Tom Tautz: An Island Against The Light

Born in 1975 in Wolfsburg, Germany,Tom Tautz, is the son of two successful advertising photographers. Not surprisingly he has a natural affinity for the visual arts but he didn’t really take up photography seriously until he had left home. By an amazing combination of innate talent and good of good luck he became the CEO and Art Director of the Advertising Agency KARMA Kommunikationsdesign, Germany, a position he held from 1999 to 2014. He then went out on his own and is now CEO, Art Director, and Corporate Blogger of his own successful one-man operation, Tom Tautz Artworks, Germany. Here is the engaging story of how he is creating an ongoing, offbeat and insightful reportage-style documentary of the island of Sylt in the North Sea that goes well beyond the typical tourist brochures and lives and flourishes on interactive social media.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: For me taking pictures happens in an intuitive way – kind of shooting from the hip. I’m taking pictures all day long – even without a camera. I don’t need any kind of setup nor to I take too much time composing scenes.

As a photographer I work with moments and I am aware that every single one of them contains dozens of perfect motifs. It’s only up to me to notice and capture them.

As with life itself, the most important thing for me is to be open to what might come, appreciate it when it’s there and then to make the best out of it. Translated into the language of photography it means: I come to the place or meet the people and take the picture. It’s that simple.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: These pictures are part of my project “Sylt im Gegenlicht” – “Sylt in the backlight”- which is a photo documentary about the island of Sylt in the North Sea.

Sylt is a pretty famous destination for vacations in Germany and has very well known eye-catching scenery. My approach is to mask all of the well-known characteristics and expose the subjects in the shadows that are typically outshone by the blinding lights of the typical tourist postcard images. It’s about places, people and their stories that are kind of unseen – kind of an inner view of the heart of the Island.

Another special thing about my project is that the reportage is presented in the form of a blog that publishes pictures and stories continuously on the blog’s homepage and on Facebook over the period of 12 months. Compared to a typical reportage this project is online right from the beginning and not just then when all stories have been told. A very important keystone of my project is to communicate the content only digitally through social media during the implementation phase, so I can interact and dialogue with people who participate as the reportage develops.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: I want my work to create a real antipode to that what is already well known and what everybody has learned about the island. So, every picture carries this core of this concept – in a contextual and visual way. It does not mean that every image has to show things that nobody has seen before, but rather that well known motifs are being perceived from a different perspective, and that this can provide surprisingly new insights and experiences for the viewer.

Q: You entitled your project “Sylt im Gegenlicht” which literally means “ Sylt against the light.” This is a more provocative expression than “backlight,” the common phrase in English. You explained that to some extent your approach was to “mask everything of the well known characteristic” and create something antithetical to the usual “tourist postcard images.” Do you think this approach has been successful in capturing an “emotional portrait” of Sylt, and do you feel what you have created more authentic or gives a truer sense of place?

A: “Against the light“ is exactly what I wanted to express. Thank you! My project has just started and will end next year in May, so it’s difficult for me to come to a final conclusion at this point. And I don’t think that my work gives a more authentic or truer sense of the place. It gives “another’ sense that is part of its reality but a bit more unseen.

Q: What camera equipment do you generally use nowadays?

A: I use a Leica M ( Typ 240) – mostly with 50mm and 35 mm lenses.

Q: You mentioned that you shot the images in this portfolio with a Leica M ( Typ 240) and 50 mm and 35 mm lenses. What features and characteristics of this camera did you find especially suitable for executing this project? Also which lenses did you use and can you say something about why you chose them? Finally, do you believe, as many have claimed, that Leica lenses have s distinctive and identifiable way of rendering the subject -the so-called “Leica look”-and if so, is that important to you?

A: Shooting with the Leica M means to me meeting moments at a high level of intensity. Catching subjects by looking through the M’s Rangefinder lets me be a part of the scene not merely a spectator. Moreover I find that taking pictures with the M entails some kind of deceleration. The whole process of taking pictures feels very valuable. There’s so automation, no autofocus – everything is native and natural. The “Leica look“ of the images is really the result of the process by which they were taken.

Q: All the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white, but the Leica M captures images in full color. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium and why did you choose it to create this portfolio? Also what process did you use to create the black-and-white image files and did you do it in-camera or in post-production? Finally have you ever considered using a Leica M Monochrom, which is renowned for its superb tonal gradation and black-and-white image quality?

A: The reason for using black-and-white is that I want to create a bold difference from all the typical postcard images that are immediately perceived as full colored. I’d love to have used the Monochrom but it was a beyond my budget. Working with the images in post-production is a second step in developing the subjects. Sometimes plain pictures turn out to be very eye-catching. For that process I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Q: This image looks as though it was shot looking down a staircase on a boat and it gives you a vertiginous feeling. Where was this striking image actually taken and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This image was taken at the rear of the engine room of the “Syltexpress“ – a ferry that transports vacationers from Havneby Denmark to Sylt Germany. I had just been taking some pictures in the machine room and was going to ferry’s ground floor again. Suddenly I was standing in front or this amazing perspective. I thought “The cover image of ferry-story“. Taking this picture was not planned, but spontaneous.

