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Life & Work with Ted Tahquechi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ted Tahquechi.

Hi Ted, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
I fell in love with photography in 1986, shooting and developing black and white films in college. Through the years, most of my images consisted of snapshots taken on family vacations. In 1999, a car accident left me with 5% of my sight in one eye and nothing in the other, ending my dream career in the video game industry where I created titles for Atari, Accolade, and Mattel toys. The accident left me seeing the world around me as colorful blurry shapes.

I learned to navigate my environment again, using my camera as a tool to see what I was missing in the world around me. This rekindled my love of the still image, and I began to create artistic photos. The desire to expand my skills led me back to college where I leveraged my tiny amount of remaining sight to compose the images, leaning heavily on shape, color, and light value while my camera captured focus. I went on to complete a degree in Studio Art Photography.

Landscape imagery is my subject of choice but hiking in the early morning hours to reach the perfect location is a logistical nightmare while managing camera gear, white cane, and these days, my guide dog. I am drawn to subjects with strong lines and contrast like the work of Edward Weston. This is likely why sunrise and sunset still beckon to me. For years I searched for ways to bring my love of landscapes into my photography of other subjects. Early in the course curriculum for my degree, a studio lighting class set portraiture as an assignment. Being unable to see the expression on my model’s face, I searched for an alternative method of portraiture, where I came across the Bodyscape. I started with the model’s hands, and this led to full-body abstract work. The low-key approach to bodyscape’s allowed me to explore the curve, form, and shape of the model’s body in a very similar way to a landscape.

Six years later, I had built a body of work that was inclusive of models of many genders ranging in age from 19 to 76, with body types from petite to plus-sized. Models from many ethnic groups have been included, as participants who are physically disabled. The collection is called Landscapes of the Body and celebrates beauty in everybody, rather than the idealized socially driven norms. This project allows me to work comfortably within my visual limitations while producing a result that shares the way I see the world. Exhibitions are a multi-sensorial format with audio descriptions and tactile images alongside traditional prints. This approach allows viewers to experience the images, even if they are visually impaired.

I am not deterred by my disability, it does limit some of what I can do, but it does not hinder my creativity or desire to use the camera to express myself in a visually focused world I find difficult to participate in. I lack sight, not vision.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Creating art of any kind can be a tough road to tread. I started shooting seriously when I lived a block from the beach on the central coast of California. Late summer and fall sunsets there are amazing with fiery skies often accompanied by large waves. Landscape photography is a very competitive space, I know a lot of photographers who just gave up shooting landscapes because they would be standing on the beach with 20 other photographers all capturing the same shot for the upcoming art and wine festival season.

Getting an invite to exhibit your work in a gallery was also tough as a budding photographer because everyone was showing amazing technically skilled beach images. Compounding matters, there weren’t a lot of gallery options to choose from in the small town I lived in. On top of the highly competitive field I chose to participate in, gallery curators didn’t take me or my work seriously. I would enter a gallery with a portfolio, using my white cane, and be immediately dismissed as some sort of scammer. The idea that a blind photographer could create images that were worthy of the exhibition seemed insane. My work was met with skepticism like I had someone else capturing the photos for me.

I was frustrated with the art scene, and though I loved shooting landscapes and beachscapes I became disenchanted with the whole situation. It was around this time that I was back at school and taking photography classes. I fell deeply in love with studio lighting and relished the nuance associated with properly lighting products and macro photography. This led me to photograph people and the creation of the project I am best known for, Landscapes of the Body, a black-and-white abstract exploration of the human form. I worked quietly on the project for six years and never had any intention of publicly showing it.

Fast forward a few years, and my wife and I decided to move to Colorado, trading our beach views for the Rockies.

Shortly after arriving, we found ourselves wandering the Santa Fe Art District checking out the local talent for their first Friday art walk. My wife and I are both artists and when we visit galleries, she describes the art to me. I can see rough blurry shapes, and she fills in information about all the details. She was telling me about a particular piece and the curator of the gallery happened to be standing behind us. He asked if we were artists and we talked for a bit.

Before I knew it, I had a meeting scheduled for that Monday to show him my work. I arrived with my landscapes and other work ready to show. He thumbed past the long-exposure beach images and went right to the images from my Landscapes of the Body project.

The curator explained that while the beach images were beautiful and executed well, they didn’t represent my view of the world. I was standing where everyone else was at the time the photos were taken and my work likely looked just like everyone else’s that was on the beach that day. The Landscapes of the Bodywork on the other hand illustrated the negative space in my vision and acted like a window sharing the unique way I see the human body. The project made its debut a few months later for Denver’s Month of Photography.

