Tom Theobald is not only one of the best photographers in rhythmic gymnastics but also a very nice and humble person. Covering RG’s events since 1984 he told his story to “The Knotted Ribbon”.
GTQ: Hi Tom, first of all thank you for accepting this little interview, It is a pleasure for me to talk with you! But tell us how did you get involved with rhythmic gymnastics?
Tom T.: My beginning is a long long time ago and is kinda amazing long story… I took a high school photo class early 70’s. Then came 1976 Montreal and the Nadia Comaneci revolution was very strong then. I had a gymnastics class in college and one day the teacher, she asked me to video tape her team’s competition after school. After that I interned with a local newspaper press photographer and learned to make sports photos here in California. So I began to cover artistic gymnastics, at first with a stills camera and many other sports for a college newspaper when I was learning photo-journalism. In 1981, I began to photograph professionally and in those early years with film cameras, I still did 90% AG until 1988-89.
Early in the 80’s, I watched closely Alan Burrows, and Eileen Langsley of GBR (mentors). It was through the work of Eileen and also Rimako Takeuchi of Japan that I first experienced the beauty of rhythmic gymnastics in International Gymnast magazine. Plus in the 80’s there was a series of yearly books about Brother Cup in Japan, showing Eileen and Rimako’s work. I didn’t make my own first RG images until a gala display at Wembley arena during a British National Championships held just after Los Angeles 1984. I knew I liked RG back then, but still I covered AG mostly. I remember going to Konica Cup in Toronto in 1985 and that was my first full RG international event (Lori Fung was the winner). But it wasn’t until Goodwill Games Moscow 1986 that I began to realize–> this RG was something very special (Galina Beloglazova, Marina Lobach, Adriana Dunavska). Two years later (1988) I started working for the airlines and stopped doing pro photography until 1998 (missing Skaldina, Kostina, Petrova, Serebrianskaya, Batyrchina).
At Goodwill Games New York 1998, I started in again and it was then that I fell completely and totally in love with rhythmic. 1998 New York had Elena Vitrichenko, Alina Kabaeva. During the galas on the last day, Tamara Yerofeeva of UKR gave exhibition in pink chiffon and that one gala by Toma changed me completely. Patrick Tower was next to me (God bless him in heaven now) and I remember turning to Patrick and saying, “Something just happened to me”. I remembering having goosebumps during Toma’s gala. Was completely smitten, said to myself, this the only sport to photograph from now on. I still covered some figure skating, some AG and breaking news for the news agency. But from New York 1998 and 1999 Osaka onward…rhythmic was everything to me. I still feel that way today. It all started with Tamara’s gala…
GTQ: During your career you had the chance to be at many important competitions. Which was the most enjoyable that you have ever photographed?
Tom T.: Has to be 2007 Patras World Championships when Anna Bessonova won the AA gold. The joy of Anya’s win was totally ‘off the scale’. The enchantment of Greece, the happiness for Anna…I think for rest of my life Patras will be the best ever in rhythmic.
A little mini-story… That night after Anya won the AA, I was with colleague Dan Pickard and we were just wondering around downtown Patras and happen to stumble into a Ukrainian victory party for Anya in a hotel lobby. I met Galina Beloglasova for first time. Remember she said to me, “This is the happiest day of my life”. I felt the same…
GTQ: Also you had the chance to admire many gymnasts. Do you have a favourite one?
Tom T.: Whew Anita, is so hard question. I don’t meet so many of the gymnasts in person (too shy, don’t want bother them and keep mostly to my photo colleagues on the RG tour) . I have had only one pen pal in rhythmic and that was when Anahi Sosa wrote me after Osaka 1999. We were pen pals for years after and have been friends ever since. She is one of few gymnasts I have visited at her home (in Argentina). So I have to say on a personal level, Anahi will always be my favorite. The one I always rooted the most for (as a fan).
I feel same same about Tamara Yerofeeva, because she changed my life so completely in 1998 at New York. Since then met Toma a couple of times here in USA (once on tour and once in Las Vegas) in her new career as a professional performer.
It’s too hard to select just one! For style, elegance and charm on (and off) the carpet, so many take your breath away. Ok, I name a few: Anya, Almudena Cid, Irina Tchachina, Yulia Raskina, Natalya Godunko, Daria Dmitrieva, Evgeniya Kanaeva, Silviya Miteva, Italian group during 2000’s (Fabrizia, Anzhelika), recently Anna Trubnikova. You have to be emotionally sensitive to photograph RG and many gymnasts leave big impressions on you… Anita, your question is too hard!
GTQ: …and photographically speaking?
