Al Tom was one of the first people I got to know when I was new to the industry. We met for the first time the day I arrived in Los Angeles for TEA 2015, and we did a shoot for the swimsuit issue of Transformation Magazine that same day. Al has become a good friend and he is one of the sweetest people I know. Each time I’ve had the opportunity to work with Al it has been a learning experience for me and always so much fun. And his photos are amazing, which is a testament not only to his skill as a photographer but also about how much we all enjoy working with him. During my time in Los Angeles we were able to get to know each other and hang out when we would run into each other at various clubs. Not to mention the fact that he’s taken a lot of photos of me at Hamburger Mary’s, TEA, and various shoots we’ve done. So it’s a pleasure and an honor to be able to do this interview with my friend, Al Tom.
Hello Al! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, I’m really excited to finally get the chance to interview you!
Hi Becca, thank you for asking me to do this. This will be my first ever interview, a totally new experience for me. You’re bustin’ my interview cherry, and that’s as far as we’ll go with that comment lol.
Can you tell us about your photography background and what led to your interest in working with trans women?
As far as my photography background I have very little schooling. I took some classes at community colleges but that was it. Most of it was by just doing it and reading and learning from others. The first time my photos were ever published was in my last year of high school in the yearbook. I look back on it now and laugh cause it was some really bad stuff.
How I got started photographing trans women, to be honest, it was something that never crossed my mind. For the longest time I enjoyed photographing hotrods and exotic cars. Then one day a friend of mine got me into taking photos at female modeling events all around southern California. At about the same time someone told me about this thing called the internet. You could see all kinds of things on it, well, like porn. As a red blooded American male, who was I to deny myself such a thing. So I started getting on the internet. Being a newbie to this, I just mouse clicked on things I saw and stuff popped up, I was amazed. All these beautiful pictures of naked women online, I was amazed. Then one day as pictures of naked women popped up on my screen, I clicked on the hottest one and was taken to Shemale Yum, I, WAS, AMAZED. Confused was my next reaction, then amazed again, and it went that way for a while. Then I saw at the bottom of the page was a call looking for photographers in the Los Angels area. Wait what? You mean I could actually get paid for this?
A couple days later I brought it up to a close friend at work and he said, “yeah, there’s a coupe of clubs here in LA where those kind of girls hang out”. My head damn near exploded for two reasons. First that he knew about trans women and second that he knew about not one but two trans clubs, but that’s another story.
Anyway long story short. I replied to the ad looking for photographers and did a few shoots for the Shemale Yum site. I didn’t do very many photo shoots for Shemale Yum because my life was also taking a different path at that point time. But I did meet another guy at the club that happened to have a trans pornstar girlfriend and started shooting some content for her personal site and a couple of her friends sites. That’s how it all started.
I had no idea you had shot for Shemale Yum! That’s why I love doing interviews, because I always learn something new and interesting about the person.
You are well known for the work you do photographing the Transgender Erotica Awards and the after-party. How did you get connected with Grooby and end up as one of the photographers at TEA?
I’ve known the owner of Grooby since it was in its early years and although not close we’ve maintain a friendship throughout the years. When they first started holding the awards at the local clubs I always brought my camera and took photos. It was something I just did at the time. As it got bigger I started to ask permission because now I could see they were starting to control the photo rights to the events which I can fully understand. We ended up working it out so that the photos I took at their events could benefit the both of us.
I get exhausted just watching you hustle around all night taking photos at TEA! How many photos do you typically take during TEA and how long does it take you to edit them?
I end up taking somewhere around a little over 2000 photos. It takes me about 2-3 days to edit and finish them. I would say the hardest part sometimes is picking which photos to use. Of the 2000 shots I only end up using maybe a few hundred maybe a little less.
When I look at your photos it’s the candid shots at events like TEA which always stand out to me, and where your talent really shines through. How do you manage to capture those moments in time where we seem to get an intimate glimpse of the person?
I’m glad you like those because that’s what I really like to try to capture. A personal moment in time. A big zoom lens is where that comes in handy. That’s another reason you see me constantly moving around. I’m looking for those shots. They’re really all over and happening all the time but I have to catch it before they change or move or see me and that’s the hardest part. I really miss tons of shots because I can’t move to the right spot fast enough or they see me raise my camera. So with the big zoom lens they don’t really know I’m looking at them. I know, sounds a little creepy huh. lol
Has the exposure you’ve gotten through TEA and Transformation Magazine allowed you to work with more of the models you’ve wanted to shoot?
