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One Man's Love of Photography: The Thomas Adams Collection


Note: At the request of a listener, this story was re-posted from NHPR's old website. The original air date was in September, 2010.

The New Hampshire Institute of Art is hosting the first public exhibit of original photographs from the private collection of Thomas Adams.


Adams has been collecting for decades and holds prints from many well known photographers. 

NHPR Correspondent Sean Hurley recently viewed the collection and spoke with Adams about his lifelong passion.

Thomas Adams’ first kiss in his lifelong love of photography happened more than 50 years ago.  

 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had come to Concord and was addressing a crowd at the capitol.

 11 year old Thomas Adams pushed his way through the crowd and snapped his first ever photograph:

 ADAMS:   And Secret Service actually came over and pushed me aside.  And I knew at that moment that this was the most exciting thing in the world.

 As exciting as it may have been, Adams waited another 4 decades before he made his first purchase

 ADAMS:  I found a gallery that just did photography and I saw an Annie Leibowitz print of an Olympic rower taken in Hanover, New Hampshire and I said, “My God, I love this...and I need it.”  And I kept going back day after day and finally I asked if I could pay this $400 dollars over the course of a year...cause that was a lot of money - who would ever have spent $400 for a photograph?  So that was the first.

 His collection now spans over 7 decades and includes famous works by several noted photographers, including Todd Webb.

 But he doesn’t collect just iconic images:

 ADAMS:  I like emerging artists.  Many of the photographs here are by artists that I think should be world class and have a big name – they don’t, but their images and prints are unbelievable.  One of them is Michael Paveronis, who works dry walling in the state of Maine until he can save up enough money and then he goes to the far east and  photographs and documents the Asian culture. 

 Ansel Adams once said, “Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs." 

 Thomas Adams adds a proviso:

 ADAMS:  I’ll tell you a dirty little secret:  No photograph ever is reality. The photograph sees in one frame what the eye doesn’t see.  The eye sees in motion almost like a film.  Even an Ansel Adams photograph. Beautiful scenes of the far west mountains.  Ansel Adams burned out graffiti and it was not reality. 

 Not reality – but what then?  And if we “believe” photographs, what exactly are we believing in? 

ADAMS:  It’s more than a photograph.  It’s a relationship with my past, the photographer’s past, and it’s something cultural and every one of these prints has a story.

While the collection includes a few color images, Adams finds this underlying story more discoverable in black and white:

 ADAMS:  Black and white causes the mind to stimulate its imagination.  Color tells a little more of the story.  So if we’re looking at a black and white we’re seeing something that we don’t normally see when we’re looking. 

Even the photographer doesn’t always see what he’s looking at.  Adams points to a photo of Georgia O’Keefe in Twilight Canyon:

 ADAMS:  If you look at the photograph, there she is standing with light coming in a slit from the canyon and then in front of her is her image in the surface of water.  Well, there was no water there. There was just a little skim of moisture on sand and when the photographer took that photograph, Todd Webb did not know that that apparition, herself, was being reflected in the water, cause he couldn’t see the water.

 Accidents like this are not uncommon to the art form.  But that doesn’t mean that photography is easy.

ADAMS:  It’s a lot of work.  People don’t understand how much work goes into creating a photograph and then developing it and getting the right print you want.  I know students here at this school spend hours with one negative trying to find the print that sings.

 At the New Hampshire Institute of Art, you can find dozens of these prints that sing by famous, and not yet famous, artists.  The stories these images tell are rewritten every time a new set of eyes comes along.

 For NHPR News, I’m Sean Hurley

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.

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