Tom T.: (This doesn’t get any easier!) There is a lot of luck in photographing RG. Some gymnasts give only brief moments of their personality & expression to photograph…then they go onto the next element. Many gymnasts are so very very quick! (some examples: Teodora Alexandrova, Natalya Godunko). I use the phrase “pulled by the ski rope” to describe trying to follow them. Like in water skiing when you are not ready and suddenly the ski boat takes off, dragging you! With the fastest gymnasts you have to be very alert and ready.
Then again, the very top ladies give you many big physical moves and expressive moments. That is, they telegraph ahead of time a little better, so as photographer, you can harmonize with their moments more often. In the 2000’s for me it was between Anna Bessonova and Irina Tchachina. Both had to so big physical moves (leaps!) with maximum amplitude(!). They both gave the marksman big targets. Just I have to give Anya a tiny edge for her expression. All the top East Europeans are transformed into complete masterpieces by their coaches.
From 2010 onward, would have to say Evgeniya Kanaeva. She had big physical moves, had a dreamy lyrical quality to her choreography and then there is Zhenya’s big smile. Just I am learning video technique and am sorry she is gone now (to find her moments with video).
GTQ: In your opinion which is the best apparatus to be portrayed?
Tom T.: Have to say ball or ribbon… Ribbon is always so lovely and delicate. I have to give a little edge to ball, because there are more leaps and little more depth of feeling in expression. Everyone likes the big dynamic leaps.
GTQ: What advice would you give to those who want to start rhythmic gymnastic’s photography?
Tom T.: There are a lot of technique and detail pointers given on my tutorial page (www.tomtheobald.com/home.htm) Scroll down below the image of Toma. I talk there about the basics of: light, line-of-fire, framing, backgrounds and then finding the blossom or peak moments. I explain some what my first tutor taught me (Russ Gilbert). “Show the face, people want to see a face in press journalism”. “Tell a story”. “Take the viewer to a place they have never been”.
A young photographer just beginning…
1) Take a high school basic photography class. You need that foundation to learn about: f/stops 2.8, 4.0 etc, how shutter speeds relate, ASA’s, white balance and more. Then learn the basics of Adobe Photoshop for post-production…
2) Save and get a 70-200mm lens (Tokina, Tamron, Sigma are ok to start). For bodies go Canon or Nikon (and few other brands are ok)…save and buy a camera body with a motor drive that puts out at least 5 frames per second. I run with 8fps. Though I rarely pull full trigger, you need high fps speed for rhythmic.
3) Go to the local & regional events in your country and start by working wide (100-135mm). Arrive early and start working on the gymnast’s trainings. Stay wide at first…because there is a learning curve just to getting the feel of anticipating the moments of rhythmic gymnastics. It takes some time to learn the moments –> the rhythmic of RG.
To elaborate, most of the time you don’t know the gymnast’s routines (you can try watch her videos on youtube, but the routines change month to month). But more important–> there is a rhythm to learn as a photographer. This is a universal rhythm and it’s how all the RG routines are choreographed and it takes some time to learn that rhythm and instinctively know when the best moments come for photographing RG.
4) Blaze away and make a lotta photos:):):) In 1981 at WC Moscow in AG, my roommate (Alan Burrows) said to me, “You got to shoot a lot of pictures–>use all your film”. Had a 100-rolls of color and b/w for the week and ran out end of last routine on last day)))
Nowadays, you have near unlimited supply of data space, so fire way! But mind you, there has to be still some technique and thought behind what you are composing and then imaging. I have to admit there are some colleagues that have been known to take 100’s of frames per routine(!)…and they keep that up all day, whew! (Each one of us marches to their own drummer.) It’s okay, because you’re going to get a lot of misses, gymnast backs, out-of-focus images etc…and no worries, that’s what the button delete is for afterward.
5) Over time… You can go for more risk, work tighter with 200mm-300mm-400mm lenses. Go beyond just the basic peak moments and become more artistic and impressionistic. Learn the ‘rule of thirds’ in the view finder as you are shooting. Begin to think in nanoseconds of time. Realize your favorite pov’s around the carpet (low-mid-high in the arena, judge’s side or opposite view). Find the gymnast’s mood and moments of charm :):):) With longer lenses, there’s a whole world up ‘close and personal’ that only you can see. Go so close, your viewer can figure out how the gymnast puts her make-up on.6) Have fun! Find a favorite gymnast (even local near your home) and don’t miss her. If she is signing autographs for a fan, there’s a charming moment there too. Ask her to pose with your best friend, go for it!
Hope this helps. I wish you all many happy photos 🙂Thanks Tom for your kindness! We wish you many happy photos too!