Photographic Memory

Kipp Tarver visited all 50 states and chronicled the decade-long journey through a variety of artistic mediums, most notably black-and-white pictures.

by Kari Apted

“The States—A Photographic Memoir of My Travels Through a United America” looks like a lovely coffee table book at first glance. Its pages illustrate one man’s goal to document his journey through all 50 states via black-and-white photography. As you thumb through the images of America’s natural and constructed beauty, you begin to notice the prose on the pages opposite each image. As you read Kipp Tarver’s words, you realize there is a bigger message behind this work than simply showcasing national scenery. 

Tarver, a Covington photographer, writer and painter, did not start out pursuing a career in the arts. The New Jersey native graduated from Rutgers University with a communications degree, then attended graduate school at Georgetown University. His first job was at NASA, helping to pioneer the video teleconferencing technology we take for granted today. He went on to work at the Pentagon, then for the Federal Aviation Administration—where he was employed during 9/11. He relocated to Georgia in 2008 and worked in logistics for a construction and engineering firm. 

Although his career history is more technical than creative, Tarver always held a deep appreciation for traveling and the arts. He credits each step of his life for the role it played in bringing him to where he is now. Highly focused, he lives by an inspiring mission statement: Create boldly, exhibit proudly, inspire others. 

“Very early in my career at NASA, as I arranged teleconferences between Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Houston, I began seeing the immense value in connecting different parts of the country,” Tarver said. “Everything I did led me to travel. When you plug into a place, something inside you says, ‘I have to go there.’ When you go, you start connecting to people from completely different backgrounds, and you inevitably realize that you are far more alike than different.” 

 Tarver’s desire to visit every American state was triggered at the age of 22 while visiting his cousin in Hong Kong. He met a local student who had studied in the United States and visited all 50 states. 

“I wondered how many Americans can say they’ve done that,” Tarver said. “That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted: to travel to every state.” Tarver began traveling soon after, but his love of photography would surface later in life. “I was inspired by Ansel Adams and especially Gordon Parks. Parks traveled around the world and made a lasting impact on me,” he added. “He did everything, from fashion photography in Paris to capturing images of poverty for Life Magazine in the ghettos of Brazil.” 

 Like Parks, Tarver is a self-taught photographer. He began experimenting with black-and-white photography using a Nikon N80 single-lens reflex camera with 35-millimeter film. He learned about light exposure, filtering and masking, as he conceived a plan for his work. Following a premise of “one photograph, one story, one state,” his book became the manifestation of his love for photography and travel. Tarver planned his trips around the nation regionally, with scheduled stops at certain attractions, always open to diverting from the planned path if circumstances led him to do so. 

“If each of us had the opportunity to travel to all 50 states, we would be a more united, sympathetic nation.”

Kipp Tarver

“Some of the images in this book came to me in dreams, which left me with a sense of déjà vu when I arrived,” he said. “Others were unexpected surprises. I call them gifts of serendipity.” One such serendipitous occasion transpired in South Dakota. “It’s the Crazy Horse Memorial. I’d never heard of it,” Tarver said. “I went there to photograph the Badlands. A man I met said that I had to go see Crazy Horse, so I did. It was amazing. It’s funny that this giant mountain carving is only a few miles from Mount Rushmore, but so many people have never heard of it.”

Tarver took hundreds of photos in each state. For his book, he narrowed it down to the one picture that he felt best captured the spirit of the state.

“My theme is God vs. Man, alternating images of God’s creation with what man has designed and built,” he said. Thumbing through the book, this pattern flows from giant oaks with exposed roots in Louisiana to the world’s longest covered bridge in Vermont. Far from just a photographic journal, Tarver includes poetic descriptions of his impressions of each state. “It’s my responsibility as an artist to connect with my audience,” he said. “This doesn’t just happen. You have to be intentional.”

 One of Tarver’s favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain. 

“He said, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.’ When you travel, you find out that our cultures are more alike than different,” Tarver said. “If each of us had the opportunity to travel to all 50 states, we would be a more united, sympathetic nation. Imagine if everyone before their 30s made seeing every state their goal? It would be a different country.” 

Tarver suggests that novice creatives exhibit without a goal of selling in order to remove the stress of measuring the worth of their work against what people are willing to pay for it. “Everyone who’s an artist doesn’t have to be a marketer,” he said. “Create for the sake of creating.” Although the message was the mission behind Tarver’s project, he is also a skilled marketer of his work. It has been shown around the nation, as well as internationally in Brazil, Greece, Italy and South Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a difference in the number of shows he has been able to schedule recently. His next exhibition will be on June 26 at The Cloister at Sea Island in Sea Island, Georgia. He also has plans to present his work locally at Oxford College and at Peachtree Academy. 

Tarver also enjoys partnering with nonprofits for fundraising purposes. “I’ve been given these abilities to share them where I can,” he said. “I give a full 50% of my sales to the charities I partner with.” Beneficiaries of his photo auctions include a Florida-based chamber orchestra and a battered women’s shelter. 

 Constantly evolving his message into new expressions, Tarver presented his work at an Atlanta event accompanied by music and an interpretive dancer. He is currently working in his home studio, turning his photographs into large mixed-media works of art. He has printed images on wood, chiseling and painting to add depth and dimension. Tarver is also writing a screenplay and hopes to turn it into a film about his work. He challenges others to travel and creatively document their own experiences through writing, photography, drawing, videography or whatever media interests them. 

“I meet a lot of creatives who are fantastic but afraid to exhibit. I never let the fact that I wasn’t a writer or a photographer stop me from writing a book about photography,” he said with a laugh. “I admit I have a boatload of confidence—it comes from having success in my endeavors—but I want my work to be an example for people close to being creative but feeling hesitancy. I want them to look at what I did and say,
‘If he can do it, I can do it, too.’” 

For more information on Kipp Tarver’s work, visit KippTarver.com.

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