THOMAS - Photography, life, letting go of the past
THOMAS Considers decades as a car photographer, what's worth waiting for, and what needs to be left behind. Steam rises from a mug of hot coffee on a cool autumn morning in rural Michigan. The sizable mug is in proportion to the man holding it. Tom Fedrigo stands 6 foot 4, with a thick head of gray hair. He looks through a glass door leading to his back deck and surveys the expansive, heavily treed, grassy slope outside, where a long driveway leads to a garage visible at the bottom of the hill. "Things can change fast," he says, taking a sip, "In the summer of '78 I was working for my father, at a chemical factory in Michigan. By the fall of '79, I was going to photography school, living in California, and married with a kid. That was quite a change." Did you start photography school intending to be a car photographer?
No. I thought I would get into sports photography. I followed the Sports Illustrated photographers, they did unique things and I liked their style. I remember a boxing match, where they mounted cameras directly above the ring. It was a vantage point that you didn't always see, they did interesting things. But I always had a love of cars. Once I realized automotive photography was a possibility, I definitely wanted to be a car photographer.
It was a unique niche. Cars are big, everything you do has to be on a grander scale. In the studio you need a lot of additional lighting, shooting outside you're at the mercy of the weather. All of the nuances and things you need to do to make a car look good, it takes a lot of practice and a lot of learning, and most photographers don't have any experience with cars. When I finished school at Brooks, there were 20, maybe 30 at most, car photographers in the country.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I was 19 when a friend of mine borrowed a 35 mm camera from someone she worked with. I had a kodak instamatic at the time, a gift from my sister, and those pictures were so bad. When I saw those crisp, sharp photos from the 35mm my friend was using, I got very interested in photography. After that it sort of took over, it was all I thought about, all I did.
I started taking classes and researching photography schools, and chose the program at Brooks, in Santa Barbara.
Had you been to Santa Barbara before moving there for school?
No. I had been to California but not Santa Barbara. I had gone on a trip with a friend, in a Volkswagon van we borrowed, we started in the bay area and went to Lake Tahoe, down the coast to Big Sur, and I had been to Los Angeles. I remember California at the end of summer, I was mesmerized by the brown hills. I was used to everything being so green in Michigan, it was the opposite of what I grew up with.
My wife and I made a road trip of it, we took 10 days driving out and then got an apartment in Santa Barbara. I went to school, we had a baby, things were simple.
What did you think of photography school?
It was fun going to school. It was quite an environment, everyone so interested in the same thing. Everyone sharing what we learned. It was a very interesting time, there were a lot of new things happening. I was quite seriously into photography, and the more I got into it, the more it strengthened my resolve to make this my career.
What was your next step after Brooks?
I had a job offer from a big studio in Los Angeles, it was enticing but it was typical advertising photography. It would have been a really good job, and I did like California quite a bit, but I decided to come back to Michigan to get involved in automotive photography in the city. Detroit was the place to be for car photography. Like everything, you weigh the pros and cons. LA was a good option, but we came back to Michigan and I'm happy that's the choice I made.
I started working at the 2nd largest car photography studio, DGM Studios. I started as a photographic assistant for one of the owners, a photographer named Dennis Gripentrog, after two years I became a photographer. I was with that studio for 13 years, and then I opened my own studio and stayed there for 20 years. I just recently closed it and retired.
What was it like working at DGM?
I got a lot of great exposure. It was nice to get started under the umbrella of a studio of that size, having a lot of resources available, all of the latest and greatest camera gear, you can handle any situation. I shot all over the United States, and abroad.
I worked long hours, and traveled quite a bit. Shooting cars is very physical work, particularly as an assistant. I would travel with 30 to 40 very large, very heavy camera cases, filled with cameras, lenses, and accessories. Generally 40 to 60 pounds each case. We would arrive at the airport with 40 camera cases, check them all as baggage, round them all up when we landed, put them in the largest rental truck we could get, and away you go.
How did you decide to build your own studio?
DGM was very successful, but I could see that was going to come to an end one day. The owners were aging, the intensity that they had when they were younger was not as strong. Their drive had had slowed a little bit, I think that's natural.
I was about 40 when I left, I thought it would be a good time to venture out on my own. I had clients I knew would come with me, the timing was right. The building they were in, I always thought it would be nice to have an even bigger space. The opportunity arose, I bought land and built a studio from the ground up. I had been in every studio in town and most of the studios in Los Angeles, so I had a really good idea of what I wanted.
No one knew I was building a studio, I never mentioned anything until I was ready to move in.
Other photographers in town, at that time, when they moved from studio to studio they did it in the middle of the night. They packed up in the middle of the night and left. I don't know how that got started, but it led to quite a bit of distrust in the industry. You would arrive in the morning to find someone's equipment room with all of the shelves empty.
I did not understand why it had to be in the middle of the night. Which is why I walked in, in the morning, and told the owners face to face that I will be leaving today. I was proud of the way I did it. They understood that I was leaving to better myself.
What do you think would surprise people about being a photographer?
That it can take a day or two for one photograph. Or even longer. You have to get everything just right with the space and the lighting. You could have 40 or 50 lights, 100 stands holding light modifiers around those lights, and you've painted the floor again so many times because you walked all over it moving lights, people don't see what happens behind the scenes. It is long hours and physically taxing work.
