PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Tom Anderson: Well most of you probably know me as the first friend from MySpace. I was a founder and President. It sold in 2005 and I left the company completely in early 2009. The MySpace first friend tends to overshadow all the things I was or will be…
I’ve lived many lives, so to speak. At one time I was in a band (both as a singer and guitar player) and that was all I did every day. If you knew me in college, you would have assumed I was going to be an egghead professor. I was a very serious scholar. I’ve always been attracted to creative things. Just before my photography obsession began I was having a lot of fun learning about architectural design, but photography has taken over and kind of pulled me away from that.
PP: How did you first get into photography?
TA: I started with photography about a year ago — at Burning Man 2011, actually. I became friends with photographer Trey Ratcliff and since I was going to hang out with him at Burning Man, I decided to get a camera. I didn’t really develop an interest until I saw the photos I was getting. In other words, I didn’t think “I want to be a photographer.” I just saw the photos that were coming out of my camera and I was kind of blown away. I was mystified why I was liking what I was getting so much. With most creative pursuits, I would struggle for years and still not like the result. With photography I was liking what I was producing literally from day one. Then gradually it just became a way of life and now an intense passion. For about 8 months now, it’s basically all I’ve done every day. I’ve divested myself of all other responsibility so I can just travel and shoot. Mostly I shoot landscapes, so Burning Man is not my typical subject.
PP: What was your first camera, and what equipment do you shoot with nowadays?
TA: I started with a Nikon D7000 which is a fine camera to begin with, I think. After I started to realize that I couldn’t get the low-light performance I wanted from it, I moved up to a Nikon D3S. Then I had a little accident in the ocean and completely destroyed the D3S. That was about the time the D4 came out, so I got a Nikon D4. Just recently I got a Nikon D800E because I plan to start printing my photos and wanted the extra megapixels to make bigger prints.
PP: What kind of accident happened to your Nikon D3S?
TA: This is really sad. I had a lot of sand in my tripod from taking it into the ocean in Hawaii. I hadn’t cleaned it up and was down in Long Beach, CA shooting at the pier. I had the tripod setup and stepped away from the camera to get a different viewpoint, and one leg of the tripod started to close up. Before I knew what was happening, it started to tip over and fell off the pier to a lower deck below. It landed lens first on a concrete section of the pier and then bounced into the ocean. The camera body went in first and I literally watched the three tripod legs descend in slow motion into the water like in a movie… A guy who was down there working on his boat ran after it and grabbed it by the very end of one of the tripod legs. So though I did retrieve the camera, it was destroyed. The lens was totally shattered and dented, and the camera itself had split open… huge gaping holes that had been completely filled with salt water. That was a $6000 mistake! Luckily I didn’t also lose the tripod and head!
PP: Are you entirely self-taught, or have you used other resources to accelerate your development as a photographer?
TA: I notice a lot of photographers like to say they’re self-taught and have never taken a class. It’s sort of a badge of honor or something. I’m the opposite, I’ll watch any video or read anything I can get my hands on. I try to absorb everything I can as fast as I can. I started taking photos with Trey Ratcliff and of course I watched all his tutorials and classes. I haven’t taken any formal coursework because I don’t really want to sit still in one city for too long, so I look for things online.
PP: What is it about landscape photography that attracts you?
TA: The main goal in my photography is to shoot photos that make people just stop and go “wow” — that sort of jaw dropping moment. I think that’s why I’m attracted to landscapes so much. With most of us living in cities, we don’t have the time to go see these remote or hard to reach places. If you’re shooting something that’s just awesome on its own, it makes it easier to get a good photo. I’m not one of those guys who can take an ordinary, everyday object and make it look amazing. That’s a skill I haven’t developed at all.
So in a way, landscapes make it easier. I also think when I was first starting out it helped that there are rarely people in my photographs. I could concentrate on the composition. I could take my time and then wait for the right light and weather conditions. These Burning Man photos were a challenge for me because I’m not typically shooting people so much. On this trip I had my D800 on a tripod where I was setting up my shots, but I also had my D4 on my hip for these moments when somebody interesting looking would come by.
PP: Is there any interesting story behind your ubiquitous Myspace profile picture?
TA: Well I don’t think I’ve ever again had my hair as short as I had it in that picture and the photo is kind of blurry and non-descript. I’m always amazed that someone can recognize me from that picture. Its kind of been a benefit that people don’t really know what I look like… I get recognized just enough for it to be fun and not disruptive.
PP: Who are some of your favorite photographers that you draw inspiration from?
TA: I think my inspiration comes more from filmmakers more than photographers. In part, that’s just because that’s what I’ve been exposed to more. I studied film in grad school, but it was a critical studies program, not a film-makers program. I love David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and Zhang Yimou’s early films. I like classic epic, panoramic movies like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. Ridley Scott is a favorite. I often find that I’m trying to create this kind of cinematic shot that almost looks like a still-frame from a movie or something. If I think of photographers I actually like the orchestrated scenes of someone like Annie Leibowitz and there’s probably many others I’d love, but I don’t even know who they are. That’s the problem for photographers who are trying to get known, I think. It’s very hard to build a brand around yourself. I think with the Internet that’s going to change somewhat — as fine art photographers get more savvy and start to build their own presence more and give their fans a way to get daily doses of their work, they will become more known. How many photographers can the average person name? Not many, but most kids know that Chris Nolan is making Batman. Every once in awhile I’ll happen across someone who has consistently good images and you look them up and it seems they’re not making their living as photographers. Daniel Cheong comes to mind. He’s a photographer living in Dubai and I love his shots. I just happened to find him on Google+ while I was browsing around.
