Note – I did this interview with Tom some (many) years ago and wanted to reuse it on my blog as most of what is in it is about the same. Most that is except for the number of Tom’s images that have been published. Back then the total was a mere 30,000 compared to what it is today.
Tom Till is one of America’s most published photographers. Over 250,000 uses of his images have appeared in print since 1977. In 1998, Till opened the Tom Till Gallery in Moab, Utah. And in 2004 he opened the Wild Spirits Gallery in Park City, Utah with wildlife photographer Gary Crandall. Till’s images depict landscape, nature, history, and travel subjects worldwide, including all fifty states and nearly fifty countries overseas. Till was made a NANPA fellow this year for twenty years of excellence in nature photography.
I first became acquainted with Till when he sent me a few of his books to review on the photo web sites that I wrote for, and although I have seen a lot of his work in the past, I knew little about the photographer. Since then, the more I learned, the harder it was to believe that one person could have done so much in the field of photography, and is still doing even more. Just the fact of how many of his images have been used in print was enough for me to ask him about an interview, so here is what followed.
PWF – - Your bio says that your published images started in 1977. What was your history before that first big break? Who influenced you the most?
Tom – - I had an obsession with the West and the Southwest as a child growing up in Iowa. I have a little OCD, (Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder) and though I was sidetracked by other obsessions, especially music, after college in the Midwest I moved to Moab, Utah. I had seen the work of Eliot Porter, Phillip Hyde, and David Muench and they all had a great influence on me. From Porter I learned about intimate landscapes and the possibilities of photographing overseas. From Hyde I learned about making my images serve the environment and not to just shoot at sunrise and sunset. Muench taught me the work ethic of being in the field 300 days a year, and that shooting landscapes in bad weather means good pictures.
PWF – - Have you ever worked alongside any of these people?
Tom – - I gave a short workshop with David Muench a few years back. I met Eliot Porter shortly before his death, and I spent an evening with Phil Hyde and his wife Ardis at the KOA in Flagstaff about ten years ago.
PWF – - There is probably not a serious photographer alive who has not wanted to see their work in print. How did you get your first break in selling your images? How long did it take you to break into the top name publications like National Geographic?
Tom – - I sold my first image in 1981, four years after starting to use a 4×5. I was not a natural image-maker—I’m still not. It all comes hard for me. I could have wallpapered my house with rejections I got. At the time I was a high school teacher, which worked out well. I shot and traveled on weekends. school breaks, and summer vacations. I slowly built up a stock library and a client base and began to make sales. Once it started, things seemed to snowball, and by 1985 I was making enough money to quit teaching and photograph fulltime. I got into some big publications right away–Omni and Audubon for example. I also started getting some big agency sales. By the way, I wish I could say I’ve been in Geographic a lot, but it’s only been once. I know I’ve been close a few other times, but I don’t think they’re too excited about 4×5 imagery, which is all I do. I’ve had much better luck with their calendars, books, and Traveler. I’ve had over 30,000 images published, but it is still always a thrill to see my work in print. I never tire of it.
PWF – - I know from past experience how hard it is to get in touch with you. How much of the year do you travel to just shoot stock, and how much for the other types of photo work you do? Which is?
Tom – - I’ve been at this for 30 years now, so I’ve cut back a little. I’m in the field about 225 days a year now. Everything is self-assigned, with several different end results in mind. I shoot stock, I shoot for my books and galleries, and I spend a lot of time shooting for environmental groups.
PWF – - You travel worldwide to get your images. Any favorite places you like to get back to often? Any that you still want to get to that you haven’t been to yet?
Tom – - Australia is a personal favorite. I’m a desert person. I love Europe. I spent three weeks shooting there this year–both nature, history and travel subjects, all with a 4×5 on a tripod. Nobody yelled at me, or asked for permits, or threatened to take my equipment. I was friends with the writer Edward Abbey and he thought Europe was a hellhole. I love it there. I went to Bali this fall and it was the same. Wonderful people and wonderful conditions for photography. I have a large number of places I’d still like to visit and return to both worldwide and in America. Of course the Southwest always has infinite new possibilities.
PWF – - You mostly use a 4×5 camera. How do you handle everything you need for a camera that size when you are heading out to some of the most unfriendly places on earth, like the Antarctic? Do you take an assistant along to lighten the load so you can spend more time behind the camera?
