Tom Till - Utah's Ambassador to the World
By Dave Webb
As you approach the airport on a flight into Salt Lake City, the views of the Wasatch Mountains are spectacular a fitting introduction to Utahs natural wonders.
As you leave the plane and move down the long hallways into the terminal, you get another visual introduction to the state, in the form of large photographs showing our red rock deserts, rugged canyons, towering mountain peaks, forests, lakes and flower-filled meadows. The images effectively depict the remarkable variety of scenery to be found here.
Many of the photos were taken by master landscape photographer Tom Till, whose works have been published extensively around the world. His images have graced the covers and pages of countless books and magazines. They have been used on calendars and have been enlarged to make stunning posters.
Tom, a quiet, unassuming former English teacher who was raised in Iowa but now calls Moab home, has become one of Utahs great ambassadors to the world.
I met Tom at his gallery, on Main Street in Moab, and 10 minutes later we were hiking together through the nearby Sand Flats Recreation Area. As we hiked, Tom talked and responded to questions. It was fascinating to hear stories about his life and work, and to hear him describe how he chooses subjects and composes photos. His descriptions were vivid it was almost like being able to see the rocks and canyons through his eyes.
I recorded Toms comments, and present them below. Kind of a stream-of-consciousness that contains very valuable insights to help aspiring photographers.
"When I was maybe seven years old I saw a picture of Delicate Arch in a book, I think it was called The World We Live In, put out by Life magazine. I became kind of obsessed with it from that point on. I pestered my parents to bring me out here when I was a kid; I think I came the first time when I was 10, then came numerous other times, came during every college vacation. By the time I was in college in Iowa, my dorm room was covered with maps of Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. After college it seemed like a logical thing to come where I wanted to live and wanted to be, so I moved to Moab in 1974.
"I just felt like when I got to come live here that I was in heaven, and Ive felt that way ever since. I feel that way every day I get to live in Moab."
It was after finally moving to his dream landscape that Tom discovered the urge to capture its images on film.
"I had seen some photographs by my heroes, which are Elliot Porter, David Budge and Philip Hyde, in college, and there was a time in the 70s when the Sierra Club and others were publishing these big coffee table books, and I really enjoyed looking at those and thought I should try photography. It was 1977 when I made a mental commitment to really be serious about photography. I went from not doing any photography to purchasing a 4x5 camera and really getting serious. I took a few classes, kind of adult-ed type things from Utah State, and they were very helpful. But basically, Im self-taught. Nowadays you can take workshops by the thousands and learn photography that way, but back then there werent the workshops that there are now. I did sign up for a workshop with Philip Hyde and was expecting to learn to run my view camera, but it got cancelled. I didnt even get to do that. It was trial and error with my view camera.
"I enjoyed it right away. I had a friend who had been shooting 4x5 and he showed me some images. They were so spectacular on the light table, so big, I thought, I want to do that.
"I quit teaching in 1985. At that point I had enough clients and images in my stock library. A lot of photographers kind of struggle and have trouble paying the bills, but I had a fairly seamless segue into being a professional from being a teacher, and havent had any problems making a living.
"I quickly realized I couldnt make a living just photographing Utah. It was impossible. So I tried to get coverage of all 50 states, and was able to do that. I still travel a great deal in the United States. I also really enjoy traveling overseas. Ive been to about 40 countries now. I just did a trip to Oman last month. Fabulous desert country. Spectacular desert . I shot about 150 different scenes."
Tom said he thinks of himself primarily as a professional and craftsman, not as an artist per se.
"On the gallery, we use the term fine art photography. Its art with a little a, though. To me, an artist is the very first person who does something. So, the artist in nature photography would be Elliot Porter and seminal people like that. I consider myself to be more of a craftsman, and occasionally things may approach artistic realms a little bit."
Tom explained that the most basic, crucial thing to consider in photography is the quality of light.
"You have to understand that you are not photographing the subject, you are photographing the light thats on the subject. Thats a key. It sounds like kind of splitting hairs a little bit, but it is a key thing to keep in mind.
"Right now we have overcast conditions and there are no shadows. Thats good for some things. Its great for shooting in forests. Its great for shooting waterfalls because when sun hits water it is so bright it tends to be difficult to deal with on film. Clouds also allow you to shoot during the middle of the day.
"Right now we have snow around here, and we have overcast conditions. It helps to know whats going on, too, with the flora and fauna. I know that the Indian paintbrush has just come out. Another thing Im looking for is color. If you look around most colors are really muted and pastel right now because of the overcast conditions, whereas an Indian paintbrush has really beautifully red, vibrant colors. Id look around and I bet within a half-hour I might be able to find an Indian paintbrush sticking up through the snow. That would be one idea. Another possibility is these pools of water left over from the melting snow.
