Back in the summer of 1970, fresh from a stint in the Air Force that took him to Greenland, Japan and Korea, Thurman Hobson came to what is now the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
The 23-year-old Manassas High School graduate signed on at the university as a photographer’s assistant. Forty-seven years later, Hobson, now the university photographer, is retiring, having chronicled just about every milestone at UTHSC during the last five decades.
“I’ve seen the buildings change; I’ve seen most of the personnel change; I’ve seen students come and go,” Hobson said. “You can stop just about anything in life, but you can’t stop time. But I document a fraction of a second in time that you can look back on and see what happened during that period. So I stopped time for a fraction of a second by doing photography. At least, that’s the way I look at it.”
Born in Memphis, Hobson was drafted into the Army at age 18. He thought the Air Force would be a better fit, and enlisted. That decision would shape the rest of his life.
The Air Force taught him photography, and sent him across the globe with a camera.
Hobson was originally told his first posting was to Hawaii. “I got all excited,” he said. “But then he came back and told me it was at the North Pole. I thought he was joking, but true enough, it was the North Pole.”
It was Thule Air Base in Greenland, to be exact, with ice and snow and several months of darkness. Hobson spent a year there as a photographer, and then was sent to Japan, and later Korea. With Top Secret clearance, he did all types of military photography, including aerial shots.
After leaving the military, Hobson returned to Memphis. A friend mentioned a job at the university, and he applied. Despite being told he was overqualified, he took the job as a photographer’s assistant to get in the door. A few months later, he was a photographer, and eventually managed the Biomedical Photography and Communications Department. Hobson supervised a staff of 12 to 15 in the department that produced campus photography and portraiture, microscopic photography, surgical photography, patient photography, public relations photos, 16-millimeter movies, news photography, and forensic photos for the medical examiner’s office.
For the last dozen years or so, Hobson has been the university photographer with the UTHSC Communications and Marketing Department. In that role, he has photographed everything from visits by dignitaries to campus events and portraits.
“There are a lot of people who have come through who have made a mark, and I’ve had an opportunity to be up-close and personal with a lot of these people,” Hobson said.
He cites, for example, astronaut Rhea Seddon, whom he photographed first as a medical student and later as a member of NASA.
“Thurman has been an institution for our institution,” said Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, FACHE, executive vice chancellor and chief operations officer at UTHSC. “He has witnessed our evolution over decades through the eyes, or camera lens, in a way few, if any, of our employees have. He is an iconic figure generations of students, faculty, staff, and alums have come to know and find comfort in seeing when they have returned to visit our campus many, many years after their tenure or matriculation here. His companionship for us all will surely be missed, as we take our photo with him today, knowing that it is, as he often says when he does a shoot, the ‘last one.’ ”
Hobson said he has no intention of sitting around in retirement. He is a photographer at his church, Brown Missionary Baptist Church. He will continue other photography work, too, possibly even from time to time at the university he knows like the back of his hand.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said. “I’m just one of those people who God has put into a position to be able to do something that they like doing. It’s rare that you run across that. And it’s something that I can see and feel like I’ve made a contribution.”