo picked up by the Associated Press and his professional career began as a field photographer for the US Army during the Vietnam War.
When he spoke about photography or a photo assignment he never spoke of f-stops,lens selection, ISO, shutter speed and meter settings. While a few photographers love to talk about their equipment, Tom loved to talk about how he took a picture, such as his thought process, how he talked with his subject, what he did to get access or a perfect angle, and how sometimes plain luck made all the difference in a pictures. He expected the same when he spoke with other photographers as well because even at his skill level, Tom wanted to learn.
At a press convention a photographer cornered Tom and began enthusiastically describing his impressive equipment collection thinking Tom would engage in conversation of the same. Tom looked past him and at me with one eyebrow raised and tilted head as if to say “Get me out of here please.”
Tom also disdained boring, common photographs and explored ways to make the ordinary interested.
Here is one of his favorite photography stories: He was assigned to take a photo of garden club members and went to the event with cool ideas, such as individual shots though roses or placing subjects in and around tall clusters of flowers. However, that was not to be. The women, dressed in their Sunday best, insisted on standing side by side for a group photograph. Tom grudgingly took them outside and lined the women up when suddenly, “The photography gods smiled upon me,” as he liked to dramatically state. The lawn sprinklers came on just as he began shooting. Above the screams and shrieks Tom yelled, “Wait! Wait! I’m not finished,” and fired off a few quick shots while the women dodged the water and clutched their hats on their heads while trying to smile at the camera.
That was the picture he published.
Tom didn’t just think outside the box. Tom Beesly destroyed boxes.
I wanted to be like Tom so much I wore a pen around my neck on a string because he did – a trait I discontinued when he came to work for a newspaper where I was a reporter because I thought I would feel awkward. In time we became peers as I began earning my own reputation in newspaper competition. After a few years apart we again worked together at a newspaper group where we were both head editors of different newspapers for the same parent company.
It is because of Tom that I teach and share how and I find camera settings and equipment somewhat insignificant. It is because of him I completely believe a good photographer’s talent is in their head, not in their hands.
OK, I really miss Tom. He had a life-long love of motorcycle racing and his photography appeared in many motor sport magazines. He was also a motorcycle racer and he crashed during a race and died a few days later.
A month after his death I attended our annual press convention and award ceremony. The judging team (journalist from another state) broke the rules and told our company ahead of time that Tom’s newspaper won an award. This was done to give us a chance to prepare and avoid an awkward situation and also to allow his wife to be present. Mrs. Beesly said she would attend but did not want to go to the podium, so I told her I would accept the award, say a few words about Tom, and then bring the plaque to her.
When the particular award was announced I accepted the award at the podium, held the plaque up and said, “For Tom.” That’s all I could say.
When I cleaned out his desk I found a beautiful, happy photograph of a girl holding an American flag which he took at a city Fourth of July event and printed in his newspaper. On the back of the frame was a hand written note, “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.”
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