"Clouds are really important for what I do. If it was a sunny day I probably wouldnt be out at quarter to three. Or Id be planning and scouting for the shot that Id be doing more in the sunset hour. Thats when I would go seriously to work. Id have a subject already picked.
"If you really want to get good photographs, work in what they call in the movies the magic hour, and that is early in the morning and late in the evening. A lot of people dont want to get up early in the morning and stay out late into the evening. They need to change their ideas about when to shoot. When it is just a bald, blue-sky day, the number of things that can happen is pretty limited. But when you have clouds like this, and you have storm conditions, thats when I mainly like to work. You get all of these different moods. The variety of things that can happen is so much greater. You can have light shooting in over here, light shooting in over there, you can have rainbows, you can have the sky light up. The other night, for example, this part of the sky over here by the La Sal Mountains was just absolutely unbelievable at sunset. You can have god-rays (columns of light slanting down through clouds), you can have much more variety when it is cloudy.
"I often have a plan. Im going into the field tomorrow for 10 days and I have a general plan of what I want to do. But Im going to places I havent been before, for the most part. So I dont know quite what to expect. Ill go there and look it over and decide what time of day I want to shoot it. Or even if it is the right time of year. Most people dont realize the sun moves so much along the horizon that lighting changes a great deal from January to July. You might go to a place and realize you cant photograph it at its best until you come back in July.
"Youre also thinking about things like the moon. Where is it? Is it full or is it a sliver? Because thats another element you can use, that and the clouds. They are great subjects and they control the lighting. There is an infinite number of things clouds can do."
If youre serious about landscape photography, Tom says, youve got to put in the hours required, wading through the so-so, looking for the occasional phenomenal moment.
"This is a job. Its the way I make a living. On any given day Ive got to try to make the best out of the conditions Im given. One of the key factors is that youve just got to spend a lot of time in the field. Maybe three out of four times, when Im waiting for the light to come in that notch, it doesnt do it and I get nothing. Its very intensive in terms of the amount of time spent in the field. For me thats a good thing because I like to be outdoors. The most enjoyable part of my job is being in the field shooting. The next most enjoyable part is seeing the film after I get it back from the lab. Its kind of like Christmas for me to look through the film and see my successes and failures. Also enjoyable is getting your work published. Its always a thrill, even though Ive had thousands and thousands of pictures published, to see my work published.
"Most of what I shoot ends up being published, sooner or later.
"Being from Iowa, we dont wax too poetic about things. You have to love your subject, and maybe thats what people see in my photographs. You have to really be passionate about nature and landscape and historical things. In my house Im looking out my window all the time. Its something that is really part of me. I love it."
In the early days, Toms career was a bit of a family affair.
"My wife is very supportive, and my kids are too. When they were little we traveled together and camped. Wed go out for six, seven weeks at a time, all summer, or all spring when they were little. Sadly, theyre too involved in their own things for us to do that anymore."
But with its many opportunities for quiet solitude in nature, Tom finds his profession a perfect fit.
"Im pretty shy and I spend a lot of time alone. Im not too articulate and Im not really wanting to be in the limelight myself. When I came to Moab it was a lonely place, and I like lonely places. I rarely go to my gallery. I like to meet the people that come in and its fun to see them enjoying the photos, but Id rather be in the field by myself or with a friend, or with my family.
"Moab is not so lonely any more, in town. But as anyone who lives here knows, there are so many places you can go and get away from the crowds. There were probably 10,000 people here this weekend and I did a hike on Sunday and didnt see another person on the entire 15-mile hike. We didnt even see a footprint."
But despite his fondness for them, Tom doesnt limit his craft to unpopulated landscapes, or even to undeveloped ones.
"If I have people with me, I sometimes put them in the photos. But Im usually alone. I do a lot of people-oriented images, and that has been very successful for me. I do a lot of archaeology in southern Utah and around the world, and I do a lot of Americana things like lighthouses and covered bridges and old mills and stuff like that. I even do some city stuff occasionally. My best-selling photo of all time shows the New York skyline."
Tom says that a 4x5 field camera provides several advantages for landscape photography.
"The camera I use for 95 percent of my work is a 4x5 field camera. There are several reasons why most professional landscape photographers use a camera like this. One reason is it makes an image 4x5 inches in size. When they are blown up for a double-page spread in a magazine, or to a poster or on a calendar page, this extra size really makes a difference in how sharp the image is. Another reason is that when we send them to editors and they are on the light table, they tend to get more attention than the little 35 mm images do. Another very important reason is the swings and tilts this camera can do. It helps with architectural photographs. It also works nicely with nature stuff. By tilting the lens forward, with a flower I can get everything from about six inches from the camera to infinity in focus very easily, and it makes the shot very intimate. It makes the viewers feel like they are right next to the flower. They can almost smell the flower.
