“Twelve Degrees of Tom Epperson” + A Heartwarming Message From My Husband

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I am my family’s biggest motivator and supporter. I’m the kind of mom/wife that allows everyone to do their own art, projects and let their ideas flow then I help them edit or tweak them, if needed. I believe that the only way one can discover their authentic self and have fun with their art is by letting them go through their own journey, make their own mistakes and find solutions. My role is to guide them and encourage them. It’s not always easy but I love my family so much that I don’t want to deny them of the experience of making it on their own and discovering the magic of creativity and hard work.

It is always heartwarming to read my family’s interview when featured in the newspapers, magazines and TV especially when they mention or talk about me. I am always floored and teary-eyed on how they appreciate what I do for them. I think most women like me are natural nurturers and one of our greatest joys is to be acknowledged in public. Not that it is necessary but I am always grateful.

Tom’s interview in yesterday’s Philippine Star newspaper was a surprise for me. I knew that Lifestyle editor Tita Millet Mananquil was featuring Tom’s upcoming exhibit (his successful New York City exhibit will finally be shown in Manila!) but I had zero idea on what or how the interview was. It was a tear-jerking surprise when I read the papers yesterday! OMG. TOM, YOU MADE ME CRY (in a good way, haha)!!!

You’ll know what I mean when you read question number 4.

Twelve degrees of Tom Epperson

By John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 30, 2014 –

Ice cold: Photographer Tom Epperson on the changing style and technique of photography, “Shooting digital reminds me of my years in animation. We can now shoot many layers, as one would in animation to make a complete picture. The one thing that has not and never will change in my mind is the collaboration when shooting a portrait, the communication between myself and the subject.”


MANILA, Philippines – They say that you get the best view of anything when you look from the outside in. Yet, no stranger to the Filipino image, having been the go-to photographer for Manila’s fashion and lifestyle scenes for almost 15 years, much of Tom Epperson’s magical viewpoint comes from being a stranger in a strange land.

Epperson, a Cleveland native, once spanned the world with his camera, capturing exotic locales of the Australian outback, the outskirts of South Korea, and the warm tropical beaches of Hawaii. It is with this nomadic spirit and irresistible thirst for adventure that Epperson, armed with his still camera and surfboard, started a life of realizing images, first with the animation powerhouse Hanna Barbera.

Coming across the city that he would eventually set his tripod on in 1985, opening the Manila studio for Sydney animation studio Burbank Films, Epperson grew what was supposed to be a three-month contract into a lifelong affair. Just like the captivating woman Manila is, Tom Epperson quickly changed the course of his career and his life, falling madly in love with the city and photographing the Philippines fulltime since.

Here, while doing his rounds among design and advertising agencies, Epperson met Jenni, the fashion savant he would later call his wife. This partnership not only bore two children, daughter Aryanna and son Dylan Finn, but also a collective career that still proves to be one of the most successful professional partnerships in the fleeting world of fashion imagery.

Amid his magnum opus of magazine covers, fashion editorials, prominent portraits and successful campaign images for super brand clients like BMW, Nike, Unilever and L’Oreal, Epperson remained true to his silent yet sonorous streak as an imagist. Where commercialism proved criminal to quite a number of well-renowned photographers, Epperson thrived on the reverse, where his body of paid work made his artistic pursuits more resounding.

In an awed audience at the Ayala Museum in 2005, Epperson unveiled his first major exhibition, “One Light,” which showcased 55 portraits taken over his two decades of camerawork, all with a singular light source. This was soon followed by “Frozen,” his second display of 40 images of flowers frozen in water.

This minimalist poignancy has quickly become Epperson’s trademark, which, when seen amid the norm of flashy, digitally maneuvered images, instantly flaunts a prominence for technique and thought. This is best spotted in Tom Epperson’s first US solo exhibition, at New York’s Tyler Rollins Gallery of Fine Art, titled “12 Below.”

Inspired by the devastating effects of climate change and the looming warnings of the second Ice Age, Epperson captured mundane objects like toys, fans, and sampaguita garlands suspended in a block of ice. The exhibit’s title talks about the temperature (in centigrade) of the industrial freezer Epperson used when manipulating his subjects.

For its timely message and groundbreaking technique, the exhibition was widely received by his fellow Americans. Yet, it seems that it is the nod of his newfound homeland that Epperson is more excited about.

Debuting on Dec. 7 at 3 p.m. at Lulu Restaurant, “12 Below” will reach its Manila audience. With the show’s moving stillness, deafening silence, and mad sobriety, much can still be uncovered about its elusive lensman.

So, just like breaking ice, the Philippine STAR sits down with Tom Epperson in discovering the 12 degrees of this cool and collected cameraman.

PHILIPPINE STAR: How did your beginnings as an animation cameraman prove vital  to your current career as a lifestyle and creative photographer?

TOM EPPERSON: I worked in the animation industry for 14 years in four different countries. Although my particular job was anything but creative, it taught me discipline, and I was also exposed to very creative people. The discipline side of animation played perfectly into my analog years of shooting film and working in the darkroom, both of which require great attention to detail. I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked in the animation industry for all those years. I never had so much fun as a young man going to work.

You have spent the greater part of your career traversing the world, whether for professional or personal pursuits. How has this helped shape your eye for your craft?

