Worth a thousand words

River Forest photographer brings back old-school printing method

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Staff Reporter

In our instant-gratification, digital-obsessed world, it's easy for anyone to call themselves a photographer. With cameras that adjust every setting for near-perfect pictures, and iPhones that can be used for newspaper photos, it's easy to think photography is a hobby that requires little skill.

Until, that is, you meet David Tepper.

The River Forest photographer creates images with such depth they look almost three-dimensional. Tepper uses a process known as platinum printing, a style that has its beginnings in 1800s Germany. 

Tepper didn't start out as a photographer though. He had been well into an IT career specializing in Cisco networking when he realized that wasn't what he wanted to do with his life. 

He cast about for a new path and focused on his cameras. He'd always had some lying around, had always taken photos as a hobby, but now, he realized there potential to do so much more.

"I have always loved photography since I was a little kid. Images. Working in a darkroom. Seeing the image come up in a tray. It's always been awesome," he said.

Platinum printing is a delicate process with many steps involved. Tepper said the first step in the development process is enlarging a negative to match the size of his canvas. He uses Japanese washi, a tissue-thin but extremely durable paper often used in origami, clothing and even furniture.

The negative is pressed against the paper, Tepper said, and then he paints the platinum onto the paper. A single image takes a full day to complete. When the development process is complete, the platinum dries on top of the paper, rather than being completely absorbed as with other development processes. The result are images with deep shadows and vibrant highlights.

Each image is its own unique original, a bit of handmade photography.

 "It's a balance between science and art," he said. "That's what I loved about it."

Tepper started off performing this process for other photographers. Between those jobs, he said he would study, shoot his own images, develop, throw them out, learn and repeat.

Eventually, Tepper would land a gig taking photographs for a documentary, which would change the trajectory of his work. 

Tepper's friend, filmmaker Salvatore Consalvi had spent four years following an Ogalala Lakota medicine man to create "Sydney Has No Horses – The Last Ghost Dancer." He had asked Tepper to do the still photography for his film. 

Tepper started doing portraits of Ogalala Lakota people. Soon, Tepper said he was doing portraiture for Native Americans throughout the U.S. 

He has a simple motto that made the work possible: "Explore, not exploit." Before shooting images, Tepper would cook for his subjects and spend time with them, following the traditions of the area. By the time he had accumulated hundreds of images, he decided the best way to honor the people who had allowed him to capture their images was to print them in platinum. 

Though Tepper would disagree with this description of what he does. As a photographer, he said he creates, he does not take. 

"I believe photography can be used to honor, and should be used to honor," he said. "I don't believe in taking pictures, I don't believe in shooting or capturing, I make images."

And this belief, this idea of honoring and making is clear simply by speaking with him about his work: years later, Tepper can flip to any of the portraits, give the name of the person and their backstory without a moment's pause. 

Since his time with the Ogalala Lakota people, Tepper has photographed a vast number of Native Americans, including a series featuring direct descendants of Susan la Flesche Picotte, the first Native American female doctor, and another of many of the code talkers, including Chester Nez, the last original Navajo code talker who passed away in 2014.

Tepper has been honored as the only photographer among 15 artists to have their work featured at the opening day of Inherit Chicago, during the dumpling fest at Millennium Park.

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