PP: What’s one thing you’ve learned about landscape photography that has made the biggest difference in your work so far?
TA: I can’t think of any momentous occasion or big shift in my work. It just slowly keeps changing. But I do find that technology tends to influence the direction of what I’m doing more than I would have imagined when I began. It’s as I’m learning new software that the style of my work starts to change. In all the photos from Burning Man, I took single exposure shots (no brackets) and used Lightroom to process all of them. Just a month ago, I only used Lightroom to organize my files, not to process them. Conversely when I began, I was mostly only shooting HDR with Photomatix. I think when anyone does something creative it’s always changing. It’s like a band’s first album is often quite different from their 2nd or 3rd or 4th.
PP: What’s it like to photograph Burning Man?
TA: That’s a multi-layered question. There’s the difficulties of the environment itself. I was literally the only photographer I saw out there who did not have his camera wrapped up in ziplock bags or tape. It’s a little unnerving that you could be ruining your camera, of course. I had two cameras with me at all times because I didn’t want to change lenses. I stuck with a 28-300mm on the D4 and a 14-24mm on the D800. I wanted to use a 50mm prime for some people shots but thought better of switching lenses.
The wind would blow the sand into the air and just create these awesome scenes. Last year I didn’t see any sandstorms like that so I wasn’t expecting it. Most of my favorite shots from this year have a lot of sand obscuring things and creating an otherworldly haze and texture. I loved it. I kept having these euphoric moments when I’d just be kneeling with my head down waiting for the strong wind to subside and then peaking up when it had cleared enough to get a shot off. I’m in the middle of a sandstorm in the heat (and I never carried water) and I was so happy. Then I got happier because I was happy in a situation that would make most people miserable. I had a snowboard gear to cover my mouth and eyes which of course is not ideal for shooting, but the diversity of what you’ll see at Burning Man just can’t be beat. It’s awesome to be in a target-rich environment like that. I probably got 30 photos over 3 days that I thought were good. I usually struggle to come up with one photo I like a day.
I don’t generally shoot people… if they do end up in my photos, I’m usually trying to remove them. With Burning Man that wasn’t the case. I wouldn’t say I’m a shy person, but I do feel nervous about taking someone’s photo somewhat. I had to get over that a little bit. Part of the spirit of Burning Man is to be open and friendly, real and human to others, so it’s a great place to get over your people-shooting anxiety if you have that fear.
My general routine for four days was I’d go out at 2pm and shoot until 2am. Then I’d go back to my RV and process photos till 6am. Sleep for 5 or 6 hours, process some more and then head back out. It helped me to see what I was getting each day and get something of a strategy for where I might want to head during the next day. The even is massive. It really covers a big, big area. You couldn’t cover it all in a week and things are actually changing every day. Each night I started thinking about the things I liked most and what I wanted to capture at sundown and in certain lighting conditions. If I’d been more hardcore I would have been up at sunrise as well, but I really value my sleep. (haha)
PP: What do you have planned for the future? Any chance you’ll start a photography-related business?
TA: Right now my plan is just more travel and more shooting. I share my photos on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Maybe at some point I’ll make a blog or website that has a better format. It’s really hard for me to ever think about working again. When MySpace sold I made more money than I could ever possibly need. I love to be focused and working on creative projects, but I’d rather do that in an environment where it’s not a company or a business. I think there is a need for more photo-based websites and even social networks, but right now it’s pretty hard for me to imagine going into an office every day and creating one. (haha)
PP: How much traveling do you do? How many countries have you been to?
TA: In many ways I’m very much a homebody. I like settling in and just relaxing, so photography gets me out to travel more than I would normally. I’ve been to 18 countries. The more the remote and different from America the better. I like being in environments where I really don’t understand anything and everything seems new and strange. It makes you see the world with fresh eyes and you don’t assume you understand anything. I like that feeling – I think it’s a better way to approach people and the world around you.
PP: What has been your favorite place to shoot so far?
TA: Italy has been my favorite so far even though I didn’t get that many photos I liked there. I’m definitely going back. I loved Venice and there’s a seaside area called Cinque Terre that I really want to capture but didn’t. I took so many photos but the weather wasn’t abiding while I was there. I’m kind of a cloud chaser. I think I’ll probably go back there and rent a place for a few weeks to drink it all in. I went to Peru and Machu Picchu before I started with photography. I really want to go back and see what I can do there. There’s also some interesting pyramids just north of Mexico City that I visited before I began photography. I don’t think many people are aware that the world’s third largest pyramids are in Mexico, so I’d like to go back and capture that.
PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?
TA: I said so much… I really just want people to look at the photos and I hope they enjoy them.