Tate Tullier recalls People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” issue from 1990 like few can. The portraits in that magazine started something inside the then-12-year-old St. Amant native who was standing in line with his mother when he picked it off the grocery store rack. Deaf from birth, Tullier already thought in pictures. Imagery was his native language and, signing to his mother, he begged her to buy it.
“I remember the pages being just worn down because I flipped through it so much,” says Tullier, now 31. “It was a fascination with seeing how people can role play, how they can be portrayed in different ways using photography.”
That People paid dividends this summer for the Louisiana School for the Deaf. In June, Purple Communications named Tullier, who now travels across the country for portraiture and weddings, as one of 10 national finalists for its “Dream Bigger” awards. He donated his $1,000 prize to the Baton Rouge school. “Deaf and hard-of-hearing kids need more after-school activities and creative programs,” he says.
The usually gregarious Tullier turned shy when given the award that recognized his creative impact in the field of photography. He’d rather the spotlight be on his work than on himself. That’s where his own focus has always been.
Soon after finding that People magazine, Tullier was borrowing his mother’s Minolta X700 to capture candid portraits of his friends and to dress up relatives for posed fashion shoots at holiday gatherings. During his senior year at St. Amant High School, Tullier put his outgoing personality to good use in the school’s Gator mascot costume for football games and took snapshots for the yearbook.
Inspired by Claudia Schiffer’s 1990s campaign for GUESS? and Ellen von Unwerth’s stylishly risqué fashion portfolio, he knew he wanted to capture images that evoked bold and daring emotions—photos that showcased the whole range of human experience, that created an attractive language. Tullier’s recent portfolio can be identified quickly by these ideals. The work is often intimate in its imperfection and balanced by improvisation.
“If a child is sad that day or shy or eating something in front of the camera when he’s not supposed to, I just let it go, and that becomes the photo,” Tullier says. “It’s better to keep things loose and natural. I get real emotions that way.”
While studying photography at LSU, Tullier was obsessed with making sure he could do the things his classmates were doing. Prof. Tom Neff approved of his work but consistently told Tullier to make art that was his own. The young photographer didn’t understand. “That drove me crazy,” he says. “It really bothered me.”
After LSU, Tullier moved to Washington, D.C., to complete graduate school at Gallaudet University, a world-renowned school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, then took a low-rung job working at the Mixed Greens gallery in New York City’s most art-intensive neighborhood, Chelsea. But his entry-level status allowed Tullier to come and go as he pleased. He needed that flexibility, because his Gallaudet friends started getting married and asking him to photograph their weddings. Tullier had never thought of himself as a wedding photographer, but being cash strapped, he couldn’t say no.
And Tullier travels for weddings still. This summer he shot a series of nuptials from Los Angeles to Florida—many for friends in the deaf community—but he has built an impressive list of clientele in Baton Rouge, too, since returning to the area in 2005 with his wife, Sarah.
Here he wants to build a reputation not just on his work, but also on the experience of having fun with photography. It’s an infectious feeling Tullier wants to share with his clients.
Tullier’s talent and personally usually overcome the obvious language barrier, but occasionally clients struggle with it.
“Some people think too much about it,” Tullier says. “But I’ve never been accused of overthinking photography. Because they didn’t hire me for my hearing. They hired me for my eye, and to capture what happens on the greatest day of their lives.”
The subtitle of his blog reads: “My life is crazy, I shoot it,” and that says a lot about the artist. He’s affable and charming, Tullier’s work reflects his personality. If he wasn’t deaf, he’d probably be the loudest guy in the room—in a good way. His lively photos speak to people.
And every now and then he pulls out those first photos he snapped with his mother’s old Minolta. He laughs at the big earrings and jewelry he draped on his cousin. He shakes his head at some of his lighting choices, but he still learns from them, he says. “They keep me inspired.” tatetullier.com