Graduating near the bottom of his class from Parkland High School in South Whitehall Township, Theo Anderson never imagined that today, at 62, he would be living a career as a successful professional photographer.
With 30 years of his work in the hands of a world-renowned art curator in New York City, on the walls of notable people from around the globe, and soon to be at a special exhibit in the Allentown Art Museum, Anderson is on a mission to spread a message of what he believes is a significant correlation between his method of work and that of those in the world of business.
“The basic process of how I mindfully see the whole project, and the rigors and preconception involved,” Anderson said. “I think they are important processes in business to be aware of.”
His ultimate goal is that businesspeople might view the business world in an entirely new way, through a wider and more diverse lens.
“With the pressures of modern business, businesspeople don’t step back and really see what’s happening,” Anderson said. “They don’t step back and be honest about themselves and about what they are doing.”
Anderson, who lives in South Allentown, graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in political science and continued on to Lehigh University to pursue a graduate degree in government political science.
At Lehigh in 1977, Anderson was approached about doing a project involving taking photographs of Lehigh students throughout the spring semester.
Anderson accepted, and with it came a new-found passion — a passion that would change everything.
“I try to photograph who we are and what we do, honestly and without preconception,” Anderson said.
After his first year at Lehigh, Anderson dropped out, took his camera and, with $500 in his pocket, ventured off to see where his thirst for photography might take him next.
He maintained a relationship with Lehigh throughout his career and continues to do work for its marketing campaigns.
“He [Anderson] has had a profound impact on Lehigh University through his many projects, bringing the vitality and spirit of its mission alive,” said Alice Gast, past president of Lehigh University. “When I look at [his] photographs, I think about spaces, and the objects in them, differently; in this way, Theo Anderson leaves an indelible mark on the world by the way he changes all who see his work.”
Anderson divides his business into three main units — commission-assignment photography, publishing and private-sale photography.
He takes photographs for Greater Lehigh Valley businesses and universities, including for Air Products & Chemicals, Alvernia University, Lehigh University and Carpenter Technologies.
“He [Anderson] can walk into a chemical plant and he will see things very differently than the people that work there,” said Ed McEndry, marketing communications manager for Air Products’ engineering division. “He doesn’t just approach it as an artist.”
Some of the projects involved with commissioned clients include photography for company annual reports and marketing materials, where Anderson combines fine art photography with photojournalism in an effort to tell a story.
“Theo puts himself in positions that others maybe can’t or won’t,” said Steve Thomas, creative director for Alvernia University. “And he tells a story that others may not see.”
Anderson’s publishing unit, where he designs and prints his own work, also is where he binds much of his photographs into handmade artist books, a collection he has named Wilbureditions. The books are featured online for sale on the Photo-eye website, some selling for more than $400 apiece.
The third sector of Anderson’s business consists of personal photographs that others collect. Michigan State University owns some of his artwork, Anderson said, and he is the largest held artist for Lehigh Valley Health Network, while Lehigh University holds 600 pieces in a permanent collection.
“Far too often, businesses are short-sided by what they are doing,” Anderson said. “Notions like thinking outside the box have really been beaten to death, and my work might be able to open a new window in the business world.”
Through the years, Anderson’s work has appeared in solo exhibitions across the Greater Lehigh Valley, including in Bethlehem at Lehigh University, The Banana Factory and Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts, in Easton at The State Theatre and Lafayette College, and in Reading at Alvernia.
“When I do a project for a client, I try to understand what the intent is,” Anderson said. “It has to have a communication value; it has to say something.”
In October, Anderson will debut an eight-book series of photographs he took of the beginning-to-end construction of the PPL Center in Downtown Allentown – a three-month exhibit at the Allentown Art Museum just blocks from the new center.
Anderson spent nearly 100 days at the downtown arena in the last year, 35 of the days devoted to photographing the development of the intricate spaces inside and outside the building. The remaining time was used to assess and prepare for the difficult and dynamic angles involved in the shooting.
“To see the process of the building through Theo’s lens, literally, provides a richness that may be lost in the hype surrounding all of the construction,” said Chris Potash, Allentown Art Museum’s manager of marketing and public relations. “He captured moments that nobody could capture, except for the workers; it is powerful in a very understated way.”
Much of Anderson’s work is in the hands of Marla Hamburg Kennedy, owner and curator of Hamburg Kennedy Photographs and Picture This Publications in New York City, a private art advisory service, serving as an art salon and buyer’s broker. Some of Anderson’s pieces sell for several thousand dollars and are available on Amazon, while some are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
“The photographs are not so much about place as they are about transformation,” Anderson said. “The context of everyday American life is used in my visual exploration.”
As photography is the source of constant evolution and change in Anderson’s life, he hopes to share that with other businesspeople so that they may use it as a tool in their daily business practices.
“I have the potential to engage an entrepreneurial model that I have honed,” Anderson said. “I am in fact a business person; and in business you have to be proactive.”