Photography and the Creative Life

| May 30, 2012

The following essay was originally published in the British online magazine On Landscape and is reproduced here with permission. I urge readers to consider subscribing to this fine publication in addition to others you may enjoy. It is one of few I know of that routinely transcend the low-common-denominator formula that keeps mainstream publications from addressing more creative and cerebral topics affecting the art of landscape photography. As such, it fills an important gap and is well worth adding to your list of photographic readings.

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It is likely that everyone reading this article derives some joy from photographic images of the natural landscape and from the practice of photography. If my decidedly unscientific observations are any indication, it’s also likely that most of you have found your way to this genre of photography through the appreciation of natural beauty that is inherent in most humans. It’s no wonder that most of us intuitively and emotionally respond to natural scenes and phenomena. After all, we are the product of four billion years of evolution, throughout most of which our ancestors relied on instinct alone to tell good from bad, pleasure from pain and safe from dangerous. In time, imagination and creativity served to provide us with the solutions to progressively more complex problems, allowing humanity to rise to a degree of intelligence, prosperity and dominion unprecedented in Earth’s history. Visuals once found conducive to survival became the foundation for our sense of aesthetics; scenes once associated with awe, challenge and opportunity were incorporated into our perceptions of beauty, adventure and spirituality; and the ability to effectively and visually communicate our thoughts and inspiration to others set the stage for our arts.

Yet, for all our progress and intelligence, our brains often function in primitive ways. When challenged, we tend to fall back on instinct, repeat patterns already established to be successful, seek safety in numbers, conform to popular trends, avoid conflict, and heed the authority of those we accept as superior or more successful. Indeed, the survival and dynamics of a productive and well-functioning society depend on compliance and repetition being the norm rather than the exception. The same, however, cannot be said about progress, which requires the occasional disruption: something novel – an aberration – to introduce new possibilities and the potential to advance toward something better than the prevailing paradigm, albeit often at some risk.

Like the evolution of life, so is the evolution of art dependent on the introduction of new ideas, new methods, new ways of seeing and interpreting, and the courage of creative individuals to step outside the bounds of the common, the accepted and the fashionable, to challenge established concepts and at times to endure personal hardship as well as the ire and ridicule of peers and critics.

I came to photography, as many do, by chance and with little knowledge of, or aspirations for, the creation of art. To me, photography was an extension of my love for the wild; a means of capturing, documenting and sharing the things I’ve seen and the places I’ve been; at least the ones I found worthy and interesting. This was the impetus behind my photography for the nearly two decades over which I became more proficient with tools and techniques. I began earning some income from my images and believed I was content with my work. As long as my images were technically good, aesthetically pleasing and well received, little else mattered. Or, so I tried to convince myself. In truth, my work had become repetitive and formulaic. I visited beautiful places, waited for the ubiquitous “magic” light, captured a few “pretty” images on large film, and waited to post or publish, knowing the accolades from the usual crowd were to follow. It was easy. It required little forethought, emotional engagement or expertise beyond operating the camera. Worst of all, it was utterly and completely meaningless. Short-lived pride in “getting the shot” soon began to feel hollow.

Give anyone a camera and some time to practice, and they’d have made the exact same images that I did. There was nothing in them that was unique to me, that required creativity, that expressed my own sensibilities, state of mind, personal relationship with the subjects or any ulterior message more complex or meaningful than “ooh, pretty.” My images were the equivalent of fast food:  simple, momentarily gratifying, requiring little thought, easy to like, and easier to forget and move on.

Ultimately, I realized it was not enough; I had a choice to make. I could continue to trickle repetitive and unremarkable “pretty pictures” into the ever-surging torrent of similar, if not identical work; continue bickering about minutia of gear and visual gimmicks with other photographers; revel in being like everybody else, or I could make my life and my work about something greater, aim for something higher, and strive to create a new aesthetic and purpose for my work.

From a professional viewpoint, this was a daunting proposition. Photography as art relies on complexity of message and ulterior meanings beyond mere aesthetics. As such, it tends to demand more of the viewer. It is also rarely about recognizable subjects and demands to be considered on its own rather than as an illustration for an article or an advertisement. It is, therefore, of little use for editorial purposes. On the other hand, photographic art is still a long way from earning its rightful place in most galleries and museums. I was entering a world that fascinated and challenged me with little idea of how I could earn an income in it. Still, once the seed was sown, I knew deep down that I could never be satisfied being “ordinary” again.

There is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in repeating the successes of the past and in remaining faithful to already-established methods and styles, just like there is nothing wrong with spending an evening watching a movie with loved ones, earning a steady income in an un-exciting job, or eating a favorite dish for the third time this week. Some people, however, would rather spend the same evening admiring the view from a port-a-ledge hanging 4,000 feet up a cliff, or sitting alone by a small campfire in the middle of nowhere listening to the mournful howls of coyotes, contemplating the universe, or smashing sub-atomic particles hoping to peer into other dimensions. These include people who may not yet know that they would have such preferences and that they are indeed capable of realizing them; people who may never know unless they allow themselves to try. I will tell you this: you will never experience a more profoundly satisfying moment than the instant you realize that you have it in you to be that person – a hero in your own mind, without excuses or wishful thinking.

I went to live in a tiny town of 200 residents, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness. I began making a different kind of image: more considered, more personal, more creative. I made it my goal to come to know the land around me intimately so that I could listen to its stories and understand what it had to offer. I washed my mind clean of the formulas of the past and forced myself to see deliberately – just me and the subject, with no filters, preconception or concerns about what others might say or think. I became an avid reader of journals and biographies of artists I admired and was amazed to find the same common thread: the art and the life become one and the same. The purpose of one becomes the purpose of the other: to experience first, to feel in the raw and with no cynicism or judgment, then to translate the experience into a work by whatever tools available. For better or worse, the tool available to me and with which I had the most experience was the camera, and it became my brush, my notebook and my chisel.

