You never know where your photography will crop up. Of course, when you’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, it’s bound to surface in some rather unexpected places. For Tom Shillea, it was walking through the Philadelphia Museum of Art and seeing two of his portraits exhibited among those of Alfred Stieglitz and his Georgia O’Keeffe photographs.
"It made me feel complete," Shillea recalled.
It was much deserved placement for the Bethlehem Twp., Northampton Co., artist, author and director of art programs at Northampton Community College who has garnered international recognition as a master of the platinum printing process. He is among a rare breed of contemporary photographers who have put aside the new digital photography tools and have continued to work with classic photography tools and techniques created in the late 19th century.
The century-old technique employs the use of a classic 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera. Shillea develops his negatives by hand and hand-coats high-quality art paper with a sensitizer of platinum and palladium metals. When all is dry, the paper becomes light sensitive and is exposed to the negative via the use of ultraviolet light.
It is the result of this unique handmade photographic process having dynamic tonal range and archival permanence that Shillea’s work has come to be sought for permanent collections by major art venues such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, George Eastman House, National Portrait Gallery, Baltimore Museum of Art, National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian), and Lehigh University.
Shillea’s platinum photograph subjects were part of a project for the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C., titled “Gallery of Famous Americans.” He photographed Malcolm Forbes, President Ronald Reagan, Sissy Spacek, Mario Andretti, and Coretta Scott King, to name some.
"It has become more and more of a challenge as the materials and tools we use have become rare and expensive,” Shillea explained of his art. “Not to mention the fact that it takes many years, perhaps decades, to master the techniques of view camera work and platinum printing. It can be compared to writing with a quill pen dipped in ink and typing on a computer keyboard. Both get you to the same place, but the process and experience and the look of the finished product, is quite different."
The unique Platinotype process, with photographs printed on platinum, was introduced to Shillea back in 1977, while he was pursuing his master’s degree in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the George Eastman House. It is a style easily recognizable by premier users, namely Peter Henry Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz, Fredrick Evans, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. Shillea interned at the Eastman House and began research into chemical formulas of a by-gone era. More scholarly research in later years granted him access to the scientists and laboratories of Johnson-Matthey, purveyors and refiners of the metal platinum and the company that supplied William Willis with the metals for his historic patented platinum paper.
Today, Shillea is busier than ever with art projects both in and out of school. He is the author of two books on the history and techniques of platinum printing. In his capacity as NCC's art director, he oversees more than 25 faculty members instructing 400-plus students enrolled in communication design, fine art and web development curricula. He also supervises NCC’s art gallery exhibits with featured works by local, regional and nationally recognized artists.
Shillea is especially proud of NCC art students who recently captured ADDY Awards in the areas of poster design, photographic illustration, and typographic design. This year’s recipients are Matt Lynn, Benjamin Marston and Aubrey Derk. The competition is sponsored by the American Advertising Federation and hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Ad Club. According to Shillea, NCC art students have been participating in the competition for the past 10 years and have won numerous awards including Gold, Silver and Bronze, and a special Rising Star.
NCC also will host the annual Patrick J. Kraus Freshman Drawing Competition, which has been taking place on campus for more than 20 years. The scholarship program was developed and has been funded by Duke and Cathy Kraus, parents of Patrick J. Kraus, an NCC art student who was killed in an automobile accident. The competition is open to all freshmen art students, and works are exhibited in Communications Hall and voted on by the Arts Program faculty.
Shillea’s work will be part of an upcoming invitational exhibit of work by Pennsylvania artists who are represented in the permanent collection at the James A. Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, in honor of Bruce Katsiff, who is retiring as the museum’s CEO/director. In November, in observance of Lehigh Valley Photography Month sponsored by ArtsQuest, Shillea will conduct a platinum print workshop at NCC, as part of the annual InVision Photography Festival. Among the numerous events planned during that time will be an exhibit of photographs by Anthony and Florence Rodale from Nov. 2 through Dec. 14 on the NCC campus in Communications Hall, with a reception set for Nov. 9 from 5 to 8 p.m.
Shillea is married to Santa Bannon-Shillea, a fine art representative and consultant.
Come the summer months, there will be a multitude of arts events for the public to enjoy in the great outdoors. One site will be the PPL Plaza on Hamilton Street in downtown Allentown, where the city’s lunch-hour concert series will include some talented youngsters from the Allentown School District on July 25. The student performance will be performed in collaboration with the newly formed Allentown School District Foundation and the Allentown School District teachers and staff.
Debora Roberson, vice president of the Foundation board and principal at Roberson Butz Architects in Allentown, stressed that the nonprofit organization is an independent one with a student-centered focus. Its mission in the community is to encourage and fund innovative programs that enhance educational and cultural opportunities for the roughly 17,000 students of the district. In turn, members of the community become involved by either financially supporting an initiative or creating their own, and/or volunteering time in supporting an initiative or serving on a Foundation committee.
Roberson said the Foundation has awarded grants to district teachers to support innovative educational projects designed to increase student achievement. It also has awarded scholarships to college-bound students. New this year is a science initiative in collaboration with the Da Vinci Science Center that prepares district students to participate in the national Science Olympiad. An initiative through Crayola has created a five-week artist-in-residency program in the district. There also is an a cappella music initiative through Muhlenberg College and its A Cappella Festival that involves the district’s middle school students to perform as the audition-based A Cappella Choir at the festival on April 14.
The Foundation will be holding its second annual High Notes Gala on Saturday, March 31 at Allentown Symphony Hall to celebrate innovation and the performing arts in the school district. Featured will be high school performances (musical selections) from Dieruff’s “Hairspray” and William Allen’s “A Chorus Line,” and middle school performances from Harrison Morton’s “Big Bad Musical,” Raub’s “School House Rock,” South Mountain’s “Peter Pan,” and Trexler’s “Oklahoma.” There also will be an auction of works by noted district alumni artists, including Rudy Ackerman, Andrea Gaydos Landau, James P. Musselman and William R. Zwikl.
For further info: 610-391-0160
Storytelling at its best takes place this weekend at Northampton Community College with Story Fusion performances for kids of all ages. On Saturday, March 31 at 1:30 p.m., award-winning professional storyteller Kristin Pedemonti spins interactive folk tales from around the world. At 7 p.m., it’s a story concert by premier storyteller Elizabeth Ellis with Appalachian and Texas tales and stories of heroic American women. Opening for Ellis is local storyteller Larry Sceurman.
For further info: storyfusion.org