If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind. That’s the idea behind master image-maker Tim Tadder’s forward-looking approach to advertising photography. It’s not that he’s just trying to identify the next big thing; he’s aiming to create it.
Tadder found success in the previous decade with a dark and moody visual style. WIth a gritty realness combined with a master’s ability to polish and perfect, Tadder’s aesthetic was at the forefront of what many top consumer advertisers were asking for. Never content to coast, though, the photographer was on the lookout for his next move even then.
“My work now has become much more colorful and vibrant,” Tadder says, “and much more, I guess you could say, thoughtful or thought out. I think you can certainly tell my work is a lot different. I have some work still in from China, and China still uses that dark gritty stuff. But my stuff for the U.S. market is much brighter. I think my stuff in a general is a lot more real. In one way it’s real. Even the new stuff I just did for Keen, all the super-bright, colorful sets, that’s all analog, that all really happened, that’s all in-camera captures, all low-fi concepts.”
“There’s the early adopters and then there’s the laggards,” he adds. “I am also seeing a movement away from the hipster, off-the-cuff lifestyle shooting to a more conceptual, thought-out, produced, stylized work. And I’m finding that advertisers are looking for something distinguishable from what everybody’s doing. So many people are doing that one style that no one can own it anymore, and advertisers are realizing that their brand is indistinguishable from every other brand that’s out there. There’s no uniqueness. People come up and say, ‘Hey, we want something unique and different that stands out in this sector,’ and so we collaborate toward that release.”
“I think the main thing,” he says, “what I’ve been trying to do is to get away from a formula and to treat each project as a unique challenge. Try to make it stand out in its own light. Not be too formulaic. Because it got to a point where all my work looked the same. It’s because the approach to every assignment was the same. It was like, set it up the same way, do it the same way, light it the same way. …That’s what clients wanted, and I just got tired of it. I wouldn’t say it was boring, it just got exhausting. Because it wasn’t like something that gave you the inspirational energy of creating. It was more like executing. So that became tiring and not inspiring.”
A successful commercial photographer must be equal parts artist and businessman. Neglect one aspect at the peril of the other. For Tadder, that means a constant push for creative experimentation—on assignment when possible, for himself as needed.
“I’ve always experimented,” Tadder says. “That’s the artist side of what I do. There’s a business side, and that’s the outward-facing commercial project-based work. But then there’s the artist side that says I just want to go out and make something and I’m motivated to make something because that’s a form of me expressing my creativity or a way that I communicate to an audience. The way that I get enjoyment out of photography is by creating stuff that I dream up, that I produce, that I execute that isn’t driven by somebody else’s idea or budgets or restraints or opinions.
“On the artistic side, the goal is always to do as much of that as possible. The reality of it is that the busier I get, the less I get to do that. Right now I’m pretty empty because we’ve been working so hard on everybody else’s projects. I need to collect myself and work on my own projects. And that’s tough when you’re really busy. It’s just super important to get your personal projects going and to look forward to them and to dream and to create, because at the end of the day people are hiring me for my creativity and my creative ideas and my creative spirit and my creative passion. They want me to bring that to their project. And if I can’t bring it for myself then how am I going to bring it for them?
“Also,” he adds, “as an artist, I have to prove that I’m not just a one-trick wonder. I have to prove to myself, more than anything else, that I can create something completely different from what everybody knows me for and make a visual impact.”
Tadder made a huge impact with a very different personal project when, in 2012, his series of Water Wigs—colorful portraits of people being doused with water—went viral. His Behance portfolio of the series has more than 1 million views.
“At the time of the Water Wigs series,” he says, “I was associated with super-dramatic, grungy, hyperreal stuff. And then I came out with that, which was completely and utterly different. It was totally in-camera, it was no Photoshop, it was real, it was dynamic, it was bold, it was unique. …It was completely viral, totally visionary, and that was my goal. I was like, hey, I need to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, that I was able to make a visual impact and that I didn’t need to just rest on a crutch. I could spread my wings and collaborate and contribute in different ways. So after that, anything I really put my mind to and am passionate about will have an opportunity for success.
“I’m not comparing myself to Picasso by any means, but I’m a fan of his work and I’m a fan of the many different styles of work and periods he went through in his career to motivate me or inspire me. Creative life is a journey. It’s a roller coaster of influence and inspiration that leads you toward different elements of creation. And I think that my work is testament to that.”
Such viral success surely got the phone to ring. More important, though, was the widespread acknowledgment that he and his team had truly innovated, creating something completely unique.
“You know what it is?” Tadder says. “It’s a solidification of our talents. And when I say our, it’s because I have a team of people who collaborate with me and make my work possible. At this point in my career I can’t say ‘I’ and ‘me.’ I have to say ‘we’ and ‘us.’ Because there’s too many supporters involved in helping bring about the project. It’s never, ever, ever just me and my camera taking pictures. That’s just not what people know me for. My stuff is elaborate and complex and all those things.”
The team itself, he explains, is what makes such highly refined, super-stylized work even possible.