The wonderful thing about travel is it exposes you to new cultures, food, architecture, landscapes, light, and people. It also exposes you to different mindsets. But I believe that my images have been shaped more by two things. One is surfing. Surfing in my mind is one of those things that bring you closer to nature than just about any other sport that I have tried. It gives you time to think, relax and basically have fun and to remind yourself not to take life so damn serious. Two is my exposure from a very early age of watching old black-and-white films, especially Alfred Hitchcock. His camera angles and lighting are legendary. I was very fascinated how lighting could change the mood of a scene. All of these life experiences have shaped who I am today and how I see the world, which in turn, has greatly affected my photography.

Alongside your personal masterwork, you are also credited for your groundbreaking professional images. How much of yourself as a lensman is dedicated to personal work and how much of it is professional advancement?

Years ago I would have said that 75 percent of what I shot was commercial work. Nowadays that has been reversed, 75 percent of what I shoot is personal work, which, I have been extremely lucky, has been profitable for me. I put more time in shooting things that I have personally conceptualized. I am a much happier person because of this and it is as if I have gone back to why I first picked up a camera, for the joy it.

You are married to a pioneering stylist. How does Jenni (Epperson) prove to be a vital part of your plight as a photographer, as muse and a professional partner?

I firmly believe that I would not be where I am today without my wife’s support. Jen has played a very big role in my success. She constantly pushes me both creatively and business-wise. She has been there every step of the way. She is also my biggest critic, next to myself. I believe that behind every great man stands a greater woman. I have no idea where I would be in my life if not for my wife.

Whether color or black and white, your images have that poignant, introspective streak. Personally, as a photographer are you more biased to one or the other?

Actually, I am color blind and I am also a tone-deaf musician. Who knows, maybe my parents dropped me on my head? When I first got involved with photography, black and white was my mantra as it spoke to my soul. Everything I shot was in black and white.  It was an abstract from reality that required a special way of seeing because not all images work well in black and white. I did not shoot my first roll of color negative film until 15 years later. It was not until years later that I discovered William Eggleston’s enigmatic 1970’s portrait of a tricycle that made me realize the importance of color. Now, I’m torn between the two and whatever works best for the image, then, my heart follows. Both require different approaches as well.

After two decades, what notable changes in style or technique have witnessed in capturing your subjects? And which ones remained the same?

Digital has been the biggest change in photography possibly since the invention of photography itself. We now live in a world that everything moves at a much quicker pace, people want results ASAP. Shooting digital reminds me of my years in animation. We can now shoot many layers, as one would in animation to make a complete picture. It is actually a complete different way of shooting certain subjects. The one thing that has not and never will change in my mind is the collaboration when shooting a portrait, the communication between myself and the subject. Without those communication skills, you end up with a very ordinary image. The other thing that has not changed, as well, is lighting. Although technology has changed, the equipment, lighting remains consistent.

Your retrospective exhibition, “12 Below” was widely received in New York. How does this offer a view of your photographic eye as a force to reckon with?

Photography is, to me, very much like architecture and music. It’s what you leave out that strengthens the content. In “12 Below,” I purposely isolated items and kept lighting to a minimal. It was shot straightforward, no obscure angles, more in your face. I kept the lighting as simple as possible. It was only there to support the subject matter. Content was the key here. I did not want to complicate things while shooting. Working with ice is like no other subject that I have worked with before as it is constantly changing.

What made you decide to call your exhibit “12 Below” and how does this best talk about your displayed body of work?

The name is quite simple. I froze all the items in a walk-in freezer and, the day that I pulled out my last piece, I just happened to notice that the temperature gauge was at 12 below zero (Celsius). It kind of just made sense. The idea of the show, though, came from spending one month in Mongolia during the winter. There was a day that I spent on a frozen lake that gave birth to the concept or idea of freezing items. I started with freezing flowers and had a show called “Frozen.” From that series of frozen flowers, I was discovered by the gallery owner from New York. He offered to give me a show but wanted all new material, hence “12 Below” became a reality.

What notable images in your exhibit do you see as the benchmarks of your exhibit?

The “Sampagita,” “Balisong,” and the “Fan & Rosary,” as they all embody Filipino culture.

Is there a dream subject or setting that you have yet to capture?

I am constantly coming up with ideas and have big plans for next year. I am so excited for this project as it is an opportunity for me to give back to the Filipino community and to say thanks. I also have started a list of the 100 people that I would most like to photograph.

Two decades on, what valuable lessons or insights have you learned from your viewfinder, and how will this shape the next 20 years of your career?

The lessons I have learned along the way stem from many things, not just looking through the viewfinder, but life itself. We are only here for a very short time and we need to make the most of it. Procrastination can be a killer. I learned to keep a childlike wonderment, an openness to my surroundings and to be a quiet observer of life. It’s better to be a listener than a talker, as, in this day and age of technology, we seem to be losing our communication skills. I constantly stay in touch with my past that will greatly affect my future. I will always be both humble and grateful for what I have.

What would be the most valuable piece of advice you’d wish to pass on to the next generation of photographers?

To stay true to yourself and your vision! To constantly push yourself to be better. Always be working on personal projects. When shooting a portrait, be truly involved with your sitter, be a better communicator. To open oneself up to new ideas and to expose yourself to as many different things as possible, not just photography, as they will all play an intricate part of your life. This will shape you as a person and make you more interesting to others. Listen more than talk and always remember not to take it so seriously. Life is way too short. Being passionate makes it easier but hard work goes a long way.

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Tom Epperson’s “12 Below” exhibit opens on Dec. 7, 3 p.m., at Lulu Restaurant, G/F V Corporate Center Building 125 Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati.

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