On a humid, hazy afternoon in August, Tom Palm is doing what he does every summer weekend — boating on Lake Minnetonka. But while boaters around him lounge or cruise, beverage in hand, Palm is observing the scene through a telephoto lens, briskly snapping pictures — sometimes thousands a day — of people on speedboats, pontoons, Jet Skis and paddleboards.
Taking photos of people in bathing suits while they’re trying to relax may sound intrusive or voyeuristic. But Palm, 59, aka Tonka Paparazzi, is a familiar and fond figure among Minnetonka’s regulars.
He’s one of them; he grew up on the lake and lives on a channel near Lord Fletcher’s. And unlike most paparazzi, who try to catch celebrities in awkward poses or incriminating situations, Palm practices snap-and-run at its Minnesota Nicest. “I’m not popping up behind a bush,” he said. “If they wave me off, I leave ’em alone.”
After a day of shooting, he combs through his pictures to find the best, most flattering shots, then posts them the next morning for free download on his website, tonkapaparazzi.com.
He figures he’s giving people something they can’t easily get — a good-quality photo of themselves on the water — that they can post on Facebook, use for their family holiday card or just enjoy as a keepsake of a pleasant summer day.
“People are very receptive,” he said.
Now in his sixth summer as Lake Minnetonka’s resident photographer, he’s confident that “the locals know who I am.”
Melissa Fossey, docking at Lord Fletcher’s on a recent afternoon, is one such local.
“He’s kind of a staple,” she said of Palm. “It’s fun to see him on the lake, and it’s fun to go to the website and see the pictures.”
A few boaters look puzzled or indifferent as Palm approaches, but most smile and wave. Some shout greetings over the sound of waves and watercraft. “Paparazzi! Over here!” called a girl trying to get Palm to point his lens in her direction. “Class of ’83, baby!” a woman yelled as she and her fellow boaters struck a pose for his camera. Families and other groups line up in rows, and sometimes even cut the motor, to give Palm a better shot.
And the gregarious Palm shouts greetings back, like Mr. Congeniality on a tower boat, cheering on his subjects’ smiles and poses.
“That’s a good one!” he yells repeatedly when he thinks he’s gotten a quality shot. “You’ll make the Top 20!” he assures a passing party pontoon.
“Pontoons, with big groups, are the fun ones,” he said. “It’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday — getting waved and yelled at in a nice way.”
‘Like opening presents’
Tonka Paparazzi combines two of Palm’s favorite pastimes — boating and photography.
He’s never taken a class, but he loves taking pictures. Perusing all his shots at the end of the day is “like opening presents,” he said. “It’s fun when you nail it.”
He’s learned to position himself and his Cannon perpendicular to the sun, so people aren’t squinting into it.
“I camp out where the light is right and there’s a lot of traffic,” he said. “The more boats, the better.”
It all started in 2010 when the lake hosted “the Super Bowl of muskie tournaments,” Palm recalled. He took some photos of people fishing, printed them and displayed them on a table, and “people went crazy,” he said.
Three years later, he bought a boat, had the tower installed and launched Tonka Paparazzi. While some told him that the name was too edgy and negative, he said, he decided that “Lake Minnetonka Photos Inc. is boring.”
At first, boaters weren’t sure what to make of the man with the telephoto lens trained on them.
“There’s a learning curve when people see me for the first time,” he said. “They wonder, ‘What’s he doing? Some creepy dude?’ ”
So Palm added U.S. flags and big jaunty banners announcing “FREE Photos Online,” along with his web address. “With the banners up, there’s a much better comfort level,” he said.
Palm even has a uniform, a crisp white Tonka Paparazzi shirt, one of four he had made with his nautical-flag logo on the back.
The first two years, Palm sold his photos online for $9.95 apiece. Then someone suggested that he give them away and seek sponsors instead. Currently he has 10 sponsors, each of whom pay $1,995 for the season. For that, they get their logos displayed on Palm’s website and embedded in his photos online. (The logos disappear when the photos are downloaded.) His 10 sponsors are all lake-focused businesses, including a marina, a dock company and a Realtor who specializes in lakeshore properties.
Matt Johnson, owner of Minnetonka Matt Team real estate, has been a sponsor for three years.
“We’re selling lifestyle, not just a piece of property, and Tom and Tonka Paparazzi fit in with that lifestyle,” Johnson said. “It captures the good times people are having on Lake Minnetonka — not just the stereotypical negative stuff, like Big Island on the 4th of July, but a lot of people, of all types.”
Whether his sponsorship has brought him business is “difficult to quantify,” Johnson said, but he values the exposure it gives him among lake lovers. “Name recognition helps support your brand,” he said.
A little attention
Not everyone who gets snapped by Palm rushes to check out the photos.
James Lohr said he’s on the lake often, but has never looked at the Tonka Paparazzi website. “Frankly, we saw him on the bridge, and we didn’t even care.”
But to others, Palm and his camera add to the fun of being on the lake.
“It puts you in a good mood,” Lori McMillan said. “Everybody likes a little paparazzi attention.”
Palm’s photos get a lot of traffic. Last year, he posted almost 19,000 photos, averaged 50 views per photo, and almost 1 million unique photo views. He shoots 20 to 30 days each summer, usually from 1 to 5 p.m. when boat traffic is heaviest, then spends another five to six hours editing that day’s photos down to the best 20 percent or so.
Only twice have people asked Palm to remove photos he’s posted, he said. One was a man he photographed on a Friday afternoon, leading Palm to suspect the man was supposed to have been working and didn’t want photographic evidence to the contrary. The other was a woman. Palm agreed to take down the photo she objected to, then noticed that she also appeared in another photo. So he asked if he should take that one down as well. “No,” she told him. “I like that picture of me.”
What about philandering husbands or wives, snapped boating with someone on the side?
Palm shook his head. “If you’re going to do something not on the up and up, the last place you want to be is Lake Minnetonka,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody.”
In addition to his life behind the lens, Palm has a day job. He owns a small business, Design & Layout Services, advising people trying to set up restaurant equipment to open a cafe or coffee shop. He also has two grown children and a wife — who supports his time-consuming hobby. “She comes sometimes,” he said. “She knows I like it.”
And while being a paparazzi eats up his summer, Palm’s season is soon drawing to a close.
“After Labor Day, it gets awful quiet out there.”