Q: This shot shows a young man in profile wearing a striped shirt and looking out on the water, evidently from a boat deck. It is straightforward image, but masterfully composed and it feels somehow calm and serene. Do you agree, and why did you include it in this portfolio?

A: I agree – calm and serene is exactly what that person is, because he is the machine operator and the picture was taken in the afternoon before his work started. I’ve included this picture because it’s an example of ordinary life on board that is typically unseen.

Q: This picture shows what looks like a large array of high-quality earphones against a plain background. At first they look like strange organisms of some kind, and the whole effect is amusing but creepy. How do you feel about this image and what do you think it conveys to those that view it?

A: That image was taken in a museum that offers headphones to visitors to listen to the multimedia presentations that are part of the exhibition. For me it’s a typical image. Everyone knows these headphones but probably nobody sees them in the3 way this image reveals. This picture leads the viewer away from the exhibition pieces to and everyday occurrence that turns out to be fascinating.

Q: Perhaps this is the most surreal image in this portfolio. There’s a prominent naked tree-trunk and some amorphous mats of some kind stacked on the left, an odd looking asymmetrical stone (?) floor and a shadowy figure, blurred due to subject movement at a slow shutter speed, who is walking away from the camera toward a low ceiling that is almost touching his head. For some reason the weird perspective and the various organic forms, all slightly askew, remind me of an art nouveau painting. What the heck is actually going on here, and what feelings does this image evoke for you?

A: That was really well said! Thank you! This place shows the basement of a World War II pillbox that was converted to a famous cafe called “Kupferkanne.” In the late ‘70s this room used to be a discotheque and venue for celebrities, artists, and party-people. Today it’s only a “box room“ and a passage. It’s kind of sad – like an old person who can tell a lot from the past but nobody listens to him in the present.

Q: Many of these images have a strong graphic quality with an emphasis on form and distinctive architectural details and parts of or collections of objects. Only a couple of them include people, and only a few of them include water and were evidently taken on board a ferry or boat. Why did you choose this approach, what kind of feelings do you think these images evoke, and what do they convey about the island of Sylt and the lives of its residents?

A: My approach is to show typical subjects taken from an unusual point of view to create a difference to the flood of typical commercial images. For me graphically composed pictures combined with an image content that is kind of “backyard-touch“ is a really fresh way to take a look at the island. I want to create an impression that is a little secret, strange and surprising. I call it not to focus the familiar – but to reveal the hidden aspects of ordinariness and to “estheticize“ everyday life.

By the way, portraits will comprise part of the images in the next stories I will be publishing over the 12 months. For the last three stories I published. people were not that important.

Q: You mentioned that presenting these images online continuously as they were created and engaging in an ongoing interactive dialogue on social media is an essential element in this project. How has that worked out, and how do you believe has this project been enriched or altered by this participatory element?

A: So far this worked out really well. In the first three weeks my project reached up to 80,000 people on Facebook only. And this is exactly the point. I want to create art, to tell stories that can be seen by everyone who wants at any time, from everywhere, while the project develops. In addition to that I find it very exiting working on a legitimate reportage project and also combine it with new ways of communication and expression.

Q: Do you have any plans to exhibit these images at other venues other than online and on the Leica Blog, such as gallery exhibitions, as a print or online book, offering fine art prints, etc.?

A: Yes, there will be an exhibition in May 2016 when the projects ends in a high-class-hotel on Sylt and hared copy print book as well.

Thank you for your time, Tom!

– Leica Internet Team

Connect with Tom on his website. Learn more about his Sylt project on its website, Facebook and Instagram.

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2 comments

  • LS,

    None of these pictures are taken with back light and they could have been taken anywhere. The island of Sylt has a very specific light due to its geographic position, I don’t see anything of that.

    I am a regular follower of this blog. Many entries are a lot of text and a little photography.

    I think that the M-camera’s can take the different picture and it is very good to have a blog for this, but choose photographers who has to say something.

    Frederik

    ps I use a Leica MP, with several Leica lenses

  • Hej Frederik,

    the titel of my project is meant metaphoric. It was not my goal to take pictures against the light in a technical way. … hmm, maybe an interesting proposal for the next project. 😉

    You are right – the island of Sylt has a specific light due to its geographic position. But it was not my intention to focus on this topic.

    I disagree, that the pictures could have been taken anywhere. You can’t find these places, people and their stories anywhere else. Unfortunately my Blog on http://www.sylt-im-gegenlicht.de is written in german – so you might not have the chance to read. But if you’ve read this interview you would know, that it is my intention to expose the unknown sides of an well known place. That approach comes along with the fact that ordinary things are getting focussed. So, for those who don’t know the island after all there are still images with graphic quality.

    It’s kind of sad, that you are not convinced of my work. But hey, i can live with it. 🙂

    Cheers, Tom.

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