Where in the past I tried to push myself in the physical sense (to climb higher mountains, to visit more remote locations, to photograph under more difficult conditions), it no longer mattered. Bragging rights seemed so shallow a goal compared with experiencing a moment of profound awe, so joyous as to move me to tears, and then to convey at least a small part of it through a photograph.

I soon learned that I was not alone. Almost every photographer I met expressed a similar desire to produce more personal and original work. The vast majority of them, though, were still beholden to a fear. Yet they were willing to listen, and I began to teach. I was soon able to earn a modest income from the most satisfying of all jobs: inspiring others.

By daring to venture into the unknown and merely being myself in the face of overwhelming pressure to accept photography as practiced and defined by the masses, I was able to not only produce more satisfying work but to live a life that was previously but a dream: the creative life.

There is undoubtedly the risk of failure, but for those bound to be different, the choice of breaking with the pack should be made in consideration of the greater failure of never knowing if your gift and, indeed, your life may be going to waste. You will be far unhappier going through life perpetually wondering “what if” than any ill fate you may suffer for daring to unleash your true self. And, if all comes crashing down, you will at least have the benefit and peace of mind that comes from knowing you tried and you gave it your best.

How do you know? You just know. It nibbles at you from the inside; it makes you daydream and fantasize; the more you feed it the more restless and frustrated you become until you muster the courage to heed your calling.

There is more to it than personal satisfaction, however. The very concept of photography as art hangs in the balance. Some of the most iconic photographers of the past worked tirelessly and against staggering prejudice to promote their work as worthy as any painting, sculpture, novel or symphony. At some point in recent history, the great photographic artists of their day had passed, and few dared continue their struggle for acceptance.

At the core of opposition to photography as art is the assumption that all photographs have but one purpose: to illustrate something already in existence in a way that most closely resembles how a random person would have seen it. Certainly that is one use for photography but it is not the only use. Photography can be a means for creative expression capable of illustrating much deeper concepts than “this is what I saw.” It can be used for the creation of art and ulterior meaning with the same power and nuance as any other means of making and fixing images onto paper (or screen). The purpose of illustration is to say: “Here’s what you would have seen had you been there.” The purpose of art is to say: “Here’s what you would not have seen had I not shown it to you, even if you were standing next to me.” In the former, the photographer is but a passive bystander, a mere operator of machinery; in the latter, the photographer is an integral part of an image and its reason for being.

I no longer consider myself a nature photographer or a landscape photographer. I do not photograph nature or the landscape; I use their visual elements to create images of my own making.

While the proposition of turning your life around on a hunch may understandably be daunting or unrealistic, there is a simple shift you can apply in your work right now, at no practical risk to your livelihood: stop shooting and start creating.

Interplay

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Photography as Art, Published Work, 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 (12)

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  1. Rhoda says:

    Beautiful, Guy… someday I hope to have the courage to leave my day job too. But until then, I dream and I practice the art of photography and life as it presents itself.

  2. Tim Parkin says:

    This quote is one of the best about photography I’ve seen in a while

    The purpose of illustration is to say: “Here’s what you would have seen had you been there.” The purpose of art is to say: “Here’s what you would not have seen had I not shown it to you, even if you were standing next to me

    Tim

  3. NorineP says:

    I have felt some niggling dissatisfaction with my photography for some time and now I know why. It’s all in your post. I have told myself repeatedly that I want to create art, not just take a photo; but I still plod along in my rut. After reading this post, I feel that I finally need to take a long hard look at what I’m doing. I need to open my eyes and….create! Thank you for this post.

  4. Brad Mangas says:

    It’s hard to make the first step knowing it is only one of many to come. Courage begets courage, very few will have it in sufficient supply to make the steps necessary to pursue their dream, their desires, that is a shame. I think of what the world would be if the majority of humans reached for the stars and developed courage throughout their lifetimes. A much different one than we live in now I am sure. Respect and admiration to those who chose to do so is deserving.

  5. Hi Guy,
    I would like to push it a bit further.

    As you rightly put it “The purpose of illustration is to say: “Here’s what you would have seen had you been there.” The purpose of art is to say: “Here’s what you would not have seen had I not shown it to you, even if you were standing next to me.”

    The second part of your statement is perfectly true. But let us consider the “medium” of our art.

    If I’m standing next to you, taking the same picture using the same camera model as yours (shooting in raw), same lens, same exposure values. Going back home, we process our raw image using the same (properly calibrated) monitor model, a PC or mac with similar hardware configuration, Lightroom using same settings to develop the raw, Photoshop to do the final touching up applying the same layers and enhancements. And so on. You got the point.

    Now, would we not end up with having produced the same artefact?

    On the other hand, if Van Gogh and Rembrandt where painting the same scene as above next to each other, using the same brand of canvas and brushes and colours would they come up with the same artefact?

    My guess is that is hardly so. Not because as artists they are any better than you in expressing their inner views. I think that the medium that they use introduces more “analogue” noise that makes it unique and more difficult for other to come up with the same results. Even for themselves would be difficult to repeat exactly the same painting.

    My guess is that with today digitalise workflow, photographers have lost some of that analogue noise introduced by the artist that is so prominent in other art forms.

    Concluding, the second part of your statement could be modifies as follows: “Here’s what you would not have seen had I not shown it to you, even if you were standing next to me BUT WITHOUT A DIGITAL CAMERA.”

    gio

  6. Perfect: “The purpose of art is to say: “Here’s what you would not have seen had I not shown it to you, even if you were standing next to me.” In the former, the photographer is but a passive bystander, a mere operator of machinery; in the latter, the photographer is an integral part of an image and its reason for being.”

    I