CREATOR SERIES: BIGTOM PHOTO

Filtrate Eyewear is excited to welcome BigTom to the Infiltrator Fam. Tom is a one of a kind creative; photography, hair and fashion, his world and creative eye have been influenced by some of the worlds most intrepid entrepreneurs and creatives. We’re grateful to have such an iconic creator as a member of our Infiltrator team.

We recently had the chance to sit down with Tom and talk about his latest creative muse, Steel Wool Photography. The images are insane. See for yourself and discover how Tom came to this point in his career and what he loves most about what he does. 

Interviewer: Yes, so, the first question that we want to introduce is who are you? Who is Tom? Why is he called Big Tom Las Vegas on social media? And what do you do?

Tom: All right. So officially born and raised in Pittsburgh as Tom O'Connor. Moved out to California, became a hairdresser and through that process realized that a lot of people in the industry had fun names. And Tom sometimes didn't stick out. So my buddy tagged me with Big Tom a long time ago and I just sort of stuck. Once I became a photographer, I decided to go ahead and just keep that going, Big Tom Photography. Now it's more there just to annoy my girlfriend but it's a little bit of a brand. I know it's not really my name but being six foot six and two hundred and fifty pounds "Big" kind of goes with the territory. 

Interviewer: Very cool. I like that. And then in terms of hairdressing, how did hairdressing weave photography into your life?

Tom: So, I'm very fortunate as a hairdresser to become acquainted with the gentleman that I've worked for for years named Robert Cromeans. We met in Pittsburgh. Did a couple of hair shows and just worked at the hair shows to be guy models and meet girls. Through that process, I saw the education side of hair and saw the training and I saw how much fun they were having and looked like they were basically rock stars and since I couldn't play an instrument I figured this could be the closest way to get myself into a fun situation. While we were working with Paul Mitchell and Robert, Robert decided to open up a studio downtown to shoot educational videos for Paul Mitchell (and for our own salon) so, what I decided to do was just hang out every day, you know, whether they just needed somebody to operate the camera, go get lunch, do whatever. Eventually, they handed me the still camera while they were making videos and I realized I had a little passion for the still side of things. You know, my friend Takashi would always tell me you don't need to take such weird angles, like, just shoot it straight we'll deal with it later. But I realized I liked to take the weird angles I like to zoom with my feet and you know go to the right and go to the left and not just shoot down the middle. So. I found that to be the thing that opened the door to me and I got to see photo shoots, lighting, professional models, see the difference between shooting your buddy who said they'll take pictures with you and hiring a professional model and the difference is immense. The type of abilities that models have is the reason why they get paid to do what they do. So, anytime you have that opportunity you can make your work look that much better. So, being exposed to that and being a hairdresser allowed me to jump into the photography world. I just- I knew what I could see and I knew what I was supposed to capture as a result from working with professionals, so I knew what to chase. But at the same time, I still had a lot to learn as far as what an f-stop was and what a shutter speed meant mixed with f-stop plus ISO and, you know, a wind whatever you want to mix into it.

Interviewer: Right, that was exactly a year ago. I was like, I was still shooting in AUTO but I was figuring out- hey, people like what I'm putting into the viewfinder. They like the composition that I'm creating.

Tom: Well, at the end of the day people always go- what camera should I buy? Should it be this big camera? Should it be the Sony? Should it be the Nikon? Should be the Canon? and I said, you know it's the person holding the camera that matters most. I correlate it to hairdressing and I ask people all the time, "If you had the choice between going to the top hairdresser in the world who happens to be holding a pair of kitchen scissors or a fresh kid out of school who has the best scissors in the world, who would you rather have cut your hair?" Probably the highly trained professional with the mediocre scissors because he's going to make it happen. Same thing with cameras. You don't have to have the best gear to make the best image you just have to have a cool eye and see the world a little bit differently than everybody else does.

Interviewer: Yes, definitely. So that got you into photography, the hair styling gave you that opportunity to look at the world in a different yet creative way which you put into your work. What led you to your newest muse with the steel wool and and the incredible lighting. Actually before we get into that what is it? What is steel wool and what is steel wool photography?

