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Commentary: What Made Tom Newby Great

That today is the 18th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed 2,977 people, and the 12th anniversary of the death of photographer Tom Newby, who died during a photo shoot for Powerboat magazine in Sarasota, Fla., is an awful coincidence of tragedy. And though the accidental death of one 50-year-old man in a helicopter crash did not forever change lives on close to the same scale as the murder of almost 3,000 innocent people, the loss of Tom Newby was devastating for those of us who worked with him for years at Powerboat.

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When it came to what he needed to do to produce excellent images, Tom Newby was uncompromising.

While I have mourned the loss of my dear friend and colleague during the past 12 years on the anniversary of his death, today I celebrate him. Newby was opinionated, stubborn and relentless. There was one way to do things—his—and he pouted mightily in the rare moments when things didn’t go his way.

He was, you know, a typical boating photographer, meaning he could be a bit of a pain in the butt from time to time. He also was charismatic, hilarious and the best photographer my former Powerboat magazine colleague and current speedonthewater.com co-publisher Jason Johnson and I ever worked with.

Beyond natural ability augmented by formal training, Newby’s stubbornness and refusal to compromise quality made him great behind the camera. He never was a “Let’s just get it done” kind of guy. He was a “Let’s shoot it again” kind of guy. More than once, we stayed an extra day on location for a shoot when the weather didn’t cooperate.

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Tom Newby’s spectacular image of raceboats on the Hudson River with the World Trade Center towers in the background was used for a Powerboat magazine poster sold to raise money for the families of first responders who died on September 11, 2001 (click to enlarge).

And he never, ever shot in hard, overhead light. Powerboat magazine shoots with Newby ran from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. or—most often—both. (The exceptions, of course, were event shoots where timing was out of his control.) Photography’s “golden hours” were sacred to him and during those hours he was the boss. Strike that. He was a dictator.

That singlularity of purpose made Newby the exceptional photographer he was. It also made life difficult for Powerboat’s art directors during the years. Editing and choosing photos is easy when you have a few gems surrounded by a bunch of duds. But when most are gems, as they were with Newby’s work, the choices are harder. (It’s a high-class problem, for sure.)

A day or so after the World Trade Center towers fell, Newby dug through his offshore racing images to find one with those iconic skyscrapers in the background. Having shot Super Boat International’s annual race on the Hudson River in New York City several times, he knew he had one. He just had to hunt it down, and he did. Powerboat used the image for a poster that was sold to raise money for the families of first responders who perished on September 11, 2001.

Six years later to the day, Tom Newby, the greatest powerboating photographer to ever pick up a camera, joined them.

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