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February 25, 2004

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Tom Schiff brings his panoramic photography to Ohio University
By Amy Wells

Tom Schiff's passion for photography started long before his experiences in Athens. But today, he's giving back with a generous donation to the Bicentennial Campaign and a visit to Ohio University to share his amazing panoramic photography.

In celebration of the Ohio Bicentennial, a traveling exhibit of Schiff's color panoramic photographs explores many of the unique and memorable places to be found in the cities, towns and villages in Ohio. The exhibit recently came to Ohio University to celebrate - along with the state - the University's bicentennial.

Tom Schiff and one of his panoramic photos

Schiff's love of photography dates back to the fifth grade. He recalls one day when he took his first Brownie camera to school and photographed a school tour of Cincinnati. These early experiences created an interest that has lasted 50 years.

Starting out at Ohio University as a photography major, Schiff eventually changed his major to business and now has a professional life in insurance. "I guess at that time I didn't have a clear vision of what I would do in the world of photography and there was a great opportunity of a family business to go into," Schiff says.

Schiff is chairman of the board and CEO of John J. & Thomas R. Schiff & Co., Inc., a life, property and casualty insurance agency.

"I think it turned out to be the right decision," Schiff says. "I think if I had earned a living making photographs I'd probably be too tired to make the photographs I really enjoy making."

Ohio University helped Schiff refine his photography skills. Learning more about the artistic side of photography, his classes taught him basic fundamentals such as composition, lighting and color. He learned to pay attention to the world around him and see opportunities for great pictures.

Thinking back to his days as a student in the late '60s, he explained how being away from home was one of his favorite things about Ohio University.

"I just liked being independent and on my own, and discovering the world that way," Schiff says. "Aside from the student life," he gives a little laugh, "I had good teachers such as Clarence White Jr. who had wonderful stories about his experiences and helped me further discover my love of fine arts. I recently served as a trustee of the Cincinnati Art Museum and, every once in a while during a board meeting, the director would talk about new acquisitions and preface it with a short background presentation on the historical aspects of a particular piece. It brought me back to my days of introduction and history of fine arts."

Each of Schiff's photographs shows a 360-degree - sometimes more - area in a two-dimensional view. During a lecture at Trisolini Gallery, Schiff noted that the photos do not look anything like the actual sites. He explains that, if the print were large enough, the photo could be wrapped around the viewer to create a miniature model of the space.

One challenge of this type of photography is finding a location worthy of a print.

"In the past, I've always looked for a photograph and tried to isolate a tiny area that would make a good print," Schiff says. "With panoramic photography, you approach it a different way. Instead of trying to isolate a photograph, you look for an entire area where there is a good view in all directions, not just what would be in front of you but on either side and behind you as well because you end up taking a picture of everything in the area."

While his custom-made Hulcherama 360 panoramic camera uses regular 220 film made by Kodak or Fuji, the negatives are six to nine inches long. To make these more manageable, the negative is scanned into a digital file and then Schiff works in Photoshop to balance the photo and get a final print.

When viewing his photography, one may note that Schiff never appears in his photographs. During his recent lecture, Schiff demonstrated how he can walk around behind the camera, depending on the speed, to keep himself out of the photo. Schiff also explained how he likes to elevate the camera 10 to 15 feet in order to get a better viewpoint and to stay out of the camera's range.

Schiff's timing is not always good though. "I manage to get everywhere at the wrong time," he says, laughing. "I wanted to take a photograph of a old time barbershop in Millersburg, Ohio, but when I walked up to the door, I saw a big sign that said, 'Closed Wednesday.' It took me a couple trips in order to get the photo."

While he does not have favorites, the barbershop photograph is one that he particularly likes, along with a photograph of an old style diner in Lisbon, Ohio. This photo, as with many others, led to a story about the diner. Schiff was told by a resident of Lisbon that his family goes to the diner every year after picking out a Christmas tree.

After years of taking photographs, Schiff was happy to have Ohio University showcase his work and be back on campus.

"It's quite enjoyable and fun to be back on campus and get to meet the faculty now in the photography program and to have them ask me questions about the type of photography I'm doing," Schiff says. "The University is doing a wonderful job of educating people today and I hope that my gift will somehow, at least in a small way, help continue that."

Tom Schiff is staying busy with photography projects. He has been taking photographs of the parks in Cincinnati and of landmarks and buildings in Washington, D.C. Also, Schiff is taking architectural photographs around the country for a possible exhibit and book coming in the next few years.

The Bicentennial Campaign - which has raised more than $192 million toward its goal of raising $200 million in time for the University's bicentennial in 2004 - will provide money for scholarships, endowed professorships, technological enhancements, innovative programs and selected capital improvements.

Amy Wells is a development communication assistant for the Division of University Advancement


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