I caught up with Tim Tadder of Solana Beach, California, and the first thing I asked him about was why former Bush advisor Karl Rove called Tadder “the Light Gangster.” It turned out to be an exclusive, as Tadder says he’s never told anyone else where the moniker came from.
This particular light gangster went through a period of shooting a lot of “gritty, urban, and rough characters,” he explains. “Most of my images live on outdoor billboards and these things where lots of people congregate, but those places are sort of textured and gritty and dirty.” In a mirthful moment, Tadder and his assistants put together business cards reflecting this type of shooting he was doing at the time, and Light Gangster was one eight job titles he gave himself. Rove thought it appropriate.
Although Tadder’s father was a photographer, it was not preordained he himself would enter the trade. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, the elder Tadder was a commercial photographer in Baltimore, focusing on business to business work. Corporate headshots, construction site progress photos, and product photography were created every day. He also was the team photographer for the Baltimore Colts and the Orioles—not bad work environments to bring a son to.
Tadder loved the excitement of seeing his father on the move and interacting with athletes and different professionals every day. As a boy, Tadder’s father introduced him to Neil Leifer, widely ranked as the greatest sports photographer in the world. Between meeting Leifer and his father’s association with the Colts and the Orioles, it wasn’t a surprise that when Tadder became a professional photographer, he gravitated towards photojournalism and sports in particular.
Although art was his favorite subject in high school, he didn’t major in it when he got to college, where he played football. Not exploring his creativity until later in life, Tadder credits his father with teaching him the business of photography. This enabled him to build a successful studio, he feels.
The other side of being a professional photographer is the creative side, of course—the side (and only side) most people think of when they think of becoming a photographer. As Tadder’s style has become more definable, more clients have come to him with a concept for a campaign or print ad. “The conversation always starts with, ‘we love your style and we want you to do your thing to our idea,’” he says. “Then we figure out how to do that.”
Some clients come prepared with marker comps, others have stock photography cobbled together to convey what their idea is. “We usually understand their idea, but see how we can make it better, or how we can bring it to life, or how we can illustrate it in a way that is epically dynamic,” Tadder explains. “They’re coming to us for answers to solve their problems. What they want at the end of the day is an insanely cool piece of artwork they can hang their logo on and hang their message on. They’re coming to us to take their idea and to bring it to life—to really give it wings and make it happen. That comes from lighting and styling and post?production work we do, and our use of color and lines and foreshortening and all the different tools we use in photography to spread that message.”
Tadder feels strongly about his signature style. “There is a whole series of Flickr-famous people who have copied our style and applied it to their own thing. They’re now running seminars and tutorials and trying to own it. They’re so concentrated on making this kind of thing they’re missing the point behind the application of the style,” he says.
“I remember very distinctly when I started doing this style and I advertised it in the Workbook in 2005 or 2006,” Tadder recalls. “I was really good at Photoshop from my education growing up in that atmosphere. I had always been super-digital, but I wasn’t a great shooter. I was an all right shooter, but if I combined the two of those things together, I was a much more marketable talent. I moved right when I had my first child Emerson. It was at that moment I needed to make more money, plain and simple. I needed to get more serious. It hit me like a revelation: life was no longer about me. It was much bigger than that. Then things changed.”
Tadder made a conscious move from photojournalism to advertising. He built a new portfolio. With the help of some art directors and graphic designers in San Diego, he made the Workbook ad which would launch a new career. “I have all the collections of all the Workbook ads over the years. There was nobody else doing what we were doing in this Workbook. It was so different you couldn’t help but notice it,” he recalls.
That first ad and its qualities are still vivid in Tadder’s mind. “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. It was different,” he remembers. “There are a thousand photographers in this Workbook, or there are a thousand pages and we’re on 895, and there’s nothing like it before or after. When that happened the market liked it. The market was like, ‘Cool. This is different.’ All of a sudden we started getting calls and things became fast?moving from that point.”
Once in the minority with a new look, Tadder feels he’s now among many. “Fast?forward to our latest Workbook and 85 percent of the photographers are doing a similar process to what we’re doing,” he explains. “I don’t want to say they’re copying me. I think our image?making process has changed on a global sense to a much more digital world.”
