Tom Jacobi is a Germany-based photographer. He discovered photography when he was a teenager when he received his first camera as a gift. Before then, he had no interest at all in photography. However, since then, he developed a deep passion for this art form and has never looked back. Six years later, Tom was tapped to be a staff photographer for the highly renowned Stern Magazine for which he shot images from around the world for nearly a decade. He then focused on freelance work as he delved into commercial, fashion and advertising. His three-year project, “Where God Resides,” took Tom to sacred places around the world and resulted in a photo book. This week Tom speaks to atlas about his current project Grey Matters and how he traveled across six continents to capture these stunning images which are found in his latest photo book of the same name. (Editor’s Note: As we approach Christmas, we wanted to revisit one of our favorite features this week on Tom’s spectacular series. Enjoy!)
How did you first become interested in photography?
Tom Jacobi: When I was fifteen years old, a friend of my mother gave me his old camera as a present. Until then I had absolutely no interest in photography. However, being a Capricorn and practical at the same time, I thought: “Well, now I have a camera, I might as well use it.“ So I just started taking pictures like every beginner: the cat straying through the garden, my sister eating cake, and much to many underexposed sunsets.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I started with an old Rolleiflex. My first serious camera was a Nikon, I stayed with that brand for many years before I changed over to Canon when they came out with their radical new concept in the 80s. In addition, I got myself a large format Linhof Technika, a Mamiya 6×7 and a Mamiya 645. All of these cameras were analogue. I sold my complete equipment when I became art director at Stern magazine. These days I use Pentax 645Z and Sony.
Your Grey Matters project is a collection of images that you shot during your travels over six continents. How did the Grey Matters first come about?
In February 2014, I traveled by ship to the Antarctic with some friends. It was a dream come true. I had seen and read so much about the Antarctic and was at last on my way to that inhospitable place so often referred to as the “blue-white continent.” Reality, however, proved rather different. That icy continent was indeed blue-white — the color of serviettes in a Bavarian beer cellar — but only when the sun gained the upper hand. Most of the time, though, a permanently changing cloud cover ensured the Antarctic presented itself in all possible shades of grey. Yet it wasn’t at all dreary; it was simply beautiful. No color was screaming for attention or calling out: “Hey, you over there, look at me!” That grey landscape radiated unbelievable energy and meditative calm. I was at one with everything around me. This new project saw daylight in the grey light of the Antarctic. When I got back home, I started my research. For days, nights, and weeks on end I roved around websites I had never imagined existed, not even in my wildest dreams.
I also delved deeply into the color grey. Seeing colors is actually a minor miracle. They are nothing more than reflected light absorbed by the cones of our retinas and then individually compiled in our brain — our grey matter, you might say.
Over a period of two years the work on this book took my wife, Katharina, and me to some very remote corners of the earth. We discovered archaic landscapes which had been shaped by nature over thousands of years and yet are timeless, even modern. When they slowly slide into the darkness of night and re-emerge at dawn from the realm of shadows, those landscapes seem like mystical enactments from some other world. No cocoon of color dulls the experience of the essential. The colorless energy of these places is breathtaking and humbling and touches us at the point from which we come — the twilight.
Among the locations you captured for Grey Matters, which location intrigued you the most? Why?
It’s funny. I get asked this question over and over again. My answer is quite simple: I can not give you one. All the places I visited have their individual strength and atmosphere. I have very dear memories to each one of them. There simply isn’t one location which stands out.
Did you encounter any challenges shooting this project?
Absolutely. It was a very physical project. Many of the places I visited were not easy to reach. We climbed mountains breathlessly, cursed the hard desert floors we slept on, and ran for our lives, so it seemed, from a massive storm cell in New Mexico. On one occasion, in a deserted steppe, Katharina was wondering where the human-like noise was coming from until she spotted a hostile rattlesnake hissing at her feet.
One Icelandic winter, I made my way to a lonely waterfall on my own. I was well equipped but had not thought of bringing crampons. The ground was so icy I must have fallen over at least two dozen times and ended up going most of the way on all fours. A route that should have taken one hour took four and the next morning I was black and blue as if Thor and Odin had used me as a puck in their divine game of ice hockey. They made amends the following summer when I lost five kilos despite the magnificent food in Iceland. With 24 hours of daylight in midsummer, sleep became an overrated luxury for this particular photographer.
CWC Gallery in Berlin is currently exhibiting Grey Matters. What do you hope your viewers will take away from this work?
From time to time, I give guided tours through the exhibition and I usually tell the visitors the following message: find an image you really like, try to blend out the surroundings, and you will find yourself at peace. If that happens, I am quite content. I once observed a girl standing in front of an image and she was crying. I dared to ask why she was so touched. Her answer was simple: because the images transport a feeling how our planet must have been when it was totally at peace with itself — before the human being arrived and changed everything. It was my turn then to be touched.
You also spent some time at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai for your “Where God Resides” project. What was it like spending time at the monastery?
Wonderful and very spiritual. I was a guest at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. The work on my project Where God Resides had brought me to this rocky wasteland. In the grey light of dawn some two dozen monks were scurrying along the passageways and across courtyards to their devotions in the candle-lit basilica. The soft glow of those candles drove out the darkness and bathed the sacred walls of Christendom’s oldest monastery in golden light.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Tom!