Tom: So, steel wool photography is something that was always about doing things differently. As somebody that worked with Robert Cromeans, the thing about him was that he always broke the hairdressing rules. He defined the rule and then the first thing he wanted to do was find a way around it, find an easier path but not an easier path for a sense of cutting corners but more to just take the technicalness away from so many people that felt that they're just not technical. That they're a little bit looser about it... so with photography, it's sort of the same thing and then you start playing with steel wool. You see these amazing images of these cool rings of light and these fire trails and when you first start out you just think that- I'll never be able to figure that part out. I had a friend of mine here who actually was a hairdresser as well, who picked up a camera after I did and he and I would start exchanging photos. He got into more sort of tripod work, environmental long slow releases of the shutter to get trains and action and cars in the streets and all of a sudden he started doing steel wool. I saw that it's actually a very simple process. Like we were saying before, it's like poker. They say you can learn in five minutes. It takes a lifetime to master. I think the steel wool is similar. It's about five minutes of education to get you going. And then it's up to you to figure out how you want to change it and make the things look a little bit different. And that's what I'm wrestling with right now is how to make the same imagery unique. So, today we're going to go out to Vegas. There's a really unique location out there that we're going to shoot and hopefully get the results of steel wool in a different environment. A lot of times, like here in San Diego it's at the beach because it's safe with water. It's much more environmentally responsible to not be shooting in dry areas because there are burning embers flying around and it's very dangerous to do it in a dry place. So, the beaches are great. After a rain is always good too. Concrete is super helpful because concrete presents zero fire hazards.

Interviewer: Safety first! What are the tools that you guys need to actually do this outside of camera equipment?

Tom: So, ultimately, have a tripod. Also, you want to make sure you have a shutter release so that you're not pushing the camera button. I'd recommend the flash-light for the simple purpose of focus. So, whoever is going to be your person that's going to be turning the process, that person's to focus on because they're in the pitch black. Having a flashlight available to put on that person, define your focus point. Lock that down and then leave your camera alone. Now it's just a matter of having four basic items.

  1. You need to have a dog leash or some sort of a sturdy rope that's not going to be burnt with one touch of a flame.
  2. A steel whisk with a loop on the end, make sure everything's all steel. We don't want any silicone, any plastic, because it's going to get hot.
  3. Steel wool, the obvious part. The recommendation is finer wool, the better it burns. That's the rule.
  4. A lighter, cause a lot of times you're at the beach, a little bit of breeze. I recommend a torch lighter, you know, like a little butane, the kind you might use for crème brûlée.

That'll get it going and then all you have to do is extend your leash and get the whisk burning. Once that leash starts spinning it's going to ignite that steel wool and it's going to start to burn, glowing and red hot. As you turn it, the embers are going to start to fly. So, you probably also maybe want to have a hooded sweatshirt on. Some people like to use the kitchen gloves to protect their hands in case something touches them. In the past, I've actually had a piece of tinfoil to protect my camera. I stood above my camera in case any embers were flying towards the lens. There are no guarantees though. If it hits the lens, it could cause damage. So, there's a little risk factor in it but I find that the best pictures are usually risk-reward based. So, it's just a little bit of practice with those items and then it's just a matter of how do you want to turn it. Do you turn it facing the camera straight on and never move? There's a way you can turn it and then as you stand in your place you just turn yourself completely 360 and when you do that, you create a glow. The concept is that you're using a really low aperture. Somewhere above F-8 to F-11 works really well. You can close it down really high to F-22. You're going to probably run it at a really low ISO because you're at night. I typically emit about 100 ISO, 200 ISO and then as far as shutter speed. You can shoot a 30-second frame but the main difference is going to be how much fire is in your picture. The longer you spin, the more fire. It's really about taking those sort of fundamentals and running with it and deciding how you want to play and how do you want to change what you've already seen. You know, look at a hundred pictures and say- Okay, how can I do something different. That's the hardest thing sometimes. 

Interviewer: So, my last question for you is that at Filtrate, we live by the motto- "Brand of the free." When you hear "BRAND OF THE FREE," how does that mantra tie into your life, with what you do and the way you've been able to do what you're passionate about.

Tom: Well, he gives me free glasses. You know, I think, free is a tough one because I think nowadays everybody wants to be in a place where they're part of a certain group or a certain collection of people and I think "free" is not being afraid to try whatever you think. You know, I hate, as a hairdresser, and as a photographer, when you make a suggestion to somebody that may have been in the business a little longer then you and you go- "what if we tried this!" and the first thing they say is that it's been done before. They shut you down immediately and if you honestly never heard about it before and you had that honest thought to yourself, that's just as good as the person who did it the first time. You had the original thought. Okay. Has it been done before? Yes. Is this impossible? Absolutely not. It may not work too. So, that may be true. But just try it. Be free of the restriction of what other people say you can't do and try something unique. Try standing someplace different. Try you know, anything. Go up and talk to somebody that you didn't think you would approach and just say, hey can I shoot your photo? You know I've had a few times in my life that I can count on my hand that I didn't ask somebody. But I wish I would've because they were just such an interesting character and just not being afraid to go up and talk to somebody and just, with a camera, I think you do have a lot of freedom and you have a lot of ability to do things and I think that's where for me the freedom comes from just looking around and doing what I want. You know, there's no rule to it. 

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