Thomas Harding III (1911–2002)
Thomas Harding III was a successful commercial photographer and an internationally recognized, fine art pinhole photographer.
Thomas Harding was born on July 7, 1911, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Thomas Harding and Mary Rice. Both his father and grandfather were architects. Harding graduated from Little Rock Senior High School (now Central High School) in 1929 and then attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After two years, he found that college studies in architecture did not interest him. He dutifully returned to Little Rock to work at his father’s architectural firm, Thomas Harding Architect, until his photography talents surfaced.
Harding joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and was stationed in Italy’s Allied Headquarters during World War II. Although lacking experience, he replaced the personal photographer of General Ira Eaker, the commander of all Allied air forces in the Mediterranean. As part of his duties, Harding shot portraits of high-ranking military officials and learned large format photography through trial and error. He wrote precise instructional notes of his 4″ x 5″ and 5″ x 7″ photographic experiences. One sign attached to his camera, “Harding, pull the damn slide,” was photographed and ran in an issue of Stars and Stripes magazine.
Harding married Helen Hoshall from Memphis, Tennessee, on February 26, 1944. The couple had one child.
In 1945, Harding opened his first studio on South Broadway in Little Rock. With his wife’s support as receptionist, typist, secretary, and bookkeeper, Harding became a successful portraiture and wedding photographer. He photographed the social elite and famous Arkansans, such as governors Orval Faubus and Sid McMath.
Harding used many types of cameras, including the Graflex Speed Graphic, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Sinar, and Leica. Seeking greater photographic opportunities, Harding moved to New York City and lived there from 1965 to 1970. He worked there with the renowned Bachrach Studios. Learning the highly stylized Bachrach methods, Harding photographed socialites, United Nation diplomats, Fortune 500 executives, and government officials.
The search for greater creative freedom led Harding back to Little Rock in 1970 to pursue self-employment in his own studio environment. Hired by the state’s largest advertising agencies, he photographed Maybelline models and Tyson chickens. In 1976, his portraiture work included photographing a young Arkansas attorney general, Bill Clinton. He formed a lasting friendship with Clinton, and while in the White House, Clinton included Harding photographs in his art collection.
After retiring in 1981 from commercial and portraiture photography, he began exploring fine art photography. He experimented with photographic technique, which led him to pinhole photography and using cameras without lenses. Harding built more than 200 pinhole cameras by 1984, using everything from toilet paper cores to beer cans. He fine-tuned his cameras and designed a tool to make the tiniest pinhole possible.
Harding joined the New Pictorialist Society, and his pinhole images were compared to pictorialist work of the 1920s and 1930s. In May 2000, the Smithsonian magazine featured Harding as one of the best pinhole photographers in the world. On August 6, 2000, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote an extensive profile of Harding, opening with his story of shooting at daybreak in a freezing pasture blanketed with fog. The minute-long exposure was a success due to Harding’s expressive mooing to keep a herd of cows interested and the “blooming bull” from moving.
Being attracted to wide tonal range and optimum archival properties, Harding’s pinhole images were often printed utilizing the platinum and palladium processes. “I keep going back to this thing of… historical qualities, I want my photographs to last,” Harding explained. Stellar examples of platinum and palladium prints are seen in his book, One-Room Schoolhouses of Arkansas as Seen through a Pinhole, published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1993. Harding worked from 1985 to 1993 to locate and photograph the crumbling and long-forgotten schoolhouse structures. In 1999, An Outhouse by Any Other Name, was published by August House. This often humorous book shows photographs (35mm and pinhole) of antiquated privies around Arkansas, accompanied by quotes that Harding selected from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Harding’s work has been exhibited at museums such as the Santa Fe Center of Photography (New Mexico), Scianna Wschodinia (Warsaw, Poland), Columbia Basin College (Pasco, Washington), Kathleen Ewing Gallery (Washington DC), and the Historic Arkansas Museum (Little Rock). His work is included in collections at the Fine Arts Museum of Houston, and Yale University Art Gallery, as well as private collections.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts) featured Harding’s pinhole photography several times. Twelve original Harding photographic prints are part the museum’s permanent collection. In 2002, the Arkansas Arts Center displayed a lifetime retrospective exhibit titled “Thomas Harding: Insightful and Eclectic.” The Arkansas State Archives holds thirty-four Thomas Harding negatives.
Harding died at his home in Little Rock on August 4, 2002. His funeral services were performed in Little Rock’s St. Andrew’s Catholic Cathedral, a building built in 1875 by his grandfather, and he is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock.
During his lifetime, Harding mentored, lectured, and conducted workshops in Arkansas, California, and New Mexico. He inspired a new generation of photographic enthusiasts, including Timothy Joseph Hursley. Hursley, an international architectural photographer, used a Harding panoramic pinhole camera to document the 2004 construction of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Jasud, Lawrence. “Tom Harding—Through a Pinhole Brightly.” View Camera, September–October 1995, 4–8.
Russi Sarnataro, Barbara. “Thomas Harding III / From Brides to Outhouses, Tom Harding has been the Photographer of Choice.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 6, 2000, pp. 1D–5D.
Stewart, Doug. “The Pinhole Point of View.” Smithsonian, May 2000, 124–132.
Young, Brian, ed. Thomas Harding: Insightful and Eclectic. Little Rock: Arkansas Arts Center, 2002.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 02/02/2021