Tom Ulrich, esteemed wildlife photographer, was the embodiment of wonder and adventure. Described by life partner, Linda Martin, as “a rugged man with a soft-spoken voice,” he was loved and revered by those that knew him. Since 1975, he photographed more than 2,500 species, had his work featured in countless nature publications, published seven photo books, lectured at many higher learning institutions and received many awards for his photography. Ulrich passed away on February 10 at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis after being diagnosed with T-cell Prolymphocytic Leukemia (T-PLL), an extremely aggressive and rare form of leukemia.
Ulrich, originally from Chicago, graduated from SIUC in 1971 with a degree in Biological Sciences and subsequently taught at Fairfield Community High School. He began taking pictures on a camera that his brother, Mike who was in the Navy, picked up for him from the Navy Exchange. In 1975, he set off to Glacier National Park intending to capture images of mountain goats, but soon discovered many birds he had never seen before. Bird-watching in the States was starting to take off during this time, and Ulrich was able to sell many of his images to magazines devoted to this pastime.
In his career, Ulrich took more than 600,000 transparencies, which were used in publications such as National Geographic, National Wildlife, Audubon, Sierra, and Life. He documented work on all continents (save for Antarctica) and published seven nature books.
In addition to his published works, Ulrich often led tours to remote parts of the world including Patagonia, Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and East Africa. Not only did he lead tours to Pantanal — he was the first photographer to document this floodplain, located mostly in Brazil, which he described as the “greatest aviary spectacle known to man.”
Birds were the favorite subject of Ulrich, but his work can also be noted for other features such as the patterns and interesting configurations that can be seen in groups of animals. Perspective for him was also significant, “I always try to be on their level,” he said, when speaking about the importance of eye contact in his photographs (PBS, 2016).
His background in Biology was helpful to his photo work, but he noted in an interview with The Southern that “experience probably has helped me more.” With a career spanning more than 40 years, he found himself in innumerable situations: “It’s a big learning curve, but I spend so much time out there with these animals, I kind of predict what is going to happen, where they live and how close I can get.”