As a photojournalist and cinematographer, Thomas DeSoto was indeed everywhere recording history or helping create it. His photography was not limited to or defined by any categories or genre. He was ubiquitous. He had his lens focused on everything, including sports, fashion, wildlife, music, motion pictures, art, news, local and national politics, and environmentalism. The immense diverse body of work he has created will undoubtedly earn him recognition as one of the great photographers of our time.
(Due to limited space for our printed story in Encinitas Magazine, the story you’re about to read just covers a small portion of Thomas DeSoto’s, life, projects, and contributions. Soon we will be expanding this online post to cover much more of Tommy’s story including his work and collaboration with environmentalist Julia ‘Butterfly” Hill, entrepreneur Beaver Theodosakis and writer Salaman Rushdie.)
In 1973 at age thirteen, Tommy, who was by then an ardent surfer and skateboarder, was on cloud nine when his family made the move from Pomona, California to the surf and skate paradise of Cardiff-by-the-Sea to their new home at the north end of Oxford Avenue.
As fate would have it, Tommy discovered that they had moved next door to Emmy award-winning cinematographer George T. Clemens, best known for his camera work on the TV series, The Twilight Zone. The two quickly became friends and Clemens became Tommy’s mentor. Clemens was a true Renaissance man, and, in addition to his mastery of cinematography and photography, was an accomplished oil painter, glass blower, ceramicist, woodworker, and chess player—all of which Tommy became exposed to (and trained in) on a daily basis.
After Clemens gave Tommy his first camera—a Nikon 35mm—he took quickly to his training in photography and early on showed great skill. Clemens was also successful in developing Tommy’s skills as an artist and oil painter.
Tommy got his professional start at a young age not long out of high school as a photographer for the three North County families of newspapers—the Blade Tribune, The Citizen, and The La Costan. Covering as many as ten assignments a day. With camera in hand, if it was important, Tommy was right in the middle of it.
Because La Costa was the new playground for the rich and famous, “Becoming the photojournalist for The La Costan newspaper in 1980,” reflected Tommy, “exposed me to the ‘who’s who’ of North Country. There I met La Costa Resort developer and co-owner Irv Roston.” Roston quickly realized his talents and asked the nineteen-year-old kid from Cardiff if he’d like to work for him as their sports photographer. Tommy accepted the position and began covering the many prestigious world-class golfing and tennis tournaments hosted at La Costa, including the Davis Cup and the PGA Tournament of Champions as well as doing fashion and celebrity photo shoots for the famed cosmetologist Tony Ray.
News of Tommy’s unique talents then opened up additional opportunities that led him to be on the field and in the clubhouse with both the San Diego Padres and the San Diego Chargers. To this day, his photography collection of the history of sports in San Diego during that era remains unsurpassed.
At an early age, Tommy was set on a collision course to meeting some of the most interesting, influential, and talented personalities of our time. His soft-spoken-yet-outgoing and friendly nature made it easy for all those that he worked with to trust and open up to him. This came in handy on one historic occasion while on assignment for the Blade Tribune, while Tommy was covering the Reagan presidential campaign.
The new secret service agents, who were clearing out the room at the time, had told Tommy he had to leave, but Ronald intervened by telling them, “No, Tommy can stay.” A short while later, Tommy, while alongside the Reagans, learned that Mr.Reagan had just won the presidency.
“Things quickly changed,” Tommy remembered, “when Hollywood producer Jay Kohlos, a La Costa resident, asked me to come work with him full-time for his new advertising company, World Communications. I jumped at the opportunity. I quit the newspaper and became a motion picture cinematographer and cameraman working on high profile big budget commercials that were seen around the world.” Though their production headquarters was located in Carlsbad off Palomar Airport Road, Kholos had a private Leer Jet that allowed them to fly into Santa Monica Airport once a week to edit and collaborate on film projects with other producers at Lorimar Studios, where Happy Days was being taped.
During this time, Tommy also made frequent trips to New York, where he befriended artist and social activist Keith Haring. Though neither of them were 21, “Keith and I would sneak in through the back door of Club 54,” Tommy recollected, “where we’d sit with Keith’s friend, Andy Warhol.” Andy learned of Tommy’s fashion photography and brought Tommy on board to shoot for Andy’s new “Interview Magazine” where he created the national Ad campaign for the American Rag Company.
A new chapter in Tommy’s life began, when he got a call from surf cinematographer friend Sonny Miller, who he grew up with in Cardiff. “Said Sonny, ‘Hey Tommy. I’ve got a really good opportunity to shoot a surf movie in South Africa with three-time World Champion Tom Curren,’ recounted Tommy. Sonny needed financing for the trip, and he also needed camera equipment, but more importantly—he needed a land cinematographer since Sonny was a water photographer. “I was doing well at the time, and Sonny was my friend. I wanted him to be successful, so I handed him $40,000 to buy the needed camera gear and plane tickets, and we flew into Port Elizabeth in South Africa to meet up with Tom Curren at Jeffrey’s Bay.”
As a result, Tommy will forever be remembered in the annals of great surf cinematographers (as is amply documented in the 2013 Special Edition of Surfer Magazine, The Greatest Rides Of All Times) for capturing Tom Curren’s hallowed “first ride at J-Bay,” which is now considered one of the most historic rides of all times.
This six-week trip to South Africa to record Tom Curren on film was just the beginning of what would become a seven-year saga, searching for the perfect wave. The resulting Search film series, which began with this adventure and continued around the world, culminated with the film Searching for Tom Curren, which is said by Surfer Magazine to “almost certainly be the finest surf film ever made.”
The same trip also gave Tommy the opportunity to travel into the heart of Africa to capture its amazing wildlife, which became part of the Discovery Channel‘s tabletop book entitled, Wild Discovery listing Thomas DeSoto as one of the worlds great “Master Wild Life Photographers.”
Another project that Tommy is most proud of is the tabletop book he created for Grand Master Helio Gracie, entitled Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, printed in several different languages and now considered by many to be one of the greatest martial arts book ever created.
Tommy has also had his fair share of excitement in the company of and on stage photographing some of the great musicians of our time. “My first high-profile concert,” he remarked, “was in 1982 in Del Mar with James Brown. After that, I started getting calls from everybody. I did five tours with the Rolling Stones; the Steel Wheels, Bridges to Babylon, No Security, Shebeen and Licks tours.” Recently, Tommy was on stage shooting for Modern English, Steel Pulse, and the very popular North County band, Ginger Roots and the Protectors.
I’d also like to acknowledge Tommy’s love for and contributions to his hometown of Encinitas. In 2001, he accepted an appointment as Art Commissioner for the City of Encinitas. The design and planning of the beautification project for downtown Encinitas that we all know and enjoy, which includes the beautiful trees, custom tree grates, mosaic tile work in the sidewalks, and the lighting, is due in part to the oversight and guidance of Thomas DeSoto. “After I was appointed,” he chuckled, “I asked how much do we have to spend on this project? ‘Up to seven million dollars,’ they said. Well then, let’s spend it all I told them. And we did!” So thank you, Tommy!
In closing, Tommy shared with me, “What I really want to do is film a full-length feature of my own with my son Dyson DeSoto.”
Tommy will be displaying his original oil paintings and be performing his music along with surprise guests, live on the Tom DeLonge stage just north of Hanson’s Surfboards parking lot behind UNIV in Encinitas on October 29th 2017, from 6 to 10 pm.