Pursuing the perfect image
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:23 PM
"Tim Thompson is a guy who likes to hang from airplanes. Even without hearing his stories, one can tell from viewing the spectacular photographs in Thompson's new collaborative book, Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, that the man doesn't mind taking a few risks in the name of art.If sticking his head out of a plane to photograph is the only way to capture a scene, then that's what he does, no problem.Thompson has also hung from helicopters and from hot air balloons. When we're doing air-to-air shoots, Thompson says, which is when you're flying in tandem with another plane to photograph it, things can be a little tricky - you could run into each other, which is not ideal.One would imagine not. But there are other kinds of risks artists take, and Thompson has sustained his share of these, as well. Despite an impressive array of credits that includes work for National Geographic, Time-Life, Outside and Holiday, plus a diligent marketing effort, Thompson's last book for Graphic Arts Center Publishing failed to do more than break even. I spent $17,000 - and I made $17,000, Thompson says. In 1990, the economy was such that people weren't buying this kind of book.A book of Seattle images was later planned, but another photographer was chosen. The idea for the Puget Sound book was floated five years ago, and it took that long to see the project realized. Then, when he got the go-ahead in mid-1997, the publisher wanted him to wrap it up before the year was out. Thompson hadn't started shooting until July, and knew he couldn't finish in six months. Typically, he will shoot 20,000 photographs to get the 100 or so that make it into a book. In the end, I'm glad it worked out the way it did, Thompson says, because I had started out imitating the 'Seattle' book, and it took a while for my own ideas to jell.Thompson arrived at what he believes is a romantic, traditional approach. And it is true that every photograph is as lush as a rain forest and as saturated with color as the Skagit Valley in spring. Thompson chased the perfect shot from the Chief Seattle Days pow wow in Suquamish to the loggers' tree climbing competition in Sultan. If the book had been photos without text, it would have been a successful effort. But there is an acerbic counterpoint to Thompson's hedonism, and it is Eric Scigliano's accompanying essays. The tension between essay and photo makes the book interesting. Scigliano was Thompson's suggestion to the publisher, despite the sensibility gap between the visual artist and the writer. The publisher was so taken with the writer's work that he unhired an unlucky writer who had already been invited on board for the project.Scigliano, a Seattle Weekly writer and contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, Mother Jones and Newsweek, among others, has a political/ecological bent that deconstructs Thompson's photos on the spot. The combination of the purveyor of beautiful surface and the analytical mind that must penetrate that surface makes the book dynamic.But Thompson's vision of the finished product is, of course, his own.I have a personal goal for the book, Thompson says. I want readers to look at it and say, 'That's exactly how I feel about this place.'Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains can be found at Paper Products and at Eagle Harbor Books. "