Three pairs of words that never figured to be in the same sentence were: Mariah Tauger, Olympic Games, and professional photographer. They became linked one night last March when Tauger, a third-year student at the Brooks Institute, received a phone call from Rick Rickman, one of her instructors. He told her that she had won a competition to be accredited as a press photographer at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
“I basically peed in my pants,” Tauger said recently. “I really wanted it, but it’s hard to believe I’m going. I’m still almost speechless. I don’t want to be just good. I want to be the best.”
That drive to succeed transformed Tauger from an absolute novice to a budding virtuoso in a matter of months. She moved from Colorado to the South Coast in March 2006 with no real experience in photography. She was 27 years old. “I’d taken about six family photos that were totally pathetic,” she said. “But I’ve always been fascinated with photography and decided to give it a try. I didn’t have a portfolio [for her application to Brooks]. I had to write an essay.”
Her first session in the introductory course, Photo 100, made Tauger wonder if maybe her family was right. “They thought I was insane,” she said. “I called home crying after class. I was in so over my head. My brother emailed me a sketch illustrating aperture and shutter speed. Brooks gave me a list of equipment. I must have seemed like the biggest dope going into Samy’s [Camera]. An SLR what?”
But once she had a single-lens reflex camera in her hands, magic happened. “Mariah took a picture of a guy on a dirt bike in midair,” Rickman said. “[Faculty member] Greg Cooper looked at it and said, ‘Wow, that’s a good picture.’ We chose that as the photo for practice in writing captions.”
Tauger went into the Visual Journalism program at the Brooks Ventura campus. She was drawn to sports photography. “Once I got the mechanics down, things started to click,” she said. “A little more me came through. I look for the quieter moments in sports, the play of light and shadow.”
Rickman said, “It’s rare to find somebody who’s never done photography before to catch on like Mariah. But other people come with experience and find they don’t have the persistence, passion, and drive to stay at it.” Tauger’s strength, he said, is “her uncanny sense of timing. Almost instinctively, she’s able to anticipate and capture that key moment.”
An expert sports photographer himself-he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo staff covering the 1984 Olympics for the Orange County Register-Rickman will be on assignment at the Beijing Games for the NewSport Photo Agency. He was able to attain another photo press credential through the agency, to be awarded to a deserving student. Tauger was one of 15 who vied in the shutterbug’s Olympic trials. Les Walker, the director of NewSport, made the final call in her favor.
“I’ve always liked sports,” Tauger said. “I was on a jump rope team in Lakewood (Colorado) from first to sixth grade.” That only was a hint of the big leap to come later in her life.