Thomas Shillea earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology. During his graduate work he had an opportunity to study museum practices in the Exhibition Department at the George Eastman House. It was this experience that introduced him to the platinum photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Session photographers. Shillea’s professors, Charles Arnold and Owen Butler, were protogees of Minor White and followed in the tradition of Paul Caponigro, Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz in their photographic aesthetic. Shillea carries on that classic tradition in his work today. As part of his graduate thesis Shillea co-authored, with John Hafey, the History of the Platinotype, published by the Graphics Arts Research Center at R.I.T.
During his extensive career, Mr. Shillea has collaborated with scientist from the Johnson-Matthey Company. This is the company that was instrumental in the development of the original Platinotype process invented in 1873. The company continues to manufacturer the platinum metal compounds necessary to make platinum prints. This collaboration lead to the publication of Shillea’s Instruction Manual For The Platinum Printing Process, as well as the Johnson-Matthey Platinum Print Photography Collection, now located in England.
Shillea also worked with the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C. on a project titled “Gallery of Famous Americans” during which he photographed President Ronald Reagan, civil-rights leader Coretta Scott King, Academy Award winning actor Sissy Spacek and American publisher, Malcolm Forbes. He has photographed other celebrities, including legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, US Olympic cycling medalist Davis Phinney and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. A collection of some of these photographs now resides in the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery. His photographs are also in the collections of major art museums and universities such as the George Eastman House, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The National Museum of African American History and Culture (The Smithsonian), the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Rochester Institute of Technology, The James A. Michener Museum of Art, The Johnson-Matthey Collection (London, England), the Portland Art Museum, and Lehigh University, to name a few.
Shillea was a professor in the Applied Photography Program at RIT and has conducted a series of lectures and workshops on the Platinotype process throughout the country. Today, he continues his work as a fine art photographer, and an educator, as the Director of Art Programs at Northampton Community College, in Bethlehem, PA, a robust program with over 25 faculty instructing 400+ students enrolled in communication design, fine art and web development curricula. He also supervises the art gallery exhibits at the college, which present the artwork of local, regional and nationally recognized artists.
Shillea resides in Bethlehem with his wife Santa Bannon-Shillea and their four dogs. Their son James serves in the U.S. Coast Guard and has a daughter Giovanna.Artist statement
My photographs have been created over the past 35 years. They are the result of my investigation of the masters of platinum printing. My main aesthetics was informed by the Photo-Secession movement started at the beginning of the 20th century and championed by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn and others. This aesthetic approach to image making was then carried on by artists/photographers and educators at major colleges and universities, such as The Rochester Institute of Technology where faculty members Minor White, Charles Arnold, Owen Butler and others taught. Butler and Arnold were my teachers/mentors at RIT.
But even before my commitment to photography as the medium of choice for my art, I was educated in the history of western fine art, and found three themes of great interest- the portrait, the nude, and the still life. Artists who most influenced my work were Rembrandt - the dramatic portrait, Delacroix- the erotic nude, and Van Gogh- the expressive still life.
Most of my photographs were made with a classic 8 x 10 inch view camera, except for the “Great Wyso” photographs. The view camera negatives were contact printed on archival paper that I hand coated with a platinum/palladium sensitizer. In this way I was able to maintain the craftsmanship and science, as well as the art of 19th century platinum printing that originally inspired my work.
I consider each platinum print to be a unique object, due to the variables involved in making each print by hand. This method results in subtle differences in each print in terms of color, contrast and mood.
My new work in color represents a departure from the straight aesthetic of the platinum print and incorporates both 19th and 21st century photographic technology in the creation of narrative photomontage compositions that address issues of the sacred and profane.