Celebrating the Photography of Professor Tom Knight

Tom Knight in the classroom.

FOR HUMBOLDT STATE PHOTOGRAPHY Professor Tom Knight (‘50, ’54), light was everything. Whether it was illuminating the crescent outline of a subject’s face or highlighting the opalescent luster of a common washbasin, Knight made finding the right light at the right moment his life’s passion.

“Tom had definite feelings that everything should be natural. Light was so important to him,” says Katy Knight (‘53), Tom’s wife. “He didn’t use flash or lights unless he was teaching the studio photography class. He didn’t think you needed new equipment. He just thought everything should be very basic and I think it shows in his work.”

A new book of Knight’s work from the 1940s to the 1980s is titled simply Tom Knight. Katy Knight published the book with assistance from Bill Brazill (‘70, ’73) and Neil Gilchrist (‘66), two of Knight’s former students.

From an early age, Knight was a shutterbug. At just 11 years old he was printing photographs at his family’s Berkeley, Calif., home in a backyard shed that his parents converted into a darkroom. At age 14, he entered a photography contest co-sponsored by the Oakland Tribune. The assignment was to photograph the Bay Bridge. Knight won. He entered the following year and won again. The Tribune was intrigued and soon his images were being published in the newspaper.

Those early assignments kicked off his career as a photographer. Always a people person, Knight created portraits far more than landscapes or still life scenes. His images of everyday people in Mexico and portraits of fellow professors display an intimacy and level of comfort that allows the images to feel very natural.

Two portraits by Knight: a man in Mexico and former HSU Art Professor Reese Bullen.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Corps in World War II, he enrolled at Humboldt State, eventually earning a master’s degree in education. After three years teaching at Arcata High School, he was hired by the Humboldt State Art Department to teach jewelry, design, painting and photography.

“Tom Knight was instrumental in creating an environment here for photographers because at the time there were no specific schools for photography,” says Professor Don Anton, Knight’s successor who currently teaches photography in the Art Department. “This is the second oldest school of fine art photography in the United States—Tom fought very hard to make this work here.”

Knight taught at HSU until his death in 1990. During those 30-plus years of instruction he touched literally hundreds of student’s lives. He also invited some of the best photographers in the world to speak at HSU, including heavyweights like Imogen Cunningham and the legendary Ansel Adams.

Vaughn Hutchins, the Art Department’s darkroom technician, says Knight inspired him to become a photographer. He also enjoyed the professor’s affable approach. “He had a real good way of messing up people’s names; I think it was done semi on purpose,” Hutchins says. “It would be made up names like Elsmeranda, which is very different than Lori, for example. He was just always very approachable, you could go right down to his office and talk anytime.”

Hutchins is also the founder of the Tom Knight Fan Club that awards a scholarship to art students in conjunction with a more official annual scholarship awarded in Knight’s name. Additionally, to honor his memory, the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, Calif., dedicated the Tom Knight Gallery on Jan. 1, 2000. The gallery project was spearheaded by Richard Duning, Bruce Van Meter and many of Knight’s former students who gathered the
necessary funding.