Tadder credits the acceptance of his style to both a demand for a look representative of the digital age and the practice of shooting digitally for budgetary reasons. “In a completely digital world where everybody is shooting all-digital, producers are producing in the digital world,” he says. “Previously, an art director would say. ‘I need a helicopter and I need an elephant.’ A guy would have to go out and get an elephant and a helicopter and permits, put it all together and make it all happen. Get the animal trainer, get this thing checked in, that thing checked in, and the permits for everything. They’d get it all done and shoot it all in one good shot and it would be done. People did those five years ago.”
Things are done differently in a digital workflow. “Today, it’s like, ‘I’m going to the toy store to buy a helicopter for 15 dollars, and I’m going to go to the zoo to shoot a shot of an elephant, and I’m going to put it all together in post?production,’” he says. “That’s a very real process—something we experience on a first-hand basis. I had a producer estimate a job at $300,000, and another producer handled it for $30,000 digitally.”
With these types of financial realities, Tadder understands why more photographers are showing work of hyper-real, blatantly digital compositional styles. As with life, though, Tadder has moved on in certain ways from the style he was a pioneer in. “I have changed the style,” he says. “It’s not as dark and moody. It’s executed better. I look at a progression of what used to be in my book and what’s in my book now. Things are evolving and things are changing. I’m changing as a person and my work’s changing naturally with it.”
Claiming he’s the type of photographer who likes to arrive at a shoot with a truck loaded with gear, Tadder has a Phase One 645DF system with a Phase One digital back and Schneider Leaf Shutter lenses. He also has a Canon system based around a Canon EOS-5D Mark II and a Canon EOS-1D Mark III. Each job dictates the system to be used.
“I use Profoto lights,” Tadder says. “They’re unbelievably durable and unbelievably resilient. I thrash equipment because of the amount of shooting we do. We shoot probably 100 days a year and I like using my own stuff, as opposed to rental stuff, because I hate showing up and being surprised something is not working or it’s finicky or I realize the pack is only giving me 1200 watt seconds, as opposed to 2400 watt seconds, because the guy didn’t check it, or the 7b batteries are always drained because the rental houses have poor 7b batteries. I like knowing where my equipment was sleeping the night before, so to speak. It’s just so durable.” Tadder owns Pro-7a’s, Pro-7b’s, a D4, ten Pro Heads, ProRing heads and a variety of modifiers, among other models. Recently, he’s begun using Pro-8a Air units.
To fire his Profoto gear, Tadder uses PocketWizard MultiMAX radio triggers. “I have a whole collection of them,” he says, and is in the process of replacing his current units with MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 models. “The PocketWizard stuff is stable. They’re just like the meter, always in my bag. I’m so familiar with them I wouldn’t trust anybody else. What a great product. No one else has a bead on it.”
When asked how he uses his PocketWizard units, Tadder is as straightforward as his application of the technology. “I use them mostly just for the simplistic reason of triggering the multiple levels of strands we use. I have seven or eight PocketWizards. I have seven packs and I have eight PocketWizards and two of the packs have remotes built into them and the rest don’t. I’m always using that stuff. They’re fairly durable. If I wasn’t such a gorilla they would be perfect, but I’m my worst enemy. I’m 6’7″ and 230 pounds and I’m beating stuff up. I move very fast when I’m on set meaning I’m bouncing up and down off the ground and looking at the computer and things like that so cameras are getting slung around and knocked into stuff.”
Tadder ties all this gear together by getting readings from his Sekonic L-758DR meter. “It’s got an awesome spot meter,” he says. “I probably don’t use it as robustly as I should. I love the remote trigger and things like that that are very simple and basic. It was a big upgrade from my old Minolta meter. This thing just seems to have a lot more beefiness. That I like.”
As Tadder continues to refine his style, clients continue to seek him out for the look he is known for. His compositions grow in complexity, but are rarely busy enough for us to lose focus of the message being transmitted. Over the past six years concepts he regularly executes would’ve been impossible in an analog workflow. The color palettes he chooses are either perfectly appropriate, or call attention to the areas the photographer commands us to. Call it hyper-real, call it bordering on HDR, call it popular, or call it anything you’d like, Tadder’s portraits are his own. This is what any credible artist strives for, and Tim Tadder has achieved it. Light gangster, indeed.