Faculty Feature: Taz Tally, Landscape Photographer

by Gordon Drummond | June 8, 2011

What motivates landscape photographers? What drives them outdoors at all hours, enduring frozen fingers and fogged lenses? To celebrate June Photography Month, we interviewed Sessions College faculty member Taz Tally. When he’s not teaching photography, Taz is living it, combing the Alaskan wilderness for the perfect landscape shot…

Q: Taz, you define yourself as a landscape photographer. What moves you about landscapes and how would you define your approach as an artist?

One of the reasons I’m drawn to landscape photography is my background in geology. It’s really why I moved to Alaska: to live in a pristine wilderness with dramatic geologic landscapes. When I view a landscape I don’t just see beauty—I envision all the processes that went into forming that landscape. Close to where I live, here in Homer, Alaska, I have access to everything from dramatic and dynamic active volcanoes and earthquakes to icy and chillingly beautiful glaciers.

Understanding how a landscape is formed allows me to appreciate that landscape in the whole context of time, space, and geologic energy and movement.  When I stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, I don’t just see a massive and beautiful canyon, I see 2.1 billion years of the Earth’s history at my feet. Similarly, when I look at the glacier-covered Southern Kenai Mountains, I see a landscape that began 200 million years ago at the bottom of Pacific ocean floor as 1400°C basaltic lava flowed out from the mantle and spread out to form the Pacific Ocean basin.

As a geologist, I can imagine these rocks being folded and faulted and moved thousands of miles north to their current location where they have recently been carved up by glaciers and are presently being uplifted by faulting and carved by current glaciers and stream channels. When I photograph these incredible landscapes I often think about and then try to capture the same geologic features and processes.

Q: What landscape photography projects or exhibitions are you working on at the moment? And which great photographers have inspired you in your work?

I have an art exhibit of landscape work entitled Visions of Alaska in Black and White scheduled for display in the middle of July here in Homer, Alaska. This display will be a combination of my most recent black and white landscapes plus some with macro photography images and some more abstract landscape pieces. All photographs will be black and white with an emphasis on the structures, textures, and fabrics of the images.

Ansell Adams and Edward Weston are great nature photographers who continue to inspire me, and for the same reasons. Both were technically excellent, both were accomplished black and white photographers, and both captured compelling landscape.

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Exit-Glacier_sm

Q: What are some unique challenges or rewards of photography in Alaska?

Alaska offers enormous, and essentially unlimited, photographic opportunities and rewards. There are so many compelling landscapes, and the seasonal changes are dramatic. I love to return to the same landscapes in different seasons to experience, enjoy, and capture them. Perhaps my favorite season to shoot in Alaska is the winter. I adore black-and-white landscape photography and shooting in winter provides incredible opportunities for capturing high-contrast images with enormous tonal variations.

Of course, shooting in winter also presents some challenges, including reduced battery life, fogging lenses, and balky shutters at the coldest temperatures, as well as cold fingers! Reduced battery life and foggy lenses offer competing challenges. If I keep my cameras very close to my body in order to use my body heat to warm the camera, when I expose a camera to the cold atmosphere, the lens can fog up with the condensation of moisture in the cold environment. So I split the difference. I keep my camera underneath an outside layer to prevent it from getting too cold, but not right next my body so condensation does not become an issue.

I do keep plenty of extra batteries very close to my body as backups. And, as far as my cold fingers go, I always wear a dual arrangement of thin polypropylene inner gloves covered by thick fingerless mittens. I then pull out my gloved hands to manipulate the camera. Another challenge of winter photography is having to contend with ski poles, which can easily get in the way of managing my camera. To mitigate this frustration, I have designed a special pair of quick release straps to make donning and doffing my ski poles quick and easy.

Q: We noticed on your site that you now offer Custom Alaska Photo Adventures that combine photography with hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and Nordic skiing. You must have fit students. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this project?

People from around the world dream of coming to Alaska. For many it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some come for the fishing adventure of their life. Others come for the extreme skiing. Still others come for the wildlife.  As I perambulate around the world, either digitally or in person, I routinely encounter people who say “…I would love to go to Alaska someday” and then go on to explain some of the things they would like to see and do.