“I started to realize in 2010 and 2011,” he says, “when I was doing almost 99 percent of the work myself—from shooting to retouching, I was pushing the pixels—that if I really wanted to make something great happen, I needed to be a better organizer of talent and a better collaborator with people who had skills that I didn’t have. Or were better or more passionate about particular skillsets. If I could harvest those, collaborate with those talents, then we could make something so much greater than I could alone.”
“Steven Spielberg,” Tadder says, “he doesn’t hold the camera. He doesn’t light the scene. He doesn’t color correct it and composite it. He doesn’t do that, but he knows what he likes and he has a vision and he organizes other creative talent into sharing that vision and ending up with a common-spirited project that is amazing. That’s what you realize: if I really want to do something, if I really want to grow and be impactful as a creative and a creator, then I really need to motivate people to believe in my vision and to make it come to life.”
Seeking out talented collaborators has led Tadder to what may be his most forward-looking approach to photography. In fact, it isn’t technically photography at all.
“CGI is anything that we’ve used the computer to generate 3D elements,” he explains. “So that may be a structure that is completely CGI, a crab that’s CGI, something that we’ve created using 3D software, like 3D renders and Photoshop, to build an aspect of an image.”
A shot of a woman with a giant crab, for instance, comes from a calendar series of Zodiac images. The client wanted to allocate its resources to higher-caliber models, rather than the increased travel costs of shooting on location. CGI enabled Tadder and his team to deliver exotic, fantastical images without blowing the budget.
“The crab itself was modeled, textured and built for that scene,” Tadder says. “One, you could never get that detailed shot of a crab with that depth of field, with that proximity, in order to scale it up to that size it needed to be. In a file that’s 40 inches at 300 pixels per inch, you just could never physically do that. It would be impossible.”
“So we use CGI to create things that are photographically impossible or photographically budget-averse. That particular project, the client came to us and said we want to recreate these zodiac sign scenes, and how do we do it? To try to build sets, you could spend millions. So you cross that out—or part of it out, because in that project we built a third of them as sets, a third of them were 100 percent CGI, and a third of them were Photoshop mash-ups. We use CGI when we can’t do it practically.
Another image from that series features a model in a beautiful set—marble floors and columns, arched windows with light pouring in through sheer curtains. Though it may not be as otherworldly as a giant crab, the whole scene—save the model—is CGI. Still, traditional photographic skill plays a huge role in the success of the image.
“I hate when people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a simple shot,’” Tadder says. “The reality is there’s a world-class hair and makeup artist on there. I mean world class. The wardrobe is custom sewn and threaded for her body; every piece of that wardrobe is built for her. And the model is a triple-A class, Brazilian goddess. So you say to yourself, ‘I could do that if I had a cool CGI background.’ Go ahead! Go make it happen. It’s not straightforward. It’s perfectly integrated, lighting-wise. There’s this beautiful symmetry. If I didn’t tell you that was CGI, you wouldn’t have known. That’s where you look at it and say, ‘Job well done.’?”
Tadder says this blending of computer-generated imagery and traditional photographic prowess is the future of advertising image making. Really, he says, that future is already here.
“For sure we’re going to see more of it,” he says, “without a doubt. If you’re not literate to the ways of digital integration of 3D into imagery, then it’s as bad as not having made the switch from film to digital. It’s just where we are. You’d better get used to it, and you better be in tune with it.”
“I’ve always called myself a visual communicator,” he adds. “I think ‘photographer’ is a term that has died with the advent of digital and DSLR filmmaking and Photoshop. I mean, the process has changed dramatically from when my father was a photographer. It’s a completely different ballgame and a completely different business. It is what it is.”
ORIGINS OF CGI
“I started working with CGI in 2010. And we feel that we’re really good at understanding the needs of a project and coming together with solutions that will answer questions our clients need answers to. People come to us and say, ‘How do we do it?’ And I say, ‘Well what’s your budget? Well, with that budget we can do it this way or we can do it that way or that way. And it’s going to look like this if we do it this way, or it’s going to look like that if we do it that way. What do you feel most comfortable with, because I can tell you there are many ways to solve a problem, you just have to be agreeable to the look, to how you want it to look.’ This client wanted to have better-looking models rather than spend the money to do this shoot at three different locations. We looked at medieval mansions and shooting it on locations, and they were like, ‘You know what, we would rather spend the money on getting beautiful supermodels rather than we would on flying all around—if we can make CGI look the way we want it to work.’ So I showed them all these samples and said these are the artists I want to collaborate with on this, this is their work, and I’ve worked with this guy and this guy, and this is what this guy costs, and this is what that guy costs, you can make the project work this way. And I sold them the solution and they were super happy with the project.”
ARE LOTS OF OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS USING CGI?
“In advertising, it’s a big part of advertising in my style. There’s thousands and thousands of people out there who don’t touch this stuff because they’re a camera and a reflector, but our stuff is more polished and produced, so it has more aspects to it.”
PRINTING PARTNERSHIP WITH EPSON
“Epson just selected to feature me in its ‘Print Your Legacy’ campaign, which was about these great artists printing, making their digital photographs real. And so, to be perfectly honest with you, I was unbelievably humbled and inspired to be included in this group of artists. Some of them were people that I dreamed that someday people would consider me as great as they are. So to be chosen and among them, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ That was an unbelievable experience. I was just so taken back by it. It was great. Awesome.”