August Column Winner

Tom Lee and a life changed

Kendall Brown, The Norman Transcript

Everyone is afforded in life those few moments, those ‘flashbulb memories,’ where you meet someone truly inspiring, someone who in an instant changes your life forever. Something they do, something they say or maybe just something they simply are touches something inside of you, and you’re better for it.
Tom Lee did that for me.
I was a freshman in college, a scared, timid little Northwest Oklahoma transplant that was unsure of where I was headed in life. All I knew were two things: first, I needed a job and second, I thought I might like to take pictures. Not enough to commit to changing my major, mind you, as the thought of telling my parents I’d become the dreaded ‘art student’ was too much to bear, but just enough to toy with the idea of the mysterious, glamorous idea of a future as a ‘photojournalist.’
That’s when I saw it: a listing in the classified section of the student paper stating, simply, ‘Local photographer looking for an assistant.’ Well, that was it, I was sold. I immediately applied for the job and, without ever having actually spoken with this local photographer over the phone, set up an interview. I was nervous, I was ecstatic, I was convinced that this job was going to set me on my way.
When I walked into Tom Lee’s studio later that week I was both shocked and shocking.
You see, what I did not know until I walked in that afternoon was that this local photographer, this Tom Lee, was a quadriplegic. I was shocked, of course, but he looked just as surprised as I was. My name, Kendall Brown, is an admittedly androgynous one, and he had apparently expected a bulking young man to walk through the door, not barely 5 feet and 120 pounds of small blonde girl.
Once the shock wore off for both of us, we settled in for our conversation. I can’t call it an interview, because that’s simply wasn’t what it was. Tom was looking for someone to not only help with his photography, but also daily needs, something I wasn’t strong enough to do. Many people would have probably simply said ‘thanks’ and shown me to the door. Tom invited me to sit down and asked why I wanted the job in the first place.
I explained to him that I thought that being his photo assistant would help me decide whether I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to know for sure before I committed even so much as a semester of college to the new course of classes. Tom, to be quite honest, looked absolutely bemused at my stupidity.
“Why would being my assistant teach you if you want to be a photographer?” he asked, staring at me with a half-smile on his face. “Go be a photographer. That will teach you if you want to be a photographer.”
That was the last time I saw Tom Lee. He called me the next day and left me a very kind voicemail informing me of what I already knew, that I wasn’t right for the job, but that I was welcome to come by his studio any time to talk shop. I was too intimidated by the man and his talent to even return his call.
But I did what he said. I went and I became a photographer. I changed my major to photography and began spending countless hours in the basement of the art school, wrists deep in photo chemicals learning the alchemist magic that is traditional photography. Many late nights in the darkroom, as I would tire of being there, tired of printing the same image over and over again, looking for that perfect print, I would think of Tom. I would be near to giving up, to putting my prints up to dry and returning back to my apartment for just a few hours of precious sleep when I would think about what I saw that one afternoon in Tom Lee’s studio, how his work made me feel. I wanted my work to inspire. So I kept going.
Tom passed away in the last year, and it will always be one of my deepest regrets that I never stopped by his studio to ‘talk shop.’ But I am so glad for his influence that led me to becoming a photographer, and, eventually, to being editor of POP. I hope that many in the community will join me tonight for IAO’s retrospective of his work. Tom spent much of his life quietly producing amazing work in Norman, and now it’s time for us to loudly celebrate it.


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