Tom – - Throughout my career in the Southwest and the Rockies I think I was known as the guy who takes a 4×5 where other people wouldn’t even take a 35mm, so I had no problem dragging a 4×5 all over the world. I’ve shot at Lake Superior with the 4×5 with a wind chill of 75 below. The film was so cold it would break in little pieces like glass. It’s just what I do. “9/11” made it a little more difficult, but I’ve adapted to that too. I’m 57 now, and I am looking at ways to lighten my load. I use nothing but ready and quickloads, and use a lighter tripod than I used to. The new view camera lenses are very light and have great covering power. Once in a while I think about possibly using a medium format camera more for some things, but I so far I’m staying old school with film, a view camera, and Ilfochrome prints. As far as assistants, sometimes my wife or one of my kids will go on a trip, but I really like being alone.
PWF – - Do you ever shoot any 35mm film or digital?
Tom – - I shot a lot of 35mm when I first started along with the 4×5. It became apparent that clients would never buy the 35mm’s when a similar 4×5 was available, so I quit for the most part. I have a complete Nikon analog outfit, which I sometimes use with long lenses (telephoto is hard with a 4×5), fisheye, and macro. I also have a complete Pentax 6×7 kit which I will use in strong wind or rain.
PWF – - Having photographed the Four Corners area myself, I know the attraction to that land of many canyons, but, what made that area your pick for a home base, as a place to both live and shoot much of your work?
Tom – - I mentioned my childhood attraction to the area, but in college I did a lot of trips out here, and that solidified things. On a trip I did to the Grand Canyon in 1968 I happened to be hiking the Kaibab Trail during a winter storm. The light on all the Buttes and Temples was a revelation to me. On the way home we stopped in Moab, which I had visited several times before, and I also was treated to another light show. I was hooked. When I moved to Moab in the 1970′s it was undiscovered–very peaceful and quiet and wonderful. I feel very lucky to have experienced the Southwest in those years, and I still think every day I get to live here is a gift. I think the Southwest is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand the great light and great subjects make it easy to get good shots. You can come in for a few days and go to the well known spots and do pretty well, usually. But it’s also a place that has so many wonderful secrets hidden away by the forbidding terrain, which I think intimidates some people, and rightly so. It’s big, it’s hot or cold, and lots of things can go wrong. Fortunately a lot of those place have been left to guys like me who really get into the backcountry. If you go in a bee-line from the back of my house and go straight west, you won’t hit a paved road for 100 miles by air.
PWF – - I know that you use a lot of your images to support environmental causes. Out of those 30,000-plus published images, how many of them were for environmental uses? Is there a specific area of the environment that you feel needs the most support? (Feel free to comment on any US govt. policies)
Tom – - Environmental groups have been using my work for my whole career. I’m very proud of what I’ve done. Any photographer can do the same thing. For example, recently my photographs of a very sensitive place called Factory Butte were used to protect the area from rampant ATV damage. The images I made were used in Washington to build support for this protection, which is hard to obtain in the present political climate, to say the least. They tell me that many times the photographs are the prime factor in getting positive legislation for the environment, so it’s very fulfilling when that happens. I spend a lot of time in the field “on assignment” for environmental groups, and my staff spends a great deal of time in my office working on imagery for these purposes. We do this work mostly for free, or sometimes for expenses. Also, we give away about 1/3 of my after tax revenues from my Moab gallery to various charities and environmental groups. I mention this not to pat myself on the back, but to give other photographers an example of what can be done.
PWF – - I do my own photography, along with writing, and I don’t think that I could get everything done even if there were 48 hours in a day. How in the world do you do it all when you are on the road so much? How are you able to get everything sorted, filed, scanned, and promoted for possible use, and how do you store all of your work? You don’t digitize everything do you?
Tom – - We’ve been at this a long time, and I have a great team to help me. I have about 75,000 4×5′s filed and computerized. We use a geographic filing system and INVIEW and STOCKVIEW software. We have about 3,000 scanned at high rez. We have a continually scanning program to increase that number. Four people work in my office. Five years ago we were doing about five film submissions a day. That has dropped considerably with the new paradigms in the stock photography business, and frankly I’m glad. It was too much work. We do at least 50 percent digital submissions now.
PWF – - Travel/Nature photography involves a ton of planning for just about anywhere you go. How is most of your traveling done? Do you do much driving to locations in the US, or is the driving part too much lost shooting time?
Tom – - I love the planning part of my trips. I’ll start reading about a place, or a country, a year or more before I go. I size up all the possibilities and make up a schedule, leaving plenty of time for bad weather. In the Dolomites this year for example, I had one good day out of five, so there’s a lot of time in the car or hotel waiting things out. I read a lot and watch movies on my ipod, sleep or scout locations. When my kids were little and before I was married I often went on 40-60 day driving trips in the states, and now that my kids are almost grown, my wife and I may go back to that lifestyle. Right now I do a lot of flying and driving. In Europe for example, I drove from Zurich to Vienna this year by way of Germany and Italy–3,000 kilometers. In Australia this year I flew about 8,000 miles in country and drove about 1,000 miles. I should mention the many wonderful guides I’ve had over the years in China, Peru, Venezuela, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines and Oman to name a few.
