Tommy Mackensie: Exposing his Fears and Capturing his Dreams

From a freelance photographer, learning to fly planes, to now owning a magazine, there’s certainly no denying his passions in life.

By Angela Hryc

Sunday, 2 April, 2017

Tommy Mackenzie
Tommy Mackenzie

It was 26 January, 2015, Australia Day, when his life changed forever. While everyone else was celebrating with family and friends, Tommy Mackenzie was lying in a hospital bed and fighting for his life. “I’m still going through rebab,” he states bluntly as we sit on the rough carpet floor in the tiny, abandoned, overheated gymnasium on one of the many floors attached to Melbourne’s HarbourView Apartment Hotel, where he currently calls home.

The then 39 year old, Melbourne-based photographer was battling a toxic relationship which caused him to end up in a coma for three weeks. Now at 41, Mackenzie is ready to fight back and continue his passion as a photographer, learning to fly aeroplanes, all while becoming the CEO and owner of Pin up America Magazine.

When talking to Mackenzie, it’s clear that his experiences have shaped him into a calm, collected, and insightful individual who is nonetheless passionate about the things he does. His passion is nowhere more obvious than when he talks about his latest venture, Pin up America magazine.

Pin up America was first developed in 2010 and was originally based in Florida, USA before it was sold to Mackenzie in early 2015. With Pin up America being known for its Kustom Kulture and with a specific focus around pin up models, fashion, photography and art, Mackenzie was thrilled when he learned that the magazine was for sale. “I was in hospital when I bought the magazine,” he said.  But after doing hours of intense research into the magazine, the next day, Mackenzie’s doubt’s got the better of him. “It was the ‘typical me’ before the injury saying ‘think about it, think about it, think about it!’, and not do it,” he explains. In the end, Mackenzie realised how much he had been through at that point in his life and knew that it was “madness” to pass up this kind of opportunity.

Since becoming the CEO and owner of Pin up America, Mackenzie is looking forward to expanding on the current genre and theme of the magazine. Mackenzie plans to take the pin up genre a little bit further by incorporating more art and embracing cultural aspects to the magazine. “I really want to expand on the whole artistic merit of the magazine,” he says. Mackenzie’s goal is to have a balance between pin up and art; he plans to include burlesque models, designers, dancers, musicians, rockabilly and surreal fashion. Even though the magazine is solely based around the pin up genre and models, Mackenzie firmly believes “it’s about art.”

Art has always been an important aspect of Mackenzie’s life, especially photography. Being artistic and creative seems to run in the family. His dad was a painter, his cousin is a painter, and his uncle was a renowned painter in Europe, Paris in particular. However, Mackenzie sucked at drawing and instead showed interest in music, writing and other areas of art. “I played music for a long period of time and became a piano teacher. I’ve done writing and explored photography from there,” he says.

Mackenzie developed a stronger interest with photography in the early 2000s, exploring it and taking photos which eventually led him to becoming an assistant photographer for a wedding company. Only a few months later, Mackenzie was hired as the main photographer based on his excellent photography skills.

Mackenzie gets inspiration by looking at the “outside world” and by looking at it from a different perspective. “It’s all a matter of perspective, things in life are perspective,” he says.

He shows a particular interest in architecture and landscapes. Mackenzie has created some of his best photography while travelling to New Zealand and living in Alaska. While staying in Alaska, he was lucky to get a close-up of a bald eagle. “I got the perfect image, pretty much off the bat,” he says.

Bald Eagle Shot by Tommy Mackenzie
Mackenzie’s image of a Bald Eagle

Creativity is always something that Mackenzie makes times for with his photography, whether it’s “looking at different avenues” or inspirations from different places, exploring Melbourne, taking photos of buildings and, most importantly, his work with Pin up America.

“Most of my photography is channelled towards the magazine and what I do,” says Mackenzie.

While Mackenzie has experience working for a professional wedding photography company, he has also been a freelance photographer for ten years working with models and people and taking various shots in different settings and locations.

When conducting a photo shoot, making the model feel comfortable and relaxed is Mackenzie’s number one goal when working on set. This helps to cut down any feelings of awkwardness and tension, therefore, model is more likely to connect with the camera. Mackenzie’s aim is to make sure that everyone on the set feels safe, happy and has fun. It also comes down to how much time is spent with the models. “If you don’t really put in enough time with them, then it’s not a good relationship and doesn’t translate into the images,” says Mackenzie.

Being a photographer has its perks but it also has its setbacks and challenges. Mackenzie explains that managing people is always a major challenge in the photography industry as people have their own idiosyncrasies and personalities. While it’s obvious that you need to be fair to everyone you’re working with, at the same time it’s vital that certain things are done in the way you want them to be. Working with more than two models at a time can be quite challenging as you can easily lose focus with the camera and set up. Last minute cancelations from people also make for a difficult process with alternative arrangements and re-organising a new timeframe.

Aside from facing challenges and difficulties within his photography career, Mackenzie has unfortunately, had to face an even bigger challenge that almost cost him his life. He was put into a coma just over two years ago by an ex-partner as result of her extreme behaviour. While their relationship was good to begin with, it eventually turned toxic. “It wasn’t safe to be in that type of environment but I chose to stick around which was my mistake,” Mackenzie explains.

Waking up from his coma three weeks later was only the beginning. “The injuries that I got, they’re injuries that I will have for life,” he says.

On top of having to deal with all the trauma and injuries from the coma, he is faced with an equally challenging condition: anxiety. “I’ve always fought hard since the coma whether it be my traumas, my fears, my anxiety, I’m still battling with that. I don’t care; I’ll keep battling with it,” Mackenzie explains.

But Mackenzie has not given up on his “life changing” experience and has fought hard to get to where he is today. His work, career, friends and passions for life are all essential aspects that help him to continue to move forward.

Another passion that Mackenzie has more recently embraced is training to be a commercial pilot and to fly aeroplanes. He began flying school earlier this year, here in Melbourne, and he is loving every minute of it. “It’s just one of those things that you only dream of probably as a kid and you never really pursue it, unless you’re kind of told of the avenues,” he says.

Flying planes is something that he has had his mind set on for the past few years, even before the coma. Mackenzie plans to incorporate his new passion for flying with his old passion for photography by featuring planes in photo shoots for Pin up America and to capture images while flying.

In addition to being a freelance photographer and training to be a commercial pilot, Mackenzie has big plans for Pin up America and where he hopes to see it grow. He hopes that Pin up America will eventually become one of the “fore-front magazines for Kustom Kulture and art”, and that the magazine will be recognised as a brand everywhere around the world. “Ultimately, I want us to be able to be big, world-wide, recognised for what we do, that we embrace art and people,” says Mackenzie.

As the interview comes to end, in the, what now feels like the newly installed sauna for HarbourView Apartment Hotel, Mackenzie happily recaps on his passion for photography and is proud of how far it has taken him in his career. Will it be a part of his long-term career? Most definitely. Whether he is shooting photos for Pin up America, taking beautiful landscapes, exploring night photography in Alaska – which is where he plans to live someday – Mackenzie isn’t going to stop following his passion for life anytime soon. “At the end of the day, I don’t see that it’s going to be one-dimensional, it’s always going to be something that I want to be doing,” says Mackenzie.