We caught up with the legendary Utah-based landscape photographer Tom Till on one of the few days of the year that he had time to answer the Pictureline call. Tom's collection of imagery stretches over 37 years, mostly on 4x5 film, and he has many "first" shots under his belt in the Utah/Southwest area. You simply cannot talk about the development of landscape photography in Utah and the Southwest without Tom Till. Instead of inserting the questions he was asked specifically (on philosophy, equipment, personal history, vision), I will let his voice be uninterrupted as he answered the questions. His views on experimentalism, the photography market, and stock photography are particularly interesting.
"I was in love with landscapes before I was a photographer. It started in childhood. I went to a college with a great photojournalism department, and I was probably lucky I didn't take any classes. In 1975, I moved to Moab from the Midwest. Before I moved here, the only thing I had to dream about were books like Slickrock by Phil Hyde, Utah by Dave Muench, and The Place No One Knew by Eliot Porter. These three photographers got me interested and became my heroes, so shortly after moving out here, I bought a 4x5 with no clue how to use it. My other influences are literature (I have a degree in English), painters (I love all kinds of painting), movies (I see everything from Tree of Life to Transformers and love it all), TV ( I loved Lost immensely and watch shows for ideas on places to shoot). The most important to me, however, is music. I am a musician and an inductee into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I still play my baby grand when I'm home."
THE TOM TILL GALLERY
"I had wanted to open a gallery at home [in Moab] for some time, and in 1997 another photo gallery closed and a space became available on Moab's main street. It was a big risk. My stock business was going gangbusters, and the gallery was an unknown quantity. I remember shooting at Big Bend just after the Gallery opened, and lying in my tent I was thinking, 'I've destroyed my family's life savings.' Fortunately, it was successful right from the beginning. Until 2008, except for choosing the images and working on the Ilfochromes to get them the way I wanted them, it ran itself and it was so financially successful I could just stay in the field and not worry about it. Since the recession began, and the bottom has fallen out of the stock business, I have had to be very hands on down there. We introduced metal and canvas and now acrylic prints, and they have been a godsend. We figured out a way to print in and ship from the UK to all over Europe, so we can sell to all the European customers and their shipping costs are the same as what they would be for the U.S customers. Also I had a huge website business at the gallery before the crash, so we're trying hard to bring that back some.
We have a huge number of repeat visitors (not always buyers) to the gallery and a lot of people who always stop in when they come to town. It's very gratifying. I think I have been around so long I have a brand, so people are sometimes drawn to that. I had a 22-year career and had done 20 books before the gallery existed, so I had some name recognition before we even started."
EQUIPMENT AND POST-PROCESSING
"As I mentioned, I started with a 4x5, and I am self-taught. My friend, the great photographer Steve Mulligan, is college-trained and he shoots with a 4x5 much differently than I do, so I guess I devised my own system. It's seemed to work OK. I loved everything about the 4x5, and I have many first visits with a 4x5 at some now iconic places: The Subway, False Kiva, Coyote Buttes, Antelope Canyon (I may be second here), Zebra Canyon, which I named--the list is long. My move to 35mm was mostly due to the fact that many of my colleagues were having double knee surgery and had other health issues from carrying 50 pounds all over the country, and in my case, all over the world. I didn't want to go down that road, so along with the difficulties of buying and developing film now, and the cost, and with clients who only want digital imagery, it made sense to change. I was considering a medium format digital, but those cameras weigh a ton also. I now use a Canon 5D Mark II, with a Canon 7D as a backup. I use lenses from 8mm to 400mm, and I have a Really Right Stuff tripod and head. If Canon or Nikon releases a 30-megapixel camera, I would be the first in line to get it.
For years I shot Kodak Ektachrome 64, I'm sorry, but it was an awful film. The lack of color saturation was discouraging. When digital post-processing came along, my philosophy was to match the way a Velvia transparency looked on the light table [Editor's note: Fuji Velvia was an ISO 50 film that was known for its color saturation]. I think my years with Ektachrome were so frustrating that it may have made me go a little strong at times with some of the color in my images. I have toned many of them down since. I love Adobe's Lightroom and all the cool things you can do. I am an HDR fan, and I have taken a huge load of criticism for it. I am not a photojournalist, and the highest praise I get is when someone says that one of my images looks likes a painting. I guess I'm pretty liberal. I would never criticize another photographer for doing something experimental. There are no true colors in nature, and a human being's memory for color is very short. Photographs have never been accurate representations of reality. I don't feel nature needs to be improved by post-production, but art is nature seen through a temperament, and "post" is a way to perfect your personal vision.