"One thing I try to do is always get very close to my subject. One mistake that beginners or even aspiring amateurs make is not getting close enough to the subject. Just about every subject, you could stand to get closer somehow. I work on that, trying to get as close as possible."
"We have to use a tripod with this camera. You just cant hand-hold things well enough."
The large-size film also has its disadvantages, Tom acknowledges.
"This film has to be loaded and unloaded by hand every night. So, in the summer time, if I finish shooting at 9:30 or 10 at night, and maybe I have to walk back to my camper and if I get there by 10:30 or 11, then I might have another two hours of film unloading. Then I have to get up at 5 in the morning. So, theres some intensive hours sometimes, especially in the summer. I like it when the days start to get a little shorter; my days get a little shorter, too."
As we walk, Tom notices some yucca, with tines sticking up through the snow.
"This isnt the original idea I had. If I see a paintbrush Ill go to that. But it might make kind of a cool shot. So, the next step is to find the best example of this subject. Maybe Ill look around for another yucca and see if it is even better. There are a bunch of them around here. Maybe theres one with more snow, more spines sticking up through it. And get kind of an abstract, close-up photograph. You also see, the strings are kind of cool here. They make a neat pattern.
"My light source is really, really blue. You can see those clouds are blue. Ive got all kinds of blue light being pumped down in here. So, that is going to be less green on the film than your eye sees it. So, Im going to put a slight yellow (filter), very subtle yellow that will help get it back to the way your eye sees it. You really cant add significant amounts of color and have it work in photography. I filter very subtly.
"Almost all professionals filter. I have one filter that I really couldnt do without. That is a graduated neutral density filter.
"Im going to use an f-stop with a high number, f-64 actually, because I want everything in focus. My aperture will be tiny and my depth of field will be maximized. Ill need a fairly long exposure to compensate for that.
"The film Im using is Fuji Velvia. Its my mainstay. I think its the best film ever made. Kodak has a nice film now, Kodak VS, and I also use that. Provia 100 F is new on the market and is also very good.
"For many, many years I kept shooting photos and the colors I thought I was seeing in nature I didnt see in my film. With this film you do. You get the colors you see. Its not just the intense colors, its also the subtle pastels. Every kind of subtle pastel there is will come through."
Tom describes some of the factors he considers as he begins to block out a shot.
"The optimum angle for a big landscape is the sun to your side. If you shoot with the sun to your back you dont get a three-dimensional effect as well.
"I look for sun angle, for things that are going to be three-dimensional. Again, the light is critical. You can see right now these fins, how three-dimensional they are, with the sun getting lower. The problem you face is getting three dimensions on two-dimensional film. Youve got to use every trick available.
"Look for lines that lead into the scene. Lighting that allows you to be brought into and out of the scene. Shadows can be a good thing. Youve got to watch them. If half the scene is in shadow it wont work very well. You want to balance light and dark areas.
"Do the squint test: If you squint at a scene the shadow detail goes away and becomes just black. That is the way its going to look in the picture. You arent going to get all the detail you see with your eyes.
"The most important filter to have, especially in canyon country, is a graduated neutral density filter. Clear on the bottom, on top its dark, and it gradually fades from dark to clear. This allows me to block down these lit areas and balance the exposure with really dark areas of the scene. Film is so limited as to what is transmitted. Your eye can see thousands of times more contrast than the film can. One of the things you have to learn is the difference between what your eye sees and what the film sees. It takes a lot of time to learn that."
Once you think you have a great shot in your viewfinder, dont be stingy with film.
"I do a bracket, a little lighter and a little darker exposure to make sure I get the proper exposure," he says. "All professionals do. Insurance shots."
Currently, Tom is working on a book capturing changes the 20th century brought to Utah.
"Im just completing a book on Utah working title, Utah, Then and Now. I got 100 historic photos, then went back and photographed those places the way they are now. So you can compare the damage done, or the damage not done.
"Sometimes you have places where there was a thriving town, and there is nobody there now. Sometimes a rock art panel that was heavily damaged has now been restored. I didnt want it to be all negative."
With Toms obvious love for the land, we concluded the interview by getting his take on the Utah wilderness issue.
"Im environmentally sensitive, and favor as much wilderness as possible. All the landscape photographers I know favor wilderness."
Tom said he has been successful far beyond his wildest dreams, and he attributes much of the popularity of his photos to the natural splendor of Utahs wild places.
(Published in Utah Outdoors magazine, May, 2000)