There is a joke circulating among the Gers (nomad tents) along the Tsagaan Salaa/Baga Oigor River valleys nestled in Northwest Mongolia’s Altai. The joke is in Mongolian but translates something like this— “Tepfer’s photos are good, but the service is slow.” Not exactly Letterman material, but this inside joke reveals a lot about photographer Gary Tepfer.
It may take him a year to deliver, but Tepfer personally delivers his photos to his subjects and the quality is there. How many times have you taken a photo of someone in an off the grid location and promised to send the subject the photo? Tepfer keeps his photographic promises and for 15 years has been an invaluable aide-de-camp to his Asian art historian wife Ester Jacobson-Tepfer.
Her archaeological campaign to chronicle the rock art of the Altai Mountains that straddle Russia and Mongolia has led to the area’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tepfer is a well-known landscape photographer whose work has been displayed in New York’s fine art galleries and coffee table books. He became intrigued with the weather-chiseled visages of the Altai Mountain people he encountered. He took their pictures and when he returned the next year delivered the images to his grateful subjects. Trust was established and the contemporary portraits are as startling as Tepfer’s landscape and rock art photos of the region.
“Universally these people want to be photographed. They will get all dressed up and are very excited to see me. Even though many have never been photographed, they know how to hold a pose,” Tepfer said. “I find a line forming outside my tent. When you photograph someone you get to know them.”
That reservoir of photographic trust will be shared with Tusker’s clients next summer. The insights and technical skills gleaned after three decades in the field will also be shared by Tepfer with Tusker Trail’s clients on its one-of-a-kind trip – “Mongolia-Altai Mountains: Ancient Culture and Photography Workshop.” It’s the first time any company has offered such an experience. Photographers will be challenged to capture the region’s rock art with its oblique lighting and difficult angles.
There are advantages to working in the Altai however. “This area is unspoiled photographically; there are no power lines or fences or jet trails. There are mountains, ever changing light and the challenge is to capture the relationship of archeology to the landscape and how people relate to both.”
The workshop is scheduled to begin July 20, 2012 and will include lectures and presentations by Jacobson-Tepfer whose campaign to get the region declared a World Heritage site was rewarded in June by UNESCO. She is a professor of Asian art history at the University of Oregon who met Tusker Trail owners, Eddie and Amy Frank in the Altai, six years ago. Eddie and Amy will serve as trip leaders for the workshops and have been taking small groups into the Altai for past five years.
Going Digital Never Felt Right
Old school is the best way to start describing Tepfer’s approach to photography.
While most fine art photographers have transitioned to the electronic age and gone to digital cameras, Tepfer remains a hold out using medium format cameras that require film and painstaking processing. He immerses himself in his dark room mixing his own chemicals and enjoying the process of burning and dodging his Ektachrome film. For him a dark room is a source of light. “I learn in the dark room about the interaction of film and paper and it helps me know what works best in the field. It shapes how I perceive light.”
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon the son of a biology professor who used photography in his botany studies, Tepfer’s first calling was not photography. He was on track to a chamber music career, but tendonitis ended that dream, pushing him towards photography. His photo mentorship came in New York where Dan Lenore, a top advertising photographer took young Tepfer under his tutelage. Lenore taught him the subtleties of working in confined spaces with artificial light and how to print color slides. At 27 Tepfer returned to Oregon and combined his love of the mountains with his photography. As a teen he climbed in British Columbia’s Coast Range and developed a keen eye for natural shapes that dovetailed with photography and mountaineering. The package led to a career as a fine art landscape photographer.
Gallery showings of his work appeared in San Francisco, Carmel and Seattle but his big breakthrough came in New York at Howard Greenberg’s gallery. “It was a big challenge getting in and competing with 60 other top photographers. The biggest challenge was convincing gallery owners to promote your work. You have to hussle.”
His landscape work took him to Arizona where he became intrigued with how its cactus covered mesas, buttes and desserts intersected with the Native Americans living there. When his wife needed a photographer to work on her archaeological sites in southern Siberia in 1991 Tepfer went along and immediately discovered a photographic treasure trove of dramatic landscape with hundreds of ancient stone altars. The people living in the nearby Gers came to trade their milk and they became part of his Altai oeuvre.
“This area was rich and was perfect for me. I love Arizona but I’m more naturally a cold weather person and the area’s glaciated peaks covered with surface archaeology were a photographer’s dream landscape. I was also interested in how weather shaped the people and how they were able to thrive for thousands of years in so harsh a climate.”
Close Up And Personal
As a landscape photographer, Tepfer was looking for the sweeping big picture. Working with Jacobson-Tepfer required a closer look. Tepfer credits his wife for helping him become more observant and to see the close-up details that photographing the rock art requires. She credits his rock climbing and mountaineering skills for helping her find important petroglyphs. His ability to marry the people to the landscape also helped her in her understanding of its history. Together they produced four books but it was the coffee table book “Archeology & Landscape in the Mongolian Altai: An Atlas,” published in 2010 where Tepfer’s work is spectacularly apparent.
These images include standing stones on the landscape that allows the viewer to see prehistoric people and their myriad activities. The petroglyphic image of a skier from the Early Iron Age in the Shar Nokhoityn Gol shows skis and poles. The Turkic monuments of the Sogoo valley seem almost as if they were carved yesterday – with the subject’s features readily identifiable. The glacier of the Tavan Bogd rises between gently sloped mountains into the sky, touching the clouds. An image of a rider on a horse crossing the Rashaan Gol shows pristine grassland that seemingly has not ever been walked on before. A birthing woman stands beneath a deer while in another shot a child rides a yak. Tepfer’s work yields a sense of the region’s people and its landscape, as it existed 10,000 years ago and how it has changed today.
His photos of today’s Mongolians show their rugged lives and dependence on nature. A young fresh-faced girl in a white flowery tunic milks a hairy yak many times her size. An older grizzled man has an eagle perched on his arm. Four rosy-cheeked young boys stand outside their ger peering into Tepfer’s lens with a seriousness that portends a hard life ahead.
Tepfer is sensitive to environmental changes and notes which animals and birds have been extirpated but still marvels that snow leopards, ibex and five species of falcons inhabit the region today. His workshop will consider the full range of possible Altai images as well as the nuances and complexities of working there.
“We will spend some time learning about thinking and seeing photographically. Time will be spent pre-visualizing a photograph and how to think abstractly before looking through the lens and understanding what that end product will look like,”Tepfer concludes.
This is the third of a 3-part series on Tusker Trail’s trip – “Mongolia-Altai Mountains: Ancient Culture and Photography Workshop.”