As for equipment, I almost always use my Mark II and probably the Canon 24-105 mm or the Canon 16-35 mm zoom most. I just bought the Canon 24 mm f/1.4 for star and aurora shooting. I have never owned a fast lens before.
I have a very large body of work, and sometimes there are certain images I'm proud of. Especially with editors, many of my favorites are not always the ones they like. One thing that has hampered my career some is my love for bad weather in images and the drama it can provide. With travel photography, this type of work is not so popular, but it's really the only kind I want to do. The possibilities are endless with storms, and I love experiencing them and shooting them. The bestseller at the Gallery is an image of Green River Overlook in Canyonlands [seen right]. It was just a shot I did one day, and I could never have predicted people would like it best. Ironically, being mostly a nature photographer, my best-selling stock image (and I mean it was a monster) was a shot of the Twin Towers from New Jersey. After 9-11, it never sold again.
Yes, there are a lot of photographers out there now, and they are doing great work. Unfortunately, I think a lot of great images will be made, and no one will see them. To have a career like I've been lucky enough to have, where I've made a good living in landscape photography and have the resources to support a family and travel anywhere I want...I just think it is going to be very hard for people to do it. I'm sorry to think I might be one of the last of a dying breed. It would cost someone millions of dollars to produce the stock library I have, and in this economic climate I don't know if that is possible for all but a few lucky individuals. At the same time, there are millions of photographers around the globe shooting their particular location and doing a fine job. The Internet brings their images together, and they can make a little money, but a living?"
TOM TILL WORKSHOPS
"Like most professionals in my age bracket, I've been doing a lot of workshops. The secret of workshops is that I usually learn as much as the participants, so I enjoy them. I find the same problems over and over. This is actually good, because I know these problems exist, and we can hit them at the beginning and deal with them and move on to more important topics. My basic philosophy is that the camera has solved some major technical hurdles that were bugaboos for amateurs and professionals--exposure and contrast are two that can be dealt with pretty easily now. With those problems solved, we can move on to the things the camera can't control: how to use light, composition, working in the field, and the rationale behind what we're doing. If you do a workshop with me and my friend Jon Fuller in Moab, I think we have the perfect package. He knows the technical stuff down pat, and I work at teaching the art side, planning the shoots, and being a cheerleader. I think having fun and being excited about what you're doing is really important, and I try to get everyone as thrilled as I am to be outdoors playing with cameras. Also, if you come with us to Southeast Utah, we have knowledge about this area that no other workshop teachers have. There's no way somebody can come in here from Seattle or even Phoenix and know what we know about where the goodies are here and how to best shoot them. If Plan A does not work, we have backup plans all the way to Z."
"The stock photography business still exists, but for us it's a far cry from the glory days of the 80's, 90's, and 2,000's. I do think it's getting a little better lately, perhaps because of the economy. Fortunately, I can still support my self-assignments, which is what my whole career has been. Photo Shelter is OK, but it's not going to make anyone rich. There are 60,000 photographers on there now. It's pretty hard to stand out from the crowd, but we get some business from it. I've been pressured to sell my images royalty free, but I have never done it."
"I really would like to keep doing this job as long as I possibly can. I am having as much fun as ever, perhaps more. I love digital, and I embrace it. I'm overjoyed that my images still continue to be used by environment groups both locally and nationally. My son has taken an active interest in the gallery and stock and publishing businesses, and his business background will really help us. I'm also very proud of my daughter who contributes writing for some of my books and is a Grand Canyon river guide. This year we're celebrating our 35th anniversary at Tom Till Photography and our 15th year at the Gallery. Also, my 34th book about photographing the 200 greatest landscape subjects in the world will appear, so I hope everyone will drop by in Moab to help us celebrate."
Bottom Line: Tom Till is a well-established, well-loved Utah-based landscape photographer who continues to have a successful career after having photographed on 4x5 film for much of his photographic career and who has now switched to Canon digital equipment. His well-rounded set of interests in the arts and his intimate knowledge of the West makes him a prime instructor for those wishing to gain some extra knowledge on photography and the landscape. For all the information on Tom's prints, workshops, books, and stock photography, visit his website at www.tomtill.com.