My earliest memories of photography are colored by curiosity. It was curiosity that led me to my Grandmother’s basement, in search of dusty metal objects that would make for a fun afternoon of only-child entertainment. In that basement I found box after box of photo equipment. Film cameras, still cameras, presses, projectors, enlargers, and oddly shaped instruments and accessories that boggled my pre-adolescent mind. The cameras captured my interest immediately. Though they contained no film, my early visual mind was shaped gazing through a viewfinder, snapping or filming the hottest news in my sheltered suburban neighborhood. Had my Grandfather lived long enough to hand me his cameras himself, I would have been much more careful with them. I did not know then the value of the Carl Zeiss-lensed Voigtlander with which I romped around the block pretending to be a photojournalist. As I grew older, I moved away from that basement and the dust began to settle on the cameras again, but other memories of cameras and money color my mind.
I remember the sunken face my father wore as I witnessed him sell his finest cameras and lenses under the financial duress of supporting a young wife and son. I was four at the time. They were two ski bums barely scraping by. It was the first time I had ever seen hundred-dollar bills. All those big bills excited me as a young child, but my father’s distress at the sale felt as authentic as any punch to the stomach. I don’t think he ever really got over the loss. Those cameras weren’t just equipment; they were the tools he had used to chase his dreams.
I come from a family of image makers. My Grandfather picked up the hobby of photography and a darkroom, I believe, for a little privacy in a crowded home. My father carried it to a budding professional career, and from a young age, I knew that the creation of images and art would be inseparable with my life’s path. I felt it as strongly as any hormonal urge.
From the age of twelve, I was determined to be a photographer. I spent the next ten years with my Grandfather’s, my Father’s, and my own cameras worn like a shirt or pants; the camera bag as a constant accessory. I learned what all those oddly shaped pieces of metal and glass were for, and as I cleaned and used them, I regretted the careless ignorance of my youth. I shaped my existence around photography shooting travel, sports, news, human interest, clubs and sports, mountains, sunsets, my friends, and my own sense of “art.” I served as staff shooter, photo editor, and visual adviser for my school newspapers and yearbooks. College found me on the fast track to a life of commercial photography; accompanied by hot lights, smooth models, shiny products and rough colleagues. Then something happened – I reached a personal limit.
I lost the nerve to whore myself out for products not my own; lost the fortitude to face being trapped in a desperate life in the shallows of Southern California. Thick in the fog of learning the tricks of commercial studio photography, I began to realize that I couldn’t spend my life fluffing celebrities or shooting or food or cars or someone else’s kids or pets. The sneering commercial world made fine-art photo out to be a commonly crushed dream, one that was more about who you knew than the quality of your work. They weren’t the people to know, so “set up the key light on that vodka bottle, would you?” To conform to such a prescription was a challenge, yes, but the fun, the passion; the flow of creating images for their own sake proved essential to maintaining my interest. But I quickly reached a point where it was not enough. I broke down, I washed out of commercial photography in So Cal, and I ran for home.
I fled east, to the West. My Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau deserts called me back, and the desire to give all I could to protect it from careless destruction gained control of my desire. I put photography away to do public lands advocacy work. But it was not dead, just down for a long nap.Sometimes if we deny the creativity within us a familiar outlet, it emerges on its own, later, greater in its impact than we could ever have imagined. Sometimes inspiration needs time and experience to be realized. It needs to ferment. Or like a bottle of wine, be allowed to mature and evolve.
Years ago, I took a workshop from a rich and famous fine-art studio photographer. It’s a small pool indeed, so I took his words to heart. He told me my work was among the most sculptural photography he had ever seen; that I should pursue sculpture in 3D, and that I should never stop sharing my vision with the world. His advice, in part, led me to work in stone and wood while I rested from image making, but the immediacy and flexibility of photography kept returning to my mind like a long-lost love.
I began to pick up photography again, slowly, mostly in service of my land conservation work. As digital became mainstream, I dove in again, liberated from my lifelong battle with darkroom dust, free at last from the peril of inhaling chemicals to make prints. Photography began to resume its rightful place front and center in my life a few years ago. My work expanded in new directions, with a fresh approach to panoramic landscape being the most rewarding tangent taken. I’ve begun to explore not just the intense beauty in the pristine on the Colorado Plateau that my land conservation work calls for, but humanity’s conflicted relationship with the natural world, both apart from and a part of nature. The scars of settlement and landscape alteration are still fresh here in the West, and Wallace Stegner’s “society to match the scenery” is still a vision that needs fulfilling.
The work of the new topographers of the 1970s inspires my image making today in the rural west – the blurred line of contact between the built environment and wide open wildlands tears at my heart. As does the reckless exploitation of our public wealth in land and minerals offered up for sale at a massive loss to the American people under laws written by the industries that benefit from them. An oil rig next to a desert spring in a stunning landscape on the doorstep of a national park is not progress; it’s a disgrace, a cold betrayal of our children and theirs, and it ought to be a crime. What is driving my work now is a desire to reconnect my viewers with what wealth in wilderness we still have left, what is still worth fighting for, as well as what the carelessness of our actions is costing us. To use images to say more than words in today’s inattentive culture and broken political system. There is still hope. There are places to set aside and leave alone. There is work to be done.
Thank you for seeing. I invite you to be a part of the imaging process. Let me know what you think.
– Tim Peterson