From former President Gerald R. Ford to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, longtime Detroit News photographer Ricardo Thomas always brought out the best in his subjects. But even more stunning than his shots was his genuine care for the people in his pictures, according to his colleagues and family.
“He was a true gentleman,” said Detroit News Night Photo Editor Charlotte Massey. “No one could find a picture Ricardo took where a person looked bad. He really cared about the people he took pictures of.”
Mr. Thomas, a White House staff photographer for President Gerald R. Ford, died Tuesday, May 20, 2014, after a battle with cancer. He was 72.
A Florida native, Mr. Thomas moved to New York City, with his three brothers and sister at a young age. His interest in photography was sparked before he was 10 years old, when he was given a Brownie, Kodak’s first hand-held camera, his wife Katherine Biles said Tuesday.
“Before daybreak he would climb up a tree and wait, sometimes for hours, for this mother bird to see her baby birds,” Biles said. “He was that meticulous even at that young of an age, just to get the right shot.”
A high school professor later encouraged him to become head of the school’s photo department.
At age 18 or 19, Mr. Thomas joined the Air Force in hopes of traveling to France. His wish came true when he was deployed from his base in New Orleans to France, where he oversaw supplies and became fluent in French.
After, Mr. Thomas joined the White House Photo Office team. He worked alongside Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Hume Kennerly, regularly complementing his black and white photographs with color.
After working at the New York Times, Mr. Thomas joined The Detroit News as staff photographer, eventually covering Ford’s funeral in 2006.
“For many people in the region, Ricardo was the ideal representative from The Detroit News,” said publisher and editor Jonathan Wolman. “He had an eye for the terrific photo, to be sure, but he often served as an ambassador from the paper into the community. Whether his assignment was news or neighborhoods, culture or fashion, Ricardo brought an engaging smile and a storyteller’s curiosity.”
Mr. Thomas and Biles, who lived in the same downtown Detroit apartment complex, met poolside after he introduced himself and asked if she would pose for his portfolio. For their second date, Biles agreed to go with Thomas on a road trip to photograph President Barack Obama’s first inaugural ball on his personal time.
The two married in fall 2013 on Belle Isle.
In recent years, Mr. Thomas was pleasantly surprised to learn Franklin personally requested his photos of her performance at the DTE Energy Theater in Clarkston in 2011.
But Mr. Thomas wasn’t one to bask in the limelight of shooting high-profile subjects. In fact, some of his favorite photos were photos of everyday people at music festivals and other events.
“He sent in wonderful pictures, but the ones he liked most were not of people who were famous,” Massey said. “He had a picture he contributed to (the National Association of Black Journalists) auction of a little boy playing chess in an after-school program.”
Mr. Thomas couldn’t help but show compassion with subjects who had fallen on hard times. In one instance, he photographed the city of Inkster’s plight. He came across a young woman walking alongside her three children with all of her belongings in a shopping cart. After learning she had been been thrown out of a local shelter, he arranged a ride for the woman and her children to her relative’s home.
Mr. Thomas most enjoyed shooting photos and producing multimedia sideshows of operas, including “Turandot,” and his favorite “La Traviata,” a tragic tale of a young man who falls in love with a terminally ill woman.
Away from the newsroom, Mr. Thomas had a passion for painting abstract art as well as a devotion to reading, “having more books than furniture,” Biles said.
After he was hospitalized in December, several of his co-workers at The News visited his bedside, making his last days more comfortable, Biles said.
“I truly appreciate how much the newspaper supported him and visited him almost every day of the week.” Biles said. “His colleagues became family, and I think it’s really why he was able to fight how he did.”
Mr. Thomas was preceded in death by his brother Xavier Thomas. He is survived by his brothers Umberto and Douglas “Chico” Thomas; and his sister, Marcella Artis.
Funeral arrangements are pending.