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The following article was written by Erin Schultz, and was originally published on LinkedIn, on November 7, 2017.
Now in his 20th year in business, Thomas Slatin uses his skills as a firefighter to gain access to remote places not many can get to and turned his love of urban exploratory photography into a successful business in upstate New York.
Depending on your age, the term “grunge photography” might trigger flashbacks of crowd surfing at a Lollapalooza concert in 1993 or the endless music videos of angry young men and women with greasy hair and flannel shirts pouting about how much life sucks to the background of dilapidated graffiti-covered urban areas.
And if so, those are fitting flashbacks. But unlike the grunge music that has faded into the archives of pop music, grunge photography has evolved into quite the popular art form, showcasing what is dirty and flawed, abandoned and lonely, off the beaten path and in disrepair — a similar statement made by the musicians who turned grunge into such a famous movement in the ‘90s.
Photographer and writer Thomas Slatin claims to have coined the term grunge photography while writing for CurrentPhotographer.com — though he says he never formally took credit for it. And for the past 20 years, this former emergency medical technician and firefighter has made a successful living in large part because of his passion for the urban exploratory style of photography, which has grown into a huge trend.
Thomas, 38, built his brand at TomSlatin.com simply by being the person who was able to legally get the location access and the photographs that nobody else could. His company specializes in writing, photography, and web design services, but grunge photography now takes lion’s share of his photographic services based in upstate New York near Albany — everything from 35mm, 120mm medium format, 4×5 sheet film, and high-end digital.
“What sets me apart from the majority of others who photograph urban abandonment and areas which are generally off-limits to the general public is that I seek permission whenever possible,” Thomas says. “My background in fire and EMS makes me the ideal candidate for such jobs, both because of my many years of experience working in hazardous environments — as well as knowing who to ask for permission.”
The Kurt Cobain of photography: A grunge pioneer
Thomas says he pioneered the grunge concept in the late ‘90s as a protest against the excessive airbrushing and perfection of modern photography, especially in advertising.
“I wanted to show what was real, what was the absolute reality, and if it was dirty or flawed, I wanted to make an artistic statement of such,” he says, adding that he always does a lot of research prior to photographing many of the places he has visited. “I’ve been granted access to some really incredible places simply by contacting the property owner or manager and setting up a time to visit when it was best suited to their schedule.”
In his writings for CurrentPhotographer.com, Thomas describes how many of the grunge photos he’s taken are the direct result of taking back roads and avoiding highways — to Thomas, the road less traveled always leads to photographic success.
“Every small town will always have at least one ghost road, at least one abandoned building, and generally a handful of friendly people who will be more than happy to suggest places that a photographer might be interested in,” he says.
One of these places Thomas recently captured is the haunting Old Lodge in Tomkins Cove, New York. In this article, he describes how he put himself in a dangerous situation to get a few shots of this 10,000 square-foot building built circa 1890 used as a hotel, a private school, a Girl Scout camp, and a private residence — now falling in on itself after years of neglect. A lifelong fan of vintage trains, Thomas is also always on the lookout for abandoned cars along long-forgotten railroad lines. And his photograph of the unique Red Apple Rest building was recently published in a book, The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, by Stephen Silverman.
Thomas’s passion for lo-fi photography is also another secret to his success in the grunge world. He often uses low-megapixel cameras like his Holga 120mm to capture images.
“The camera does not make the photograph, the photographer does,” Thomas writes in CurrentPhotographer.com. “This concept has been intentionally dismissed by camera companies who insist that you need the latest, most high-tech, and expensive camera gear to create beautiful images… but beautiful images can be created with outdated and substandard camera gear.”
From Snapping Polaroids With His Atomic Scientist Dad to Living Larger-Than-Life Adventures as an EMT, Firefighter, and Photographer
Growing up in New York City, Thomas’s father, Dr. Harvey Slatin, gave him his first camera — a Polaroid instant print — when he was only 7, and it quickly became his most prized possession. Even at that young age, the fascination with exploring places others rarely ever ventured started to take hold, and his father saw how photography and road-less-traveled exploration were a perfect combination for his young son.
From that time on until his death, Dr. Slatin either purchased or helped Thomas purchase every camera he ever owned. Today, Thomas uses a combination of high-end digital and lo-fi equipment but most often a Canon DSLR and has a very unique style when it comes to post-processing.
Thomas is the only child of his mother, Anne, and Dr. Slatin, an atomic engineer and chemist who was 64 at the time of Tom’s birth — something Thomas describes as “skipping a generation.”
“According to him, every generation would be, among other things, less respectful of their elders, much less productive, and far less responsible,” Thomas says of his dad. “I was raised differently. My parents raised me to do good work, even if I wasn’t being paid or somehow compensated for it. My father used to tell me that you either do good work, or don’t do it at all. I was raised to believe that quality, doing the right thing, and personal responsibility and acceptance of others was most important.”
