Wisconsin photographer gets second shot at eclipse

by Tim Crosby

Tom Seaton

Tom Seaton, of Sun Prairie, Wis., holds his mother’s old camera while his modern photography equipment sits behind him. (Photo provided)

CARBONDALE, Ill. – The great eclipse this summer means many things to many people. For Tom Seaton, it will be a chance to right an old wrong and achieve a goal long delayed by time and circumstance.

Seaton, a long-time telecommunications professional from Wisconsin, plans to be at Southern Illinois University Carbondale on Aug. 21 when a total solar eclipse sweeps through the area, potentially bringing 50,000 people with it. Seaton will come well stocked with photography equipment and plans to take many pictures as the event unfolds.

Seaton, 52, was just a young teenager in 1979 when a major solar eclipse visible in the United States provided his first chance to document such an event. He had become deeply interested in space and astronomy a few years before, in the sixth grade, when a science teacher turned him on to the wonders of the sky and beyond.

“I had the best science teacher. Ever,” Seaton recalled. “He really made science fun. He was the person who introduced me to the upcoming solar eclipse, which was just three years away then. Unfortunately I was in a different school by the time it rolled around, but still had the knowledge he taught me and that is why I decided to photograph the 1979 eclipse.”

So with a camera loaned to him by his mother, Seaton set out for his junior high school in Elm Grove, Wis., that February day. He had spent his entire allowance on a solar filter and film – a necessary item in those pre-digital photography days.

Seaton was determined, and he had done the leg work, securing permission from the school to spend the day outside in return for a photo for the school newspaper. He’d carefully set up his equipment in the park next to the school. His activities drew a crowd, and he began explaining to different groups of people what he was trying to accomplish.

The eclipse began and Seaton snapped away, capturing honest images of one of our solar system’s most transcendent moments.

And then, disaster.

“Someone tripped on my tripod,” Seaton said. “Like slow motion, I watched the camera fall to the ground.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but a couple days later, after developing, I found the film was ruined. Not a single picture turned out, none. I ended up with no pictures of the eclipse.”

Devastated, but buoyed by his interest in photography winning him a spot on the school news team, Seaton tucked his disappointment away and went on to a long career in telecommunications, a camera never far from his reach.

“I have always been a photographer on the side, and everyone knows me as ‘the guy with the camera,’” Seaton said. “I have had the pleasure of documenting many exciting events over the years, including a Super Bowl and many concerts and music festivals, along with somber times like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”

Often he would travel to remote places with little nighttime light pollution, where the stars and planets shine forth like nowhere else on Earth.

“Being out in dark, remote locations all night long, it gives the eyes time to really adjust to night vision and looking up with either naked eye or using binoculars is great,” he said. “Having a telescope may make the view closer, but not always better because of the time and effort of the extra stuff, with limited field of view.”

Now living in Sun Prairie, Wis., near his octogenarian parents, the tug of space and the wonders of the universe have stayed with him all along.

“I am fascinated by the vastness of space, the thought that Earth is not alone,” Seaton said. “The beauty of the stars is amazing. Just looking up at night, seeing all the different formations, colors and being able to see something new every time.”

Other eclipses have come and gone, some being just partial and others happening too far away for Seaton to go.  But upon learning of the upcoming total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, with its point of longest duration near SIU, Seaton became determined to accomplish what fate and a stranger’s errant foot had prevented all those years ago.

“First off, I am glad that I am getting the chance to re-live that exciting point in time:  I am going to view a full solar eclipse, at a school surrounded by crowds of people,” Seaton said. “Part of watching an eclipse is seeing the reactions of others. It would not be the same to be standing alone in some remote location.

“This time it is nearby and I have even more anticipation, more knowledge and more equipment,” he said.  “As the time grows near at getting a second chance to catch the eclipse, I’ve had time to plan ahead.”

And he’s learned a few things in the 38 years since that fateful day in 1979.

“I am going to take more precautions to keep my cameras safe. I plan on using a minimum of two cameras, perhaps more,” he said. “I’d like two just for the eclipse and one more to document the atmosphere with the reactions of the people around me.”

Seaton said he specifically chose to come to SIU for the event for several reasons.

“It’s a school, it’s in the path of totality and it’s close enough to travel to easily,” he said.

He also will be helping with a project called MegaMovie Photo Team, a project put together by Google and others, which will use the work of 1,000 or so amateur photographers to create a “movie” of the eclipse.

Seaton said he’s glad his mother, who loaned him the camera in 1979, is still here to witness his excitement. Much of the equipment he plans to bring will be modern, high-tech cameras and lenses, but not all of it.

“During my recent move, I came across the original camera I used in 1979. It had since been repaired and will be coming with me.

“Hopefully I can find a roll of film for it.”