During the 1950s TOM PALUMBO was part of an influencial group of fashion photographers who were nurtured by Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper's Bazaar. Brodovitch was famous for hiring the most gifted young photographers like Tom and Richard Avedon and Lillian Bassman, and giving them free reign as he revolutionalized the magazine with bold new layout concepts. Tom's serene modernist style contrasted with Avedon's jazzed up images and Bassman's soft blurred effects. Tom was often the balence in an issue. His pictures enhanced the fashions of the 50s, when women were thought of as objects of worship and beauty was thought of as an ideal—difficult—distant—unfathomable.
Tom was born on January 21, 1921 in Molfetta, a tiny ancient fishing village on Italy's Adriatic coast. His family immigrated to America in 1935 and settled in the "Little Italy" section of Hoboken where scores of other Molfettese lived. He and his brother Tony learned English fast. They got into a lot of fist fights with fellow students, because they were "Wops." For a long time "the Italian-American experience" was filled with shame for Tom. In those days the only thing that didn’t seem to be terrible about being Italian was Frank Sinatra," he used to say.
He idolized the young singer; he hung out at a bar on Monroe Street that Sinatra frequented; he attended his concerts along with thousands of swooning fans. Tom admired Sinatra's cockiness, his "screw you!" attitude. He tried to dress like him. Later Sinatra's rendition of the corny song The Old Master Painter became a favorite of his—in fact part of the lyrics "the old master painter... captured the dreamer of a thousand thrills" became the title of his book.
Early on Tom started taking snapshots with a Brownie camera. He won a LIFE Magazine contest and the award was a day spent at the LIFE offices with some of its greatest photographers, including Alfred Eisenstadt who helped Tom get a job as assistant to James Abbe jr. In the next years Abbe gave Tom a crash course in photography: about cameras and how to light a face and about dark room technique. By early 1947 Tom had opened his own studio on W 57th St and was shooting ads for Bonwit Teller and fashion catalogues at Pagano studios. He married his first wife Kate Johnson, a model. He traveled to Haiti to photograph the exotic locales of Port au Prince. When he returned he showed the images to Edward Steichen, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen studied them for a long time and then he picked up the phone and called Alexey Brodovitch at Bazaar.
From then on Tom's career took off. He worked non stop for Bazaar and shot covers, fashion color spreads, celebrity portraits and beauty montages. Eventually he branched out to Seventeen, Glamour, Brides and Charm. He also masterminded ad campaigns for Mademoiselle. On location in Jamaica for Times Fashion Magazine, he fell in love with the legendary model Anne St. Marie. Dark, moody, brooding and ravishingly beautiful, she became his muse. He took literally thousands of pictures of her. They married in 1959 and soon had a son, Leo, and a daughter, Fia. By then Tom was photographing for Vogue, where he worked extensively until 1964 when he left fashion photography and went into advertizing, signing on to become a vice president of Ted Bates. In the next twenty years he produced dozens of tv commericals and documentaries.
In 1983 he made yet another career change. Tom turned his attention almost entirely to theatre. He took acting classes, and saw every play on and off Broadway. At the Actors Studio, where he was a member, he renewed his friendship with actress/writer Patricia Bosworth, who became his wife, after both their spouses died in 1986. They collaborated on plays together and ran a little theatre in Stockbridge. Tom also directed plays on and off Broadway. In the late 1990s he began teaching master classes in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Tom died in 2008. A definitive selection of his work can be seen in DREAMERS WITH A THOUSAND THRILLS - THE REDISCOVERED PHOTOGRAPHS OF TOM PALUMBO, published by powerHouse in 2018.