Some people say that a place picks you. Moab was the place that picked Tom Till to explore, photograph and become one of the photographers who would eventually bring it to people’s attention. Here is his remarkable story
Interview by Deborah Hughes
Tom, you moved to Moab, Utah where you now make your home from Iowa. What brought you to this desert environment initially?
I discovered Moab as a preteen on my way to California with my parents. Some people say this place picks you, and it picked me right away. I came back many times and, after college, I moved to Moab to explore the nearby wilderness and used it as a base to explore the Four Corners and Western Colorado Mountains. The people who know Moab now wouldn't have recognized the place then. The backcountry was deserted and wide open – no permits, no crowds, it was nirvana. I'm so lucky I got to spend those years here when Grand Junction was considered to be the end of the world. Also, I was the only serious professional landscape photographer here for a long time. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone else. Now I don't know anyone.
Other than the amazing canyon country landscape, what other factors prompted your interest in photography and informed your early artistic vision?
I don't have a photography background. My degree is in English. I had been inspired in college by Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde and David Muench, and I thought it would be fun to try to shoot images of all the magnificent and little-known places I was visiting. At some point in 1975 I decided to try and make a living from photography and saved up money for a 4x5 camera. I really stuck to that mental commitment. I captured some good images with that camera right from the start, even though I had no idea how to use it. There were no workshops in those days. I took some college extension courses but nobody really knew how to operate that camera. Eventually, I made up my own system, which seemed to work fine. My early artistic vision was the same as it is now. I love my subjects, I am curious and I am willing to spend a lot of time to get what I want. Some images are pre-planned right down to a storyboard, while others are gifts I grab from the earth and sky that I could never have envisioned.
You began your career using film. Do you still use film?
The change to digital from film was a no-choice item for me. After over 30 years of carrying around a huge, heavy backpack, my body could not take it anymore. Honestly, now I don't know how I did all that hiking and climbing, let alone dragging it though every airport in the world. I don't think it's immodest to say I took a 4x5 camera to many places (which are now famous) where no one had gone before and I took it to places where there is a good chance a camera of any kind won't go again. I see lots of great digital work but I don't see places I haven't already been in the Southwest. In terms of nostalgia for film, I am only nostalgic for how difficult film was and how we had to master a craft to become professionals. We also had to pay dues, lots of dues. Otherwise, I think digital is wonderful. I don't think it had a big effect on my creative vision, but the advances in night photography, long exposures, drone use (where legal) and other new ways of working in the field are exciting. I don't know if I will get around to trying all these things but it sounds like fun.
Your photography has been used to increase awareness of environmental concerns and wilderness preservation in Utah and beyond. What can photographers do or not do to help keep landscape photography an experience as well as an end product?
One thing that has puzzled me in recent years is that, in my generation of photographers, conservation work with your imagery was a given. The founders of our art form were role models for this, especially Adams, Porter, and Hyde. Adams refused to do a portrait of Ronald Reagan because of his administration's terrible record on the environment. It just seems so obvious; you like to photograph this area, so why wouldn’t you allow your images to be used in service to save it? Also, why wouldn't you support environmental groups who are advocating saving these places?
Landscape photography in America began as a means to fight environmental battles. I am proud that my images have been used a lot to save endangered places and create new wilderness and parks. I think most photographers still believe this but we have a whole group of outdoor shooters who are conservative politically now. I have nothing against anyone having their own political beliefs, but they don't like the government, which in turn must mean they don't like national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges or wilderness areas, all created by the government. Is this cognitive dissonance or just selfishness and arrogance? ‘I have photographed it, so it can go to hell now.’ Maybe I'm wrong about this. If so, I would love to know how these people think. I keep coming back to Ed Abbey's comment, “Wilderness doesn't need more defence, but more defenders.” The most important image I ever took was an aerial photograph of the uranium tailings pond near Moab showing its position next to the Colorado River and Arches National Park near Moab. I know these images were instrumental in getting the tailings pile moved – a huge project that is still going on, and a job that has produced hundreds of jobs, which I'm also proud of.