Yes it has. When I first started taking photos no one knew who I was or if I was just some guy saying he was this or that. Having my work published and on the TEA website gave me some legitimacy. At least the models would know that if I asked if they would be interested in working with me it was for a real reason.
You have a unique place in the industry in that you’ve become the go-to guy for many trans models in the Los Angeles area when it comes to shoots which are more erotic and sensual rather than just porn. Is this just your personal preference in what you like to shoot?
What you don’t really know about me is that I used to help another person shoot a lot of straight porn for his own site. But after a while I really wanted to shoot more creative things. I’ve always wanted to shoot more high-end fashion stuff. But since I had no idea how to shoot high end fashion, I ended up using models both trans and cis females who needed photos and I asked if they would entertain some of my ideas. Lucky for me everyone loved doing something more erotic without being x-rated.
Is shooting porn something you’d eventually like to do?
Yeah I’d like to shoot porn again but I want to do some trial runs with some of the people I know. Because I’m not sure the way I like to see porn is something that other people would enjoy. In other words I’m not sure my style of shooting porn will make anyone want to pay for it, and really, that’s more important than how I create it.
Are the trial runs you referred to the Skin City series we’ve gotten peaks of on social media?
The Skin City thing is something I’m still trying to get right so it probably won’t be those. It’s still in it’s experimental stage and I’m also experimenting with the video side of it too. You may have seen the short video clips I also posted on my Facebook page. But mostly in the beginning I’d just like to experiment with how I’d like to see adult content. I mean it could be a total failure, that’s why I want to do some dry runs and see how people react.
Well, in my humble opinion, I think you’ve definitely gotten it right just as it is!
You’re a regular contributor to Transformation Magazine, and your photos are always a prominent part of the Sexy Swim issue. Your photos of me have appeared in the past two Sexy Swim issues, but my personal favorites are the photos of Shelbe Chang from this year. How did your association with Hanna Rogers and Transformation come about?
A good friend of mine (Marlayna Lacie) who was a fixture at one time in the trans community was the one that got me first published in Transformation Magazine. She would write the articles and I would take the photos for the articles. She’s since retired and is now writing scripts for Hollywood. After the magazine was sold to Hanna we kept submitting articles. While Marlayna moved on to Hollywood I kept in touch with Hanna. She told me some of the kinds of photos and articles she’d like to see in her magazine and I would go and try to do them for her and that’s how that all came about.
Among the many events you photograph on a regular basis is Jamie’s T Girl Nights held every first Saturday of the month at Hamburger Mary’s in Long Beach. Is it a challenge to focus on taking pictures when there are so many people, including me, who enjoy hanging out with you and want to talk?
Lol yes it is. I love to hang out and talk too, so sometimes I have to remember I’m there for a job. But Jamie’s Saturday night event is always packed and it’s great to see so many different kinds of people there. There are both trans men and women, gay and lesbian, gender queers and straight couples. Every color of the rainbow, so it’s pretty easy for me to photograph. Even when I am having fun chatting up people I normally still end up taking just under a thousand shots.
It’s always very odd to see you without your camera; it just doesn’t look right. Do you find it difficult when you’re out socializing to keep from thinking about photography, such as what would make a good shot or a good setting?
It is weird for me to go out and not have my camera but that’s why I’m so glad cell phone cameras have become so good. Sometimes it’s a joy not having to carry around a brick. Also, being a person that likes to experiment, I like the challenge of using the cell phone camera. I find it really fun and freeing not having to think so seriously about a lot of technical things. But sometimes yeah, I do get into it and start messing with any adjustments the cell camera has to offer. But the point being, pictures come from the person, not the equipment.
You have your own photography business, Altomic Visuals, based in Los Angeles. Do you envision a time where photography becomes your main occupation?
That’s a good question. I’m currently thinking about retiring from my current full time job. I know I will continue with my photography, I’m just not sure I want to turn my photography into my next full time job. I’m not quite at the point where I can make a decision yet. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
You’ve recently begun work on a new project, the Skin City series, and you’ve created quite a stir with the glimpses we’ve seen of it on social media. To say it’s tantalizing would be an understatement! And your Skin City project will be the subject of Part 2 of this interview where we focus on the Art of Porn.
Stayed tuned next week for Part 2 of my interview with Al Tom of Altomic Visuals along with some exclusive new Skin City photos!
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