Landscapes of the Body, a ten year photographic journey into abstraction
In my years as a photographer, I have found that there are two very distinct types of people creating photographic work. The first type of person tends to lean on their past accomplishments. They took that one photo on vacation or at a sporting event and that is the image they show to anyone who is willing to view their work. They often continue to create new work, but the specter of that one great photo overshadows each new shot they take. The second type of photographer seldom looks back on their old work, of course they have their favorites that get rotated into and out of their current portfolio, but their focus (heh) is always on the next shot. This is the camp I fit into, but rather then looking forward, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on something that happened six years ago this week, but to do that I have to go back over ten years ago when I was in school working on my photography degree.
During the first week of lighting for studio photography class, our instructor laid out the criteria for the first class assignment, traditional portraiture. This assignment encapsulated my biggest fear, but not for the reason you might think. Many photographers might shy away from portraits because they are afraid of working with people, my apprehension about portraits centered around the fact that I am almost completely blind. In 1999 I lost my sight in a car accident, ending a long career in the videogames industry where I managed the development of titles for Atari, Accolade and Mattel Toys. I had to completely relearn how to navigate the world after the accident, and I would carry a digital camera with me to document life events and later see them magnified on my computer screen. My work eventually began to lean toward the artistic and rekindled a long-lost love of the still image. It seemed like nothing short of complete madness for someone who is almost completely blind to return to school to pursue a degree in photography, but there we were.
My world view is comprised of colorful blurry shapes, meaning that I cannot see the expressions on people’s faces. Taking traditional headshot portraits would be impossible because I would not be able to see if someone was smiling, frowning or even if their eyes were closed, so I took another path. Rather than capturing images of my subject’s face, I opted for hands. I captured working hands, playing hands, and praying hands. I prepared my argument that a person’s hands are unique to them and they counted toward the assignment as much as a portrait of a person’s face. I passed the assignment, and this led me on an unexpected path. I began to shoot more of the human form, focusing my work on the low-key style of portraiture. My images veered toward the abstract and my compositions began to intentionally remove the traditional landmarks of the body that one would expect to see. Over the weeks exploring and refining this style, my love of landscape photography began to show through, and the images I was creating of my subjects began to take on the look of mountains, valleys, and other landscape shapes.
I quickly came to realize that the method of avoiding the inclusion of my subject’s faces in the frame allowed me to photograph people without the frustration and pressure of getting the subject’s smile and expression just right. The work was taking shape, and I was actively embracing the abstraction in my imagery. I worked with many models, both pro and amateur in these early years and graduated with a comprehensive body of work that featured models of various genders and ethnicities ranging in age from 19 to 76. I wanted the work to be inclusive, and proudly featured models who were physically disabled, and throughout, sought out models who’s body type ranged the gamut from petite to plus sized. My intent with the project was to show beauty in every body, not just the ones that were supposed to be beautiful because of societal and media driven definitions. I wanted the natural beauty of the human form I was photographing to shine front and center. To this end, I did little post-processing of the images short of removing distractions in the negative space of the backgrounds and using a custom built black an white conversion action in photoshop which made the tones in the images match so that the viewer could focus their attention on the beauty of the softly lit curves of the subject’s body. Thoughtful consideration was given to the inclusion of tattoos and other body markings, which give visual relief as the viewer experiences the collection of images.
During the initial creation of the Landscapes of the Body, I never saw it as something I would pursue for an exhibition. I was completely focused on my landscape work, and saw the project as something that resulted from a solution to not being able to see people’s faces. It allowed me an outlet for exploration and abstraction in my photography and filled the desire to work with models in a style and setting that worked with my limited vision.
After graduation, we moved from our cozy little coastal community in California to a suburb near Denver Colorado. My wife is also an art fan and shortly after settling into our new home we began visiting the local art walks. As I mentioned earlier, I can see blurry shapes and colors, so our normal pattern is to view a piece in a gallery, I tell her what I see, and she fills in the details that I can’t. On this particular day, the curator of the gallery was standing behind us and sparked up a conversation about art and asked if I was an artist. Before I knew it I had a meeting planned for that Monday to show my photography. He thumbed through my portfolio and said the landscape work was interesting, but everyone and their brother could create a good landscape image being they ended up at the right place at the right time of day. His real interest lied with my Landscapes of the Body work which not only was an abstract exploration of the nude human form, but also ended up being a window on the way I see the world around me, complete with lots of negative space representing my loss of sigh. I walked out of that meeting with an exhibition scheduled for Denver’s Month of Photography and my head spinning realizing that there may be interest in a personal project that I originally had no intention of ever exhibiting.
