In the Moment

Medford Taylor’s photographs marry fine art with a you-are-there experiential quality.

“Reflections on the Piney River” was shot with an underwater camera. 

Photos by Medford Taylor

“I love being out in the wild, photographing everything from insects to elephants,” says photographer Medford Taylor. “But I also love walking the streets of Mexico or a small town here in the States and taking photographs of people. I guess you could say I have this professional split personality.” Perhaps, although the visual interest, action, and degree of chance Taylor’s various subjects provide is quite similar—they just happen to be entirely different species.

Taylor, 79, is lanky, with the rugged air of someone who has spent his life outdoors, but also diffident and humble. Born in Conway, North Carolina, Taylor had originally planned to become a doctor. Following college, however, he entered the Navy and served in Vietnam, where the possibility of becoming a photographer dawned on him. On leave, he took a week-long photojournalism workshop at the University of Missouri. After his discharge in 1967, he returned to Missouri for the graduate program, but didn’t stay long. There was too much going on, and Taylor knew he needed to be out on the street taking photos. 

Taylor and a friend set off for Marks, Mississippi, where Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign was preparing its march on Washington. Taylor’s photos of the campaign ended up in Newsweek and The Washington Post. Less than a month later, King was assassinated. When riots broke out in Washington, D.C., Taylor was there shooting photographs that would launch his career. He worked for the Houston Chronicle and Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot before moving to D.C. to embark on a freelance career. Taylor shot for Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic, and then landed in Richmond in the late nineties. 

“Bullrider” is an Australian cowboy. 

In addition to photojournalism, Taylor has long pursued wildlife photography on his own time. In Richmond, he made a two-year study of a great blue heron rookery. Three years ago, he moved to Amherst to teach at Sweet Briar College, which led him to start a series on the Piney River. “I’m drawn to the serenity of being outside in nature. If I’m up on the Piney, the only sound is the river, and it’s just so peaceful. If I manage to pull off a few images that are keepers, then all the better,” he says. “And then, I enjoy it even more when I’m home at night editing—that’s the prize for spending time in the cold with my hands in the water.” 

But even as he revels in nature, the pull to human beings and exotic locales remains. “I love shooting in Mexico and Bolivia. I’ll find a place I’ll call ‘my stage.’ You can see there’s a photograph to be made there because of the scene on the street,” says Taylor. “All you need are the actors to come along. You just have to be patient and eventually, they’ll show up. It never fails. No matter where you stay in those two countries, you step out in the morning, and you’re walking right into it.”

Taylor’s rich color, crystalline light, and striking compositional choices are on full display in the abstract swirl of koi fish circling a pond, a rain-washed street in Cuba, a lone tree stump bisecting an empty savanna, and the watery ripples of the Piney River. These are unquestionably fine-art photos, as opposed to reportage, but Taylor also conveys the very essence of his subject—you know exactly what it’s like watching those koi, being on that street, standing in that field, or sitting by the edge of that river. Marrying glorious images with that you-are-there experiential quality is one of the things Taylor does so well. 

When asked what he wants the viewer to get out of his work, the answer reveals much about the man. “I’ve often ended up in a place with incredible light and some moment I’ll never see again,” he says. “I always wished someone was there to share it with. I guess that’s how I feel about the images I make. Something just comes together: the place, the animal, the light, everything. It’s never going to happen again like that, and I want to share it with other people.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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