By Katie E. Hoffman, Executive Director, Create Appalachia
If you read Tom Raymond’s profile before you meet him in person, you may be in for a surprise when you encounter him face to face. On paper, Tom is downright intimidating. His accomplishments and talents are so numerous that you can’t imagine he’ll be easy to talk to. Tom’s resumé attests to his impressive intellectual ability, which is exemplified by his long career in academic medicine, followed by his award-winning career in commercial and artistic photography. In person, however, Tom is gracious, funny, and easy to talk to. He is generous and warm, and he’s an enthusiastic storyteller. When he begins to talk about the importance of art and art-based business, Tom lights up.
“My parents were collectors of art and antiques,” he says,“so I was always around them. I developed an appreciation early. My parents gave to many museums. I came by my enthusiasm naturally.”
True to his roots, Tom made certain that when the Millennium Center opened in Johnson City in 2001, he made a generous donation to create a gallery space. He also funded the first exhibit held there, which featured all local artists. This lifelong commitment to the arts and to promoting the needs of local artists and is just one of the reasons why Create Appalachia is lucky to have Tom serving on our Board of Directors.
“I’ve known Tom for years,” says Cher Cornett, President of the Board of Create Appalachia. “I first became familiar with his work through the American Advertising Federation chapter here in NE TN. He [and Fresh Air Photo] earned about a billion ADDY Awards over the years, every one well-deserved. Tom’s truly one of the best, most exacting photographers I’ve ever known. He’s got great ideas for both his craft and for the business end of art. The consummate professional, I’d say. It’s a point of pride for East Tennessee to call him our own.”
Tom started out as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee, then made his way through graduate programs at East Carolina University, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, the Universities of Iowa and Oregon, then M.I.T. He then joined the medical school at East Tennessee State University as faculty. Over the course of his time at ETSU, Tom produced numerous publications, spoke at professional conferences and meetings across the U.S. and abroad, and completed numerous major grant-funded research projects. But photography was calling.
After distinguishing himself in academic medicine, Tom “retired” and began a new venture: Fresh Air Photo, based in Johnson City, TN. Fresh Air Photo created jobs and definitely created a positive buzz in the world of photography. Three decades and hundreds of regional and national awards later, Tom retired (sort of) from that endeavor, too–once again with a long list of extraordinary achievements trailing him.
“Getting recognition around here was difficult at first. No one was looking to East Tennessee for premier photography services,” says Tom. “But I always say that my favorite picture is the one that pays the most. You do what you have to do to make the business happen. I took pictures of water heaters professionally, and I put everything I had into the process. I also went to trade shows, and met lots of people who specialize in different types of photography—ice cream, fashion, you name it.” Laughing, he says, “I used to tell people that I specialized in the next phone call. Being based in East Tennessee, you have to be able to do that if you want to succeed.”
Despite Tom’s joke that his main concern was how much jobs paid, he approaches both his creative and his commercial endeavors with great seriousness. It is clear that his business sense and professionalism, combined with his creativity and talent as an artist, have propelled Tom’s work to the top of his craft. His meticulousness and passion for his work are legendary in our region. This is another reason why Tom is a wonderful fit for the Create Appalachia board. He offers the perfect example of a great arts-based business, where creativity flourishes and where clients understand the value of it and are happy to pay for that value.
Explaining how he found success in being a generalist, Tom says, “You have to just say yes to opportunities. Take my work with Jeff Gordon for example. I had been to one NASCAR race, where I took 20 slides. I got a call from DuPont’s paint division—the paint they use on car bodies. They had seen my work and were inviting me to work with Jeff Gordon, an up-and-coming driver. The rest is history. 18 or 19 years of photography with him followed, including collateral, calendars, everything. All because I said yes to the experience.”
On a serious note, he adds, “The most important thing was that I couldn’t wreck anything. We had to get it right. Fresh Air Photos had employees, and they were depending on the income we generated. We were in a rural market, not Atlanta or New York City. We had to keep the standard up. And we did.”
Until closing shop in 2017, Tom and Fresh Air Photo worked with a number of impressive clients, including numerous Fortune 500 companies. His photographs have been published in a number of well-known periodicals, including Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, Outdoor Life, Business Week, and National Geographic, just to name a few. You will also find his images in the New York Times. Tom served as the official photographer for the National Storytelling Festival for 33 years, and that work now resides in the Library of Congressin a collection in his name. The photographic book Timeless Voices (1998) shows Tom’s work with the Festival. It’s still available for sale in the International Storytelling Center.
A year after finishing Timeless Voices, Tom turned his attention to regional sports. The volume that resulted was A Perfect Season, with University of Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer. Not one to sit still, Tom still works pro bono with the athletics department at ETSU, among other community organizations. And he has traveled widely and taken photographs all over the world.
Most recently, Tom published a book of photographs from his travels in Africa:Witness to Wildlife (2020). One of the stunning photos in that book, “Leap of Faith” won an honorable mention in the prestigious International Photography Awards competition. In it, Tom captured a striking moment during the annual wildebeest migration. One animal soars over the others, leaping from the riverbank into a river already churning with other wildebeests in motion. Rendered in black and white, this photodraws attention to the dramatic tension of a moment, in which a lone wildebeest hangs suspended in midair over its fellows, soon to become one of the many. It is a breathtaking photograph, drawing the viewer into the tension and gorgeousness of the moment and instilling a strong sense of the power of nature.
“One of the most important things Tom Raymond does is give an example to the rest of us,” says Ren Allen, an award-winning local artist who has her own national and international profile. “And I’m talking about both his art and how he treats others.”
“He is sooooo exacting,” Ren says. “He has an incredible eye. He notices little things that anybody else (and I am talking accomplished professional photographers) would miss. But as soon as Tom points them out you realize how he has just taken a photo from excellence up a notch to perfection. I’ve seen him do a corporate portrait—I was there to do makeup and styling—and there was just a little pool of darkness on the floor under the chair that he didn’t like. The picture was great the way it was, but Tom doesn’t settle for anything less than perfect. So we adjusted the lighting and took the shots again. When it was done, we understood why. But I am often left wondering, ‘How did he see that?!’”
“Then there’s Tom as a person,” Ren says. “He is the most generous-hearted, supportive person I know when it comes to supporting other artists. If he believes in you and what you’re doing, you can’t find a better friend. Earlier this spring when the pandemic hit and Tom heard that I had to close my studio down, he was worried about me. He called and found out that I was in the middle of selling my house and trying to move out, along with everything else. It was stressful! Tom got in his car and came over. He showed up and asked, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ He made me swear that I would call him if I needed anything. And he meant it. That’s how he is. He’s an exacting boss on the job, but once he comes to know you and admire your work, he’ll do everything in his power to support you!”
True to form, Tom has already begun to make his mark on our work at Create Appalachia: “He’s a fresh voice, with so much experience to offer,” says Cher. He always contributes something thoughtful and useful to our board meetings, and he knows the arts community around here better than I do! And he’s generous with his time. He’s going to be judging our upcoming Tiny Art Throwdown: Road Trip Edition (link to event), and he’s also made a sponsorship donation.”
Tom Raymond’s success owes a lot to his intelligence and his work ethic. But it is also grounded in his curiosity, his imagination, his vision, his humor and his generosity. At Create Appalachia, we’re excited to have him on our board, putting his wisdom and experience to the service of our region’s creatives.