That was six years ago this week. Today I happily take a moment to reflect on this work and its evolution. I set out to create a collection of images that celebrated beauty, inclusion and diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, physical ability and body type. After the debut exhibition and subsequent interest in the project I found myself lecturing about the work to galleries, schools, photo clubs and more. The lectures that really struck me were the ones that included guests who were blind or visually impaired like myself. I found myself describing in detail the shape, lighting, composition, and other interesting facts behind the traditionally printed images. This hit home for me and I realized that just like the images in the galleries I had visited a million times, that those who are visually impaired are usually left out when it comes to participating in visual-centric art.
I set out on a daunting quest to make visual art accessible for the blind, and at that time 3d printing was in it’s infancy so creating tactile friendly prints was the route I settled on. I worked with a local print shop on a method to layer ink on metal substrate making the shape of the body forms embossed enough to not only allow viewers with low or no vision to feel the shape, but the prints also had enough texture in the skin allowing a true felt representation of the printed image. Next was audio descriptions, Luckily, I had a background in radio and public speaking before my time in the games industry so I recorded all the audio descriptions myself in my home studio. Today, the collection is exhibited with tactile prints next to the traditional prints, and viewers can access descriptions of each piece via QR code. The project is currently winding up a two-and-a-half-year solo exhibition at the Lighthouse for the Blind gallery in San Francisco.
I have learned a lot about the evolution a project can make. I set out with small goals – make some interesting abstract and inclusive black and white images of the nude human form that could be viewed by anyone – even school aged children. My intention was to change perceptions of art created by blind and visually impaired artists. As the project gained traction and was exhibited more, I secured more speaking engagements which allowed me to share my perspectives on art and photography and help to bring to light the lack of accessibility for the blind and visually impaired to participate in the visual art medium. All of this has allowed me a platform which I could donate limited run prints to auctions raising funds for organizations like Lighthouse for the Blind, and Guide dogs for the Blind.
What I was not ready for in the creation of this project was the profound impact it would have on many of the participants. For some, it was just another modeling gig, for others, especially those who were new to modeling or held body confidence issues, the empowering transformation during those first minutes of a shoot was astounding to me. A moment that will always stick with me was when one of the beautiful plus sized models in the project came to the debut exhibition. The image of her happened to be placed next to a professional model participant and because of the way the light was angled, her image was every bit as beautiful as the pro level model. She later told me that the confidence she gained from working with me helped her immensely in her successful modeling career.
Over the years, this project has continued to grow in scope and size, and I have been overwhelmed with the willingness of everyday models and celebrities alike (yes, ones you know) to participate in this project. I revel in the fact that I can place images of plus size, petite, famous, amateur, disabled and pro models side by side and viewers can appreciate the images for what they are – beautiful bodies.
My next plans include expanding the exhibition opportunities further and adding 3d printed models over the expensive to produce textured prints. I’m looking for funding options for this so if anyone reading this has suggestions on funding sources please do let me know. Additionally, I’m always happy to speak to your groups about this work in person or via zoom, and if you would like to discuss exhibition of this work in your establishment, feel free to contact me. For now, if you are a photographer and have a project you aren’t sure about showing, don’t be afraid to take a chance. Take a moment to look back on the things you have accomplished as an artist, it can go a long way to bring context to your current and future work.
If you would like to see more about Landscapes of the Body visit this link:
“Ted’s journey into the landscape of the human body is a marvelous celebration of all that is physical, sensual and diverse
” – FSTOPPERS
About the author
Ted Tahquechi is a Denver Colorado based professional landscape and travel photographer, disability travel influencer and is almost completely blind. You can see more of Ted’s photography at: http://www.tahquechi.com/
Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers. https://www.blindtravels.com/
Ted’s body-positive Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at: https://www.bodyscapes.photography/
Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: firstname.lastname@example.org