As a professional photographer, you offer a number of products and services – photography workshops, an incredible lineup of photobooks and prints through a retail store in Moab, Utah. How does each of these outputs loop back and inform your vision as an artist?
Having a retail store in Moab is different from having one in Jackson, Wyoming or Telluride, Colorado. We have some deep pocket visitors and residents but the market is totally different. From the beginning we have kept our print prices very reasonable so anyone could afford a print. It's just good retail sense to have price points for every budget. The books are my portfolios. Some publications I'm happy with and some not so much. When my stock photography business was booming, the books were instrumental as advertising for that. The age of photography coffee table books is over but we still sell the ones we self-publish like crazy in the store.
Do you have particular pastimes or practices aside from photography that inform your photography?
I am a musician and I think that has influenced my work. Improvisation, which I initially learned playing rock and roll, has had a huge effect on the flow of my work. If my initial plans don't work, I'm pretty good at inventing new ones on the fly. I also read a lot and see tons of movies. Sometimes I see cool locations even on TV. I always used to watch the beginning of Survivor to see the scenic photography of the place where the show was taking place. I like to hike without my camera sometimes. It frees me up and lets me just walk through a place without preconceived ideas or goals. I often tell people my true job is hiking.
You spend a lot of time getting out and exploring the landscape. Have there been times when you thought you would never return, when the images captured would never see the light of the darkroom?
Darkrooms have never been a part of my life. I produced 4x5 transparencies throughout my career until digital and I sent those to the lab. I'm not sure I understand your question, but I guess you are asking if I ever got so caught up in what I was doing that I wanted to stay forever at a location? I do live at a location that borders the wilderness, so coming home has never been a hardship. Everywhere I have ever gone (103 countries, 50 states) has been beautiful. Many times I did not want to leave, but I had a family for most of this, and it's like Willie Nelson says… you always want to leave and you always want to come home. It sets up an emotional condition where you are never really happy where you are. Most people would think that's sad, but I think an unhappy artist is the best artist, so I have used this constant feeling of discontent to motivate me. In recent years, I decided that traveling is not the best thing to be doing for the planet right now, so I have cut way back.
Do you use Photoshop or LIghtroom to process your digital images?
I use Photoshop only to clean images and prepare them size-wise for printing. I don't know how to make a layer and I won't learn. I use Lightroom a lot. Mostly I use the shadow and highlight sliders and the Virtual Gradual Neutral Density filter. In Lightroom 5 these controls are so powerful. Just about any contrast issue can be tamed, which amazes me. I never touch Saturation. It's poison, believe me, I have learned this the hard way. I do use Clarity and Vibrance sparingly.
Do you have a few tips for landscape photographers desiring to photograph the desert Southwest?
First, you should get the new editions of my friend Laurent Martes’s books on photographing the Southwest. Next, read Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey if you haven't already. If you are a complete newbie to the area a personal guide is not a bad idea – this is required in Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. Come when the storms are here, in July, August, September and October. Get to the Mesa Arch parking lot in Canyonlands, Islands in the Sky District, early, very early. Don't expect to come here for a week and capture all the great pictures. There are many lifetimes of subjects and lighting opportunities to pursue. Have fun and be careful out there. This country will bite you in the ass if you are not impeccable about the way you handle yourself. Finally, consider your subject to be more important than the picture you are capturing.
What are your favorite images of all time?
Favorite images of other photographers: Eliot Porter, Small Waterfall in Coyote Gulch; Ansel Adams, Face of Half Dome; Philip Hyde, Autumn Tees at Craters of the Moon; David Muench, practically everything he's ever done.
If you could turn back time, what advice would you give to a younger you about photography?
If I could turn back time, I would have started earlier, right after college. I could have used a few more years in peak youthful shape at this job. The irony of all this is that I have immense experience and I am at the top of my game, but the job is so physical, so I just can't get to some places I would like to. Otherwise, I would not change a thing.
Read this and many more inspirational articles in High Definition inside Issue 45 of Landscape Photography Magazine.