PWF – - What would you say was the hardest place you ever had to get to and photograph? Would you go back again? Any favorites?
Tom – - In my younger days I did a lot of canyoneering with ropes in the Canyon Country. Some of those were pretty hairy. I also was an avid river runner and rowed my own boat many times (with cameras on board) through the Colorado, Green, Yampa, Dolores, Salmon, Escalante and San Juan. I rowed through the Grand Canyon in the flood year of 1983 and it was an extremely intense and scary voyage. I still do these trips, but now I go with the river company my daughter works for. I let the youngsters do the work, and worry about life and death in big rapids. I’ve had very few problems in my 70 or so trips outside the U.S., and in my extensive travels at home. I’ve only had a few weird incidents (a road rage attack in Italy and a mugging in France). For the most part, people have been kind, friendly, helpful, and good to me wherever I’ve gone.
PWF – - One of your main subjects, and also a favorite of mine, is historical work. Just what all does that work involve? Why historical?
Tom – - The historical work started out with Southwestern ruins and rock art. I found that a great Anasazi ruin moved me as much as a great natural scene. I also loved shooting “Americana” covered bridges, lighthouses, mills, civil war battlefields and even cityscapes. I used the same techniques with these subject that I used with natural ones, and I found that editors wanted the work just as much. Also, most of these subjects are perfect for the 4×5, which is great for architecture. It was only natural for me when I went to England to try to get a good shot of Stonehenge, or to shoot the amazing statues on Easter Island, and economically, it made my files more diverse and valuable. Photographing archaeological subjects overseas can offer challenges that nature doesn’t. In Mexico, for example, photographing ruins with a tripod and/or after hours requires an expensive, hard to obtain permit. If you go in with ten Nikons around your neck, they say nothing, but pull out a tiny tripod and get caught, and you’re in trouble. I’ve had similar problems in the UK, Italy (Rome mainly) China, Japan, and Greece (perhaps the worst). I try to get “letters” from the government to show to local officials if possible, but it only worked one time–in Turkey. That time it really worked well, and without it I’d have gotten nothing.
PWF – - Do you now, or have you ever done any of your own darkroom work?
Tom – - In the early eighties, I printed my own Ilfochromes with masking. They were pretty nice. That’s it.
PWF – - Have you ever, or do you plan to ever conduct any workshops?
Tom – - In the eighties I did a lot of workshops. I avoid them now, and not because I don’t want to share my knowledge. I’m a shy person without a gift of gab, and I find workshop participants often want someone who will rock their world. I don’t have the fake charisma to pull it off. Also, as they say, those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. A lot of workshop teachers are really good at teaching workshops because they do it so much. I also felt people were going on my workshops just to say they spent a week with a “famous” photographer. Their desire to learn was minimal. On the last big workshop I did, I worked nonstop for a week from 3:30 am to midnight every day. I carried people’s equipment to Delicate Arch for God’s sake! When the evaluations came back, they all said I wasn’t as good as so-and-so and so-and-so. That was the last straw for me.
PWF – Note - Since this interview, Tom has gotten back to conducting regular workshops again around his beloved southwest.
PWF – - One great thing about being a photographer is that you never really have to ever retire. If, and when, you ever do slow down from making all of your worldwide trips, do you have any other “creative” interests you use to break up the routine?
Tom – - Well, I have a wonderful family. Last year, for the first time in thirty years I didn’t travel for five months because I went to over 50 basketball and baseball games my son was playing in. I hope to do the same this year. I’m a big movie fan, and I love The Office, BattleStar Gallactica, and Lost. I read a lot–mostly books about space and cosmology and rock and roll. I’m a musician, and music is a big part of my life. I love itunes.
PWF – - Last of all,,, We have both seen the progress of photography from black and white, to color, and from film to digital. Do you think that you will ever include digital photography in your work, if and when, it improves to the quality you produce now? Or will it be film forever, no matter what? – (update – he has)
Tom – - I’d like to pursue both. I like digital renderings very much and like film. too. The writing may be on the wall though. The Pentax Digital Spotmeter, which is an integral part of my equipment is not being sold. I seem to only find used ones on ebay. That is bad enough, but when I went to buy a new battery for the meter, the Radio Shack guy told me to stock up because the battery might be discontinued. Oh, well, we’ll adapt!
To find out more about Till’s work, and to see his many images, you can find them on his web site at; – tomtillphotography.com/
Thanks Tom! It’s been more than interesting!
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