Dr. Slatin believed wholeheartedly in the scientific method, and that contributed to Thomas’s analytical way of thinking.
“I remember having many discussions with my father, especially the time when I debated with my father on the existence of quantum mechanics,” he says. “The discussion progressed for an entire afternoon, as I presented evidence for its existence, while my father steadfastly refused to acknowledge that quantum mechanics were possible due to physical limitations here on Earth. I was 12 at the time.”
Thomas was always gifted with an understanding of technology, especially computers. In his junior year of high school, he attended a summer class at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Cobleskill in C++ computer programming. Then, after his senior year, he started his own business, officially, in July of 1998.
This was also the year he became certified in New York State as an emergency medical technician.
In 1998, he had his first website contract with the Village of Stamford, NY, and created StamfordNY.com. He would often get called into the Village Offices to troubleshoot and do IT consulting and work. At the time, he was the only one in charge of every aspect of the village website — all photography, web design, and written copy was of his own creation.
He attended Marshall University in West Virginia and was very active with the campus EMS and public safety department. He studied computer science and English and took a class in medical terminology. One year, he even took a semester-long class in emergency vehicle extrication, much to the dismay of his faculty advisor, who thought that he should only immerse myself in his writing. He did well in college, but because he viewed the modern educational system as being flawed in general, he left college after his second year.
In July 2001, Thomas became certified in New York State as a firefighter, adding to his skills. Then he volunteered as an EMT and a firefighter. In 2002, he became engaged to his fiance, Angie Conklin. He then landed his first full-time EMS job as a paid EMT at CHS Ambulance Service in Farmingdale on Long Island.
Angie suggested that he continue to pursue his passion for writing and photography between shifts, though working as an EMT throughout Long Island and New York City, he was working constantly and rarely had any time to himself.
Thomas left Long Island and moved upstate to Plattsburgh, New York in search of a place of employment and opportunities for a much more quiet life. There, he worked as an EMT at CVPH Medical Center, where he got a lot of emergency room experience and plenty of time between shifts to focus on his business.
How being an introvert helped him master his craft
Thomas is not ashamed at all that he is very much an introvert — “to the point where one might have caught a glimpse of my likeness by looking up the word introversion in the dictionary,” he says. In fact, this combined with his early exposure to cameras and encouragement to pursue his writing has made his brand the success that it is today.
“Ever since I can remember, I have always kept detailed written notes on whatever interested me at any given moment,” he says. “In more recent times, I have started to incorporate photography into my documentary efforts, but ninety percent of what I experience in life mulls around within the confines of my own meandering existence.”
To Thomas, everyday small talk is nothing but a form of distraction, a barrier to what he feels to be of utmost importance — reflection, problem-solving, and fleeting glimpses of wisdom that many chose to ignore. He rarely talks on the phone and would rather not bother too much with social media. For him, the ideal form of communication is long-form writing. Growing up, he spent his weekends at the library researching all sorts of obscure engineering and scientific things, once he finished his homework.
“I grew to love being someone who has a vast knowledge of really obscure things that nobody else I know ever thinks about,” he says. “I was a complete nerd before it became vogue, and in all honesty, the time I spent in high school, I wasn’t being challenged nearly enough. It wasn’t until adulthood that my intellect, wit, and talents really became respected and valued.”
Just like the introverted grunge rockers of the ‘90s, Thomas stuck to his guns — which happen to be cameras — and became a great success as an adult, selling his captivating, artful shots of abandoned buildings and lonely vistas. He is still engaged to Angie Conklin, and they enjoy hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and rock climbing in the fresh air of upstate New York.
So what’s next? As a lifelong stargazer, Thomas will be shooting for the stars. Literally.
“As much as I enjoy looking up at the stars, I have yet to photograph them,” he says. “I probably should, as I have all the necessary equipment required to photograph the night sky, so in a sense I really have no excuse not to. The night sky remains exactly the same to me now as it did when I was a child, while things here on Earth seem to change exponentially faster and faster as the years go by. But the one thing that never seems to change is the warped opinions uttered from those closed and simple minds — that unfortunately will never change.”
“I have found in my life that there are some things that most people choose to overlook, or simply deem unimportant or uninteresting that deserve a much closer look. All I really know for certain is that I am, in a physical sense, extremely small, and the world is bigger than anything I could ever possibly imagine.”
An experienced journalist, Erin Schultz uses proven methods at ErinSchultz.com to help entrepreneurs or anyone on a mission with a message to polish their writing, get more media exposure and boost business. Armed with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, Erin, 40, has two decades of experience working in media of several formats — from local to national outlets — expressing her passion for authentic storytelling. A recent stint as an editor in the contributed content department at Entrepreneur.com in Manhattan opened her eyes to the thriving entrepreneurial world of CEOs, founders and everyone in between working hard to make their dreams reality. Contact Erin at email@example.com.