I learned a couple of things from all of this, first, that there is an audience for every genre of artwork, and if you don’t find a venue willing to give you an exhibit – don’t give up. Second, to succeed in any venture, whether business or art, one must find a way to set their work apart from the crowd, this meant focusing my efforts on subject matter other than landscapes and beachscapes. I still love to shoot landscapes and make it to Rocky Mountain National Park as often as I can, but photographing people in my style, like a landscape yields interesting and unique results every time. This work allows me to have a platform to share the way I see the world with others, and that means a lot to me.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
My primary art modality is photography, and I hold degrees in studio art and fine art photography. I specialize in black-and-white abstract images of the human form and am best known for my Landscapes of the Body project. This work is an inclusive collection of non-explicit images of the nude human form featuring models of many genders ranging in age from 19 to 76. The aim of the project is to show the beauty in everybody and has models with body types from petite to plus size with a wide variety of ethnic groups represented. It was important for me to feature models with physical disabilities in the collection, and when exhibited, the traditional photos are supplemented with tactile versions and full audio descriptions of each piece. The project is presented in an accessible multi-sensorial format, allowing viewers with visual impairments to enjoy the collection alongside those who are fully sighted.

The project name Landscapes of the Body has a double meaning. In one sense, Landscapes represent the way I approach creating the project, framing and lighting the curves of the human body like a landscape image. I use angles of composition and direction of light to mimic mountains and valleys. Landscapes also refer to the landmarks the viewer expects to see when viewing the photos. I intentionally compose the images to omit the things you expect to see when looking at a photo of a human body, like belly buttons, elbows, and especially not safe for work bits. By intentionally removing these from the composition, viewers can focus on the abstract shape and lighting of the image rather than the naughty bits.

I am particularly proud of the steps I have taken to present this work in a multi-sensorial format. Being visually impaired myself, I understand the feeling of being left out when it comes to participating in visual art. I recorded all of the audio descriptions myself and include not only the information a visually impaired viewer would need to enjoy the work but also present a personal view of each piece. The tactile versions of the prints are created using ink buildup on metal sheets, resulting in a relief version of the print that can be touched, allowing appreciation of the flowing shape and the skin texture. I’m currently seeking funding to move the tactile versions to the next level by 3d printing them.

Interest in my Landscapes of the Body project has been humbling for me. I originally created it to solve a problem I had with my inability to see the faces of the people I was photographing. I considered it a personal project that I never intended to exhibit. I wanted to show the beauty in the human form regardless of gender, age, body size, or physical ability. The work has been shown all over the world and is currently finishing up a three-year solo exhibition in San Francisco. I continue to add new models to the project, including a few notable celebrities who were happy to participate because of the anonymous nature of the work.

When I’m not taking photos of people, I own and operate Blind Travels a website focusing on travel tips tricks, and reviews for blind and low-vision travelers. The site was created out of a resource database I maintained for each hotel I visited. Traveling when visually impaired can be a stressful time, especially when traveling solo. In my reviews on the site, I present information that is of specific interest to those traveling with a visual impairment. I note which side of the lobby the check-in desk is located, where the pool, elevators, restaurants, and other amenities are found, and even how accessible the relieving areas are for those that travel with a guide dog.

What sort of changes are you expecting over the next 5-10 years?
Photography is on the verge of another industry-altering change, with the introduction of Artificial Intelligence content creation. When film gave way to digital photography, the industry underwent a transformation that dramatically reduced the viability of film stock and developed focused companies. Those who embraced the change or refined the focus of their business survived and others failed. I fear we will see the same with Ai.

Ai technology has been introduced into retouching software, where previously the domain of high-end retouching was the realm of photoshop experts, today novice photographers can get “good enough” results with just a few clicks.

This will impact the lower to mid-level retoucher, but of course, high-end fashion retouching is safe for now.

Photographers who rely on portrait and headshot work are seeing their low and mid-level clients impacted because of the apps that are available for users to upload selfies and have the Ai create new profile pics for them at a fraction of the cost one would spend for a portrait session.

Stock photography is also seeing a significant impact on their bottom line. With applications like Dall-E 2 and Midjourney, bloggers and content creators can now spend 30 dollars a month to quickly create their own thumbnail images with a few well-considered text prompts.

There are considerations about copyright for images created with Ai, and the legality of the sourced material the engines are using to make the requested content. Time will tell how this will play out in the courts, but Ai creation will continue to gain in quality and useability.

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