Tim Tadder is an internationally acclaimed photographic artist. Most recognized for his highly inventive conceptual advertising photography Tadder has been ranked in the top 200 photographers worldwide by the prestigious Luezer Archive Magazine 8 years running. In 2015 Epson, the world leader in photographic printing technology recognized Tadder as one of the top influential photographers, producing a TV commercial and worldwide ad campaign featuring Tadder and his work.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I grew up on the set of a commercial photographer in Baltimore, Maryland. I knew that I was fascinated with photography from an early age when I saw my father developing images for the first time in the darkroom. He had a black-and-white and a color darkroom in a small studio in Baltimore, and I used to watch him print pictures using an enlarger and chemicals. That was magical to me. I always thought it was amazing that you could re-create life from a camera and paper.
What was your path to becoming a professional photographer?
I have a unique path to becoming a professional photographer. I was a high school teacher for five years, and during the summers I did mountaineering adventures. During those climbs, I would make images and host slideshows. People were really interested, and through the slideshows, I found that people liked the images that I created. I found I wasn’t a great teacher but that I really loved photography and so I decided to give it a try. I moved from South America, where I was teaching and climbing, to Baltimore where I grew up and had connections in the photography world. I decided I would see if I could make it for a year, mostly because that’s all the money I had saved. I worked out of my father’s studio in Baltimore but mostly for the local newspaper doing journalism while I was trying to learn the craft.
What formal schooling or training did you have in photography?
After two years in Baltimore, I was really in love with photojournalism, so I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in photojournalism from the Ohio University School of Visual Communication. That program is amazing, and I highly recommend it. I learned so much in the short time that I was there not only about photojournalism but also about creating images that were capable of telling stories. I learned so much about visual communications while there. Truly so much of what we do in photography is at its very essence visual communication. Before I was aware of that, I was just making images that I thought looked interesting, but after the program, I started to make images that spoke and told stories. The resulting images were much more intelligent images, so to speak, and that process really helped me become a better photographer in a short period.
Were your parents supportive of your desire to be an artist?
Ironically my parents were not very supportive of me at all. I think that my father was concerned I did not have the talent to make it as a photographer. I also think that he never really made a lot of money and I think he felt that money equated to success, and in some ways, he felt that I did not have tremendous talent and thus would not “be successful”. There was a lot of clashing as to what I felt was a good photographer and what he saw as good or great. I can remember my mother delivering me the Help Wanted section with jobs that she thought I would like even though I was making great strides in photography. She continued to show me job openings that she thought would be great careers. I can remember her distinctly telling me that that there wasn’t any money in photography and that you couldn’t make a living as a photographer anymore but I didn’t care. I just wanted to make images, and I wasn’t concerned about money. I was working for peanuts as a photojournalist, and I was really in love with photography. I will say, though, that my father is super proud of me at this point and I think that he honestly just wanted the best for me and realized how competitive and how difficult it is to succeed in this industry. The reality is, that if you love something and that you are passionate about it I think in America you can succeed.
Do you remember your first published image and how it felt when it first appeared?
Not really, I don’t think that I was all that enamored with having a published image define me as a photographer. Ink on paper does not a photographer make. But rather the communicative value of the image. I can remember the first image I made that truly moved people and how that made me feel. I think that was always more important to me, making an image that people reacted to. I can remember getting many emails from viewers responding to how much the image moved them. From all over the world it was a powerful image, and I knew at that point in time I had important skills.
You shoot both stills and video. Are you more passionate about one medium over the other?
I prefer stills for sure. I like the less is more approach, and with motion, it just takes more people more equipment more blah blah blah…I hate the fat in motion productions. Give me a camera and a lens, and I’ll make it happen, with motion you need all kinds of stuff to do commercial work.
After all this time, what still makes you passionate about the visual arts?
I think how freaking hard it is to make images that move people. Truly to make a great image, it’s very hard and takes a lot of things to go right. Sure if you are a photojournalist you can get lucky, but normally it takes a huge investment of time, energy, people, etc. Greatness comes from the communicative collaboration of energy revealing itself in the well-crafted moment. That elusive search for perfection makes me passionate. If it was easy, I think I would be over it by now. Knowing that I have not done my bet work yet keeps me grinding. I will not stop until my impact is undeniable and that’s the passion.
You seem to have so much creative energy in all your work. How do come up with the concepts for your projects?
I consume imagery, from TV to movies to art and Instagram, I consume and consume, and I get inspired by what I see but more importantly what I do not see. I try to find voids. I try to find things that have not been visualized. Bringing new visuals to life no matter how absurd or different is a great challenge in our world today. It’s hard to have a visual impact with so much noise. So I try to fill the empty spots with something new.
When you go into a shoot do you have a detailed vision for the finished project or does it tend to be a collaboration with the subject to determine the result?
Always. I am a great pre-visualizer. I know exactly what I want when I go into every shoot, but often I fall short. It’s one thing to see it in your mind’s eye, but it’s quite another to capture it. That’s the illusive search for perfection. We know what we want, but it is sure hard to get it. That’s search is what keeps me passionate. I can feel though that the more I do this, the more my mind and my visions are aligning…so maybe I am getting closer. I do feel I am much much better than I’ve ever been.