I couldn't tell you how many hundred hour work weeks I have had. Shooting a car on location, you have to be out before the sun comes up, you want to get that light. In the summer, that's 5 or 5:30 AM. You're out there by 3 AM. You're also out at 9 PM, for the light when the sun goes down, and you're done at midnight. So you're going from 2 AM until midnight. 22 hours a day. I've done that for 2 weeks straight. 2, maybe 4 hours of sleep tops if you're lucky. And the equipment. We always had a large U-Haul, the largest one they made, full of equipment. We towed a double axle generator, just the cable for the generator was hundreds and hundreds of pounds. It was a lot of work.
What did you think of working so hard, for such long hours?
I liked it. I liked it every day. It was fun all the time. Cars, and photography, and travel...it was constantly interesting.
When you started you worked with film and dark rooms. Things have changed, what do you think of the shift to digital?
It's a lot less gear to carry around.
I used to have a 35 mm system, a medium format system, and 4 view camera systems, complete systems, each one took about 4 cases each. With digital, everyone has one system. I had 20 or so cameras, with every lens made for each one. Most people now have 2 to 4 cameras.
Where would you typically shoot on location?
All over. We spent a lot of time out west because the clear sky is very good to shoot a car. We were all over California, Arizona, in the desert. We went to cities quite a bit too, Phoenix, Los Angeles, downtown New York. Wall street, in front of the Plaza hotel. We would get permits to shut down the streets and shoot at dawn.
Was the photo above taken on an assignment?
No, it was a sample I took to show clients. I was always shooting cars in different ways, working on something, keeping alert.
I picked up this car at a junkyard in Phoenix, and trailered it to California. It was a junkyard that only dealt with old cars. I arranged for a guy to drop an end loader off out in the sand dunes, so I dug a hole, and dragged the car off the trailer and pushed it in the hole, filled it up, and got out my leaf blower to blow the sand around and make it look like I hadn't just dug a hole in it. I photographed it, and then used the end loader to pull it out of the hole, put it back on the trailer, trailered the car back to Phoenix and dropped it back at the junkyard. I had one assistant to help, it was a 2 day project.
Car photography and your studio have been a huge part of your life. You just sold your studio. What led to that choice?
Like the owners at DGM, around age 60 I felt the time was right to think of retiring or moving on to other things. Photography will always be part of my life. I will always be interested in photography, I will always do some sort of photography. I always will have a big interest in cars.
It's interesting that you came up with a career involving cars and photography, are they your top interests?
2 of the top 3. Photography, cars, hockey.
That's a big garage. How many cars do you have?
Right now? 7, not counting my wife's. All Chevrolets.
You have 7 cars and they are all Chevrolet?
There are great cars made outside the country, beautiful Italian cars, awesomely engineered German cars, a lot of very nice cars. But my favorites are the American made cars, that were designed and engineered in Detroit, by people who live right around here. I like classic cars from the 50's, 60's, early 70's. Hot rods from the 1930's.
Perhaps hockey was why you originally considered sports photography. Do you play hockey?
Yes, since I was a kid. At home, we used to make a rink in the backyard, and I started organized hockey when I was 10. When I was 12 or 13, they opened a new ice rink near where I lived, so I started playing hockey there, and pretty much have been playing ever since, at the same rink.
I've been on the Livonia over 30 hockey league for 30 years, my brother has been on the league for over 30 years. It's a social league with friends, it's a good time, good exercise and it's fun.
Do a lot of people play for as many years as you and your brother have?
Oh yes. There are 128 guys playing I believe, very few people leave. There's a long waiting list to get into the league, over 100 people. It takes about 8 years.
Have you ever had any regrets in your life, or is there anything you wish you could change?
I wouldn't change anything. I have been very fortunate. Well, I've been lucky, but I also think you make your own luck.
What do you mean you make your own luck?
Everyone at photography school wanted to be a photographer, but not all of them were willing to put in the work. When I started at DGM as an assistant, I shot samples constantly. Any chance I had. If there was a car left there overnight, I would stay all night and shoot it.
When you want something, you need to devote yourself. If you invest the time now, you'll get the benefits later. I started photography school with 80 people. I graduated with about 20. You need to be willing to do what is necessary to get where you want to go, even if it isn't easy.
Do you consider yourself successful? Do you have any advice for others, anything that helped you create success?
I do consider myself successful. Because of my family, my career, and my future. I think my future is bright. I'm retired now... well, probably (chuckles), and I have a lot of options.
I always think of the future. Yesterday doesn't affect me. Nothing in the past matters. I'm concerned with what I am doing today, and tomorrow. A lot of people, there's something they can do today, to be better off today, but they feel anger about what they did yesterday. They allow that anger to hold them back. They allow yesterday to control their future. That's absurd if you think about it. You can't change the past. It's good memories. Or bad memories, but memories, that's all it is. You shouldn't let it slow you down from where you're going.
When people carry stuff around from the past, it's like an anchor. You have to part with it, and part with it fast.
What is one great choice you've made in your life?
I certainly picked the right girl. I've been married to my wife for almost 38 years. There were 3 really good choices. My wife, going to photography school, and building the studio.