I enjoy sharing my Alaskan wilderness and landscapes with other photographers. Offering Custom Alaska Photo Adventures is my way of providing adventurous photographers with a very custom, personal, and active immersion in the grand Alaskan landscape. I tailor my photographic adventures to the skill and fitness levels of the photographic adventurers, but the fitter and more adventurous you are, the more fun we are going to have!

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Breakfast stop on a custom photo adventure

Q: A few years ago you authored an excellent hiking guide called “50 Hikes in the Kenai Peninsula” in which you wrote all the route descriptions, shot and produced the images, and even created the page layouts.  Do you have any similar interdisciplinary projects in store?

My 50 Hikes book has been my favorite publishing project to date. It’s my favorite because I was able to combine so many of my interests in the creation of this book. I was able to use my photography, digital imaging skills, typesetting and page layout capabilities, outdoor adventure skills, and geologic knowledge all the same project. I am currently developing a companion book called Paddling the Kenai Peninsula. This project would include many of the best kayaking, canoeing, and adventure rafting opportunities on the Kenai peninsula. Sounds like fun to me!

Q: In addition to practicing and teaching photography, you are of course a noted Photoshop expert. How does your Photoshop expertise affect your photography?

Back before the digital age I spent many wonderful hours, days, and weeks in a wet photo lab I built in my attic. I still have wonderful, even fresh, memories of those days. I learned so much and had so much fun capturing, developing, and then printing my images. I remember so clearly the first black-and-white portrait image as it appeared in the dektol developing solution covering the bottom half of my print pan. For years, I proudly sported dektol fingers, the results of having my fingers immersed in the developing, stopping, and fixing solutions for untold hours. I remember the subtle dodging and burning techniques I used to emphasize or deemphasize various portions of an image being projected down through my Dicomed projector. It was so wondrous, creative, and fun!

Do I yearn to return to those days of the wet chemistry and darkroom wizardry?

Not for femtosecond!* Digital imaging provides me with many more image editing power and creative opportunities than I ever had in a wet photo lab. And while I may no longer be able to show off my dektol fingers, I can now work with the lights on and without being assaulted by a range of chemicals. Indeed from my “digital darkroom” I am constantly inspired by spectacular views of the landscapes I so love, as I look across gorgeous Kachemak Bay at my four glaciers gracing the southern Kenai Mountains.

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Bishop’s Beach, Kachemak Bay

Q: Do you have a strict code about editing your work in Photoshop?

When it comes to editing my images, I’m in favor of it! I am not a purist. I think cropping and image editing is fine, and indeed they are creative skills. In fact, I often shoot my images with cropping and image editing in mind. All of my black and white images begin their life as color images, and I use my own post capture techniques for converting images into black-and-white. I shoot color images with the intention of converting them to black and white. So image editing is a standard part of my workflow. I’ve always believed that the debate over “original” images is largely an “eye of the beholder” discussion. One person’s dastardly image-editing is another person’s creative pursuit. Heck, even back in the days of film shooting I think we had a hard time determining just what an “original” image was.

If you shot two pictures with exactly the same composition, in the same light, and with two different films (for instance Ektachrome and Kodachrome), you’d end up with two distinctly different images. Which one is the original? The answer is neither. Back then, your choice of film was one of your creative decisions. Now, we just have a lot more creative choices and decisions we can make. And the more skillful you are, the more creative you can be.

For me, the issue is never trying to reproduce the image as the camera “saw” the scene, but rather how I saw and remember the scene. I like to be able to emphasize the characteristics of a landscape that I find most compelling. This is often the structure, the texture, and the fabric of the landscape. I therefore choose the shooting conditions (composition and lighting and other environmental conditions) and post-capture image-editing techniques that will help me emphasize the characteristics I most admire.

* One quadrillionth of a second – a very short period of time

Taz teaches Digital Photography, Photoshop, and Color Correction at Sessions College.  For more information on Taz Tally’s photography or Custom Alaskan Photo Adventures, you can visit Taz Tally’s site. Taz Tally’s instructional videos are available at Lynda.com and his 50 Hikes in the Kenai Peninsula book can be purchased here.

Gordon Drummond is the President and Academic Director at Sessions College. He's passionate about education and the arts and likes to surround himself with more talented people.

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