Many photographers take full credit for the finished product from a shoot, but you are quick to point out that without your “team” your success wouldn’t be possible. How large is your team, how did you build the team and how much collaboration is done with this group?
I think when you start it’s a very big ego thing. However, as you gain knowledge and wisdom you begin to look around and realize that individually you can only accomplish small things, but collectively you can accomplish great things. True impact comes from people that can harness the collective spirit of passionate individuals and align that energy towards a defined goal. I saw this in the people around me and when I grew up and left my ego behind, I realized that I was only as good as the weakest link on my team. I realized that the people around me love what they were doing and that I needed to embrace not only their passions but honor their contributions. That’s when it all clicked. I can’t do what I do without the support of others. No way. I love them, and I hope they love me because they make everything possible. My core crew is excellent. They are the best, and I will put them up against anyone. My normal team is made up of a first assistant that has been with me for ten years, my producer, our production coordinator, stylist, hair and makeup (sometimes two people) and a gaggle of other freelancers that contribute. The productions swell when needed, by my core is four.
On average, how much of the finished product that we see in images on your website is done in camera versus in CGI or post production?
That goes from zero to a lot. There is much of my work that is captured in camera and sometimes quite a lot of post. I would say what you see is 75 percent in camera, truly only what you see in the CGI section of my website is CGI. Yes there are composites here and there, but I find the less time in the post the better the image. Less is more.
How many man hours went into your Tecate Calendar project including the building of props, the shoot, and CGI/post?
Now that project was very very CGI and post heavy. But my favorite image in that collection was all captured on camera (The Gemini Twins shot below), so the key is to mix everything so the audience can’t quite put their finger on it..there is a great Behind the Scenes video on my site that really shows how this was done. That shoot was huge, and I spent weeks in Pre-production on it. The wardrobe was custom stitched, the CGI sets crafted before the shoot, the animals cast, and the cast was pulled from all over the globe. That shoot was a mission…I would say three weeks solid of pre-production and four weeks in post…but it’s unique and quite amazing. Of course, you only see what was selected by the client and how they wanted it to sell beer, but the images I love are far more subtle, but that does not sell beer.
Of all the athletes you have shot over the years, which one(s) would you say brought the most personality to the shoot?
That’s too difficult to answer. There are so many levels of shoot energy, and sometimes the creative requires more personality than others. I will tell you Cam Newton was spectacular as a comedian and told the most jokes. Simone Biles was spectacular and amazing. But there have been so many. I love when I shoot athletes year after year sometimes for the same client sometimes for other clients, but they remember me. Sometimes they greet me with big hugs, and I feel like an old friend. That’s always surprising. I guess they liked the images.
Your personal projects are amazing. What inspired your Bella Umbrella project? Was that project as messy to shoot as it looks?
This project was inspired by things I saw on Instagram. I had been following this LA street artist, and he did all this rad stuff with military smoke bombs. I wanted to do something with him, but he is really dark and quite theatrical. Then I saw this image with smoke and a vintage umbrella in a forest and thought that if I could simplify and elevate the elegance that I would have a beautiful collection of images. The project was a mess and destroyed some expensive vintage clothing. I think it looks easier than it actually was. We took the smoke bombs and taped them to the umbrellas, but when the umbrellas caught fire and the clothes burned, I had to take another approach. So some of these were in camera, and some were composites of smoke plates and the talent. The stylist freaked out and I freaked because I did not want to hurt anyone but we decided we could make it happen without any risk.
What piece of camera equipment can you not live without?
Hmmm, I don’t really have a piece of camera equipment I can’t live without. I don’t believe the tools make the image I believe that the concept, thought, idea the passion make the image. The camera and lens are no more part of the process than a burner on a stove is to a chef. A chef can make a meal with any type of stove, just as a photographer make can make an image with any type of camera.
From the behind the scenes videos on your website, it looks like you have fun on the set when shooting. Do you find that keeping things fun puts people at ease and allows them to open up?
Always. It’s a blessing and an honor to do what we do. It’s fun, but it’s really important to do a good job because people’s careers are at stake. We really must remember that we are doing something that is amazing, creative, and fun. back in the day I used to get all worked up, but that never helped. It never makes a better image, so let’s make it easy and let’s make it fun so that people leave with a good taste in their mouth.
What does the perfect Tim Tadder day look like?
Making pancakes for my kids, creating some amazing images that make people go “holy shit”, having dinner with my family and watching the Ravens beat the crap out of the Steelers on Monday Night Football.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers looking to enter this ultra-competitive industry?
You better absolutely love, love, love creating images. You must be willing to work 20 hours a day for years and years. You must be willing to lay it all on the line and never give up. You must have a thick skin, a really thick skin, and not be deterred by failure. You have to be willing to make thousands of mistakes and keep making them until you get it right. You have to be willing to produce new work always and you need to be planning your personal work all the time. It’s never ending even for me. You can never take the foot off the gas. If your not willing to do that, then it might not be for you.
If you weren’t a professional photographer what would you be doing? I’d run for President, seems like not a lot of people want that job these days.
For more on Tim be sure to check out our various features of his work and creative process here.