by PATRICIA O’DELL | photos by TOM STRONGMAN
Tom Strongman’s 49-year career as a photojournalist started with a click of a button on the sidelines of a college football game next to his father, who was also a newspaper photographer.
“When I was around 15 years old, my dad had me come along to the University of Illinois football games to be his caption writer. I would squat down behind him, and he would take a picture of something and tell me what frame it was and I would write it down,” remembers Strongman.
Eventually, his father expanded his job description.
“The next year, he got a telephoto lens and he would let me use his Rolleiflex. He’d say, ‘Stay by the line of scrimmage, and if they run your way push the button.’”
Strongman followed his father’s lead, pushed the button and ended up with a picture on the front page of the sports section of the Decatur, Illinois, paper. He was 16 years old.
“That triggered my interest,” he says.
He joined the yearbook staff, where he was assigned group shots of the athletic teams and clubs. While this did not give him a lot of creative freedom, he’d caught the bug and went on to pursue his journalism degree at the University of Missouri with a major in photojournalism. After graduating in 1966, he worked at the local paper in Flat River, Missouri, for a year waiting for his girlfriend – and soon-tobe wife – to finish school, and then the newlyweds headed west to Colorado.
Strongman took a job with the The Free Press (later the Sun) in 1967. He’s modest about his assent in the ranks.
“I was there a year or two before I became chief of photography. There were a bunch of old guys who retired, and I ended up with the job.”
Seven years later, it was off to a bigger market with smaller mountains for a stint with the Denver Sentinel suburban papers.
“I had great experiences. I worked at papers where I could cover city hall, and I might have had to lay out page one. But I was ready to be a photo editor.”
In 1979, Strongman moved to Kansas City as assistant photo editor at The Kansas City Star. He became the art director of the Sunday magazine and eventually director of photography.
“I wasn’t really shooting that much. I was focused on administration – managing and hiring people. That’s when I started doing car reviews,” he says with a smile. “Then I talked my way into becoming automotive editor.”
While Strongman loved cars – both writing about them and driving them – he didn’t have the opportunity to do much photography whose subjects didn’t have wheels.
“When you’re working professionally, there’s so much emphasis on being objective,” he says. “It took me a long time to stop thinking about that and just make an interesting picture. Now I have the opportunity to play around, fool with an image in Photoshop. It’s fun!”
Despite his 49-year career behind the camera, Strongman finds himself reaching for his iPhone.
“I don’t hesitate to use my phone now and then. Sometimes things happen and it’s so easy to take the picture with your phone. It has its limitations, but it’s so easy to use.”
Whether he’s using his phone or a more sophisticated camera, this willingness to explore new technology and subjects has opened up Strongman’s photography to include nature and family and friends.
“I live near a small lake, and I started walking my dog by there in the morning. The fog would be coming up over the water or the sun would be rising and I’d be able to get a picture.”
His images ended up in a Shutterfly book for the home association owners who live nearby.
“The technology keeps evolving and I’m still curious about it,” he says. “I feel photography means more to me now than it ever did. I find I’m more involved now than I ever was.”
Strongman notes that the freedom to focus on what catches his interest – in a moment or over a longer stretch of time – has been one of the joys of retirement.
“I came from photojournalism where images were not manipulated, so there was a lot of pressure to be perfect. Now, I’ve stopped being so judgmental. I may take a picture of dozens of sunsets and, ‘That’s enough.’ But I’ve decided to have fun. If the sunset is cool, I’m just going to enjoy it and take the picture.”
Besides capturing nature and objects, Strongman has become the photographer of record for his family. He is a fixture at his three younger grandsons’ sporting events and makes photos available to their teammates and their parents.
“When I was working for newspapers, we’d look for that little interesting nugget about somebody’s everyday life that wouldn’t normally be in the paper. I used to think those pieces make the story even better.
“When we were young photographers we’d say, ‘I’d rather make a meaningful picture of an everyday event than everyday pictures of meaningful events.’ I still feel the same way.”