Answering The Most Important Question

| May 31, 2009

Time in the desert is a great catalyst for creative thinking. This is the first of a series of photography-related musings from my recent trip to The Maze.

Among the many things that occupied my mind on this last excursion was a realization of how my own goals and reasons for making images had evolved over the years. The more I thought about various and seemingly unrelated concepts around photography, the more I came to realize how interconnected they are. All seem to converge around one simple yet profound question: what do I hope to achieve with my images?

In my early years the answer was simple: I wanted to amaze my viewers. I wanted to elicit the “ooh”s and the “wow”s. I wanted friends and family and complete strangers to be impressed with where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and the trophies I brought back with me, and yes – I wanted them to envy me for it. The more praise I got the more driven I became, until a grim truth dawned on me: the driving force behind my forays into the wild and the value I placed on the experience became entirely dependent on the images I was able to make. I lost my sense of awe, and the ability to appreciate the simple pleasures of just being there. I no longer “wasted” time idling in thought, admiring intimate subtleties, or contemplating life lessons. It was all about the incessant search for the next “keeper”. I was devoted to recording superficial beauty and failed to appreciate deeper meanings, complexities, and details. I captured memorable anecdotes but missed the underlying stories. My work, though well accepted, was no more meaningful than a fashion shoot. In my quest to express my love for the wild, I lost my ability to experience the very things I set out to photograph. It was time to reset priorities and to rekindle the fire.

Chalk it up to age or to life experiences, but I have since come to learn that the missing ingredients to personal satisfaction with my own work were never missing to begin with. As I wrote in a previous article: “…you are there to make images of beautiful experiences. Make it a beautiful experience first, and you will have something to photograph.” Indeed, my works of the past seven years or so have been exactly that: reflections of memorable experiences. Looking at any one of them, I can recall the crackling of a small campfire in the desert with the Milky Way bright in the night sky; the reverence and humility of standing on a lofty perch, looking into the distance, breathing the sweet scents of wet earth and sagebrush after a desert rain; or watching the dawn unfold with a warm cup of coffee in a fragrant alpine meadow, observing as the first rays silently melt away thin frost off delicate blades of grass.

I realized I am more attuned to the quiet intricacies of the natural world. I found that I enjoyed creating images that speak softly and have a compositional complexity that invites exploration beyond the initial impact. I no longer feel the need to command attention from my viewers through fiery skies or staggering scale. Instead, I like to invite them politely to study shapes, patterns, subtle relationships, and graceful lines. Ironic as it seems, finding satisfaction in my own work was, more than anything else, about defining what I like… to myself.

Category: All Posts, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (8)

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  1. Glen Goffin says:

    Bravo! Well said. For me, it isn’t until I have had a “wow” moment in my experience that I can take a picture that translates to a “wow” moment for the viewer. Thanks for another great post.

  2. Nice writing as always, Guy. I had to realize for myself that like with many other things, different trips or photographic opportunities call for different mindsets. When I’m just playing the Toucan Sam “Follow my nose” personal photography, I try to have that same sense of openness to experience, with the thought of getting the killer shot helping me along as nothing more than a rough guide. That’s a far different mindset from when I’m photographing something with a specific editorial or commercial goal in mind. Yeah, that “gotta get the shot” mindset can sure suck the fun right out of a trip if photographic opportunities don’t meet with your pre-visualized expectations.

  3. Carl D says:

    Hey Guy,

    I think this kind of process is part of many aspects of our lives, be it art, relationship, career, etc. Seeing a little deeper is the task we’ve all been given, I imagine. It’s great that you’re able to so clearly articulate your own progress and share it here. Thanks.



  4. Julian says:

    Guy, your penultimate paragraph really struck a chord.

    Glen, above, talks about the ‘wow’ moment but surely this cannot be the only response to the landscape? What about intrigue? Contemplation? Contentment? Perhaps it has something to do with our technological age where the only two responses to an experience sometimes seem to be either ‘awseome!’ or ‘it sucks’? In the insatiable search for yet more mindless stimulation we seem to have lost our capacity for more complex responses.

    But what happens when the viewer can no longer be provoked into a ‘wow’ response? What then? Do you up the ante? And where will all this end? I’d like to think there might be a largescale return to subtlety and depth in image-making but I’m not counting on it.

  5. Fabulous article Guy! I often find myself sliding down that ugly path where it becomes all about capturing the image and in the process I forget the very reason why I became a landscape photographer. Instead of finding peace, embracing solitude, enjoying the wonders all around me, my mind is racing through possible compositions, lighting scenarios, etc. Thanks for this great reminder! I don’t want to forget the very things that call to me in the wilderness because I’ve brought my workaholic, task oriented, people pleasing attitude with me.

  6. Alec Johnson says:

    Hi Guy, this post is amazing and I’ve quoted and linked to it from my blog. I’ve been preaching this my self for some time, but you’ve articulated your feelings (my feelings) so clearly. THANK YOU.