When I first met Bill Thomas at a photo lecture on Africa six years ago, he didn’t talk much about camera equipment, but enchanted my photography club with tales of charging elephants. He said you know it’s an angry charge if their trunks are rolled up tight, but if their trunks sway from side to side, they’re just playing. I couldn’t tell if this man was a naturalist, storyteller, or photographer. It turned out he’s all three.
Kentuckian Bill Thomas doesn’t own a flash or use fancy camera equipment. At his overnight workshops he sleeps in his pup tent under the stars rather than be cooped up inside the lodge.
Bill Thomas didn’t teach me to take pictures, he taught me to see. He transformed a trip to coastal dunes into a new world of footprints, plants, and wind patterns in the sand. He’s dead serious about protecting the natural world, and only accepts students of like mind.
For decades now this photojournalist and author has roamed the globe taking pictures, teaching, and writing. He has an easygoing comfort with himself that comes from living a life that matches his passions.
Thomas was born and raised on his great-grandfather’s farm in Hardin County, near Glendale, and grew up in a house with no electricity or running water until after he left for college. They always had plenty to eat, but only because they raised it.
Thomas says, “All this had a profound effect-and a very positive one. I could have grown up poor in any state, but Kentucky offered lots of opportunity for visions and dreams.”
An only child, Thomas spent his boyhood playing with snakes and frogs, and often sneaked off to the woods to write poetry. He credits a Glendale High School teacher for encouraging his creativity and writing career. “I actually began publishing my poems through my English teacher, Miss Arley Wheeler, who sent them off to publishers, when I was in the 11th grade.”
Other distinguished Kentuckians have influenced him.
“Jesse Stuart and I used to correspond when I was in high school. I’d send him my poems and he’d write back and critique them. In later years I began to identify with Wendell Berry and was already aware of much that he wrote about. I got to know Harlan Hubbard and admired the life he lived.”
Thomas graduated from Western Kentucky University, then worked as a staff writer for the United Press International service in Louisville, and later as travel editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In 1966 he set off on his own travels.
For years he drove the back roads of the U.S. in a converted Greyhound bus named Spirit of the Wind, collecting material for his books and articles. His children went along on many of these journeys.
Thomas has published 26 books on nature and the environment. The Swamp, The Island, Wild Woodlands, and others are filled with his stunning photographs. Talking With the Animals shows how to communicate with wildlife. He has written hundreds of articles appearing in Audubon, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and many others. His images have been widely exhibited and in 1976 he won the prestigious Geographic Society Award. He’s begun working on fiction, with several novels in progress.
In 1989 Thomas established the Oakbrook Farm Center for the Arts on the farm where he grew up, as a permanent site for photography and writing workshops.
In 1998 Thomas and students launched a shared dream and opened an art gallery at his beloved home place to exhibit their nature and wildlife photography. His Amish friends built the gallery, and Miss Wheeler (his high school English teacher) attended the opening.
Thomas is a passionate conservationist. His 122-acre farm is a wildlife sanctuary, and with help from the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, he’s building a swamp to replace habitat lost to nearby development.
Since 1978 Thomas has led some 3,000 students around the world on photo safaris to Australia, the upper Amazon, the Arctic, Africa, and across the U.S.
Some workshops require the use of seaplanes, kayaks, canoes, and Land-Rovers to get in lens range of the shot. A beach walk capturing details of sand dune ecosystems is thrill enough for others.
Thomas teaches simplicity. He still pounds out his manuscripts on a Smith-Corona, and shoots pictures with a beat-up Nikkormat he’s owned for decades. He doesn’t believe in gadgetry. He wants his students to rely on their own senses rather than technology.
Thomas captains his own sailboat in the Pacific Northwest. Photography students double as deckhands. He winters in a tree house he built in a forest in Florida that he shares with wild boars, snakes, wild turkeys, and turtles that lay eggs in his driveway. He kayaks in the Withlacoochee River where alligators swim. He’s happy being a loner in his forest, and stays in his hideout till spring, when the workshops begin again.
Thomas sums up some of his life goals saying, “My hope is that I’ve helped others see the beauty and importance of nature and the environment, and they will become the future guardians. I’d like to see Oakbrook live on long after I’m gone.”
Thomas on TV
Photographer, author, and naturalist Bill Thomas will be featured in a segment of Kentucky Life, scheduled to air on KET public television January 8. Check your local TV schedules to confirm exact time and date.
Contacting Bill Thomas
Gallery open: April-June and September-November
For workshop info visit the Web site at www.TouchofSuccess.com. For gallery hours, call (270) 769-1823.
Write for brochure:
Center for the Arts, Box 59
Glendale, KY 42470
Touch of Success
Photo Seminars & Safaris, Box 194
Lowell, FL 32663
42 years as photographer, writer, teacher, lecturer
Formal education: Bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky University
Career start: Louisville-based writer for UPI
Books: 26 nonfiction titles on nature, environment, travel
In the works: Four novels-The Flood, Summer of Discontent, Winds of Deceit, Song of the Open Road
Goals: To continue his life’s work of teaching a greater respect for nature and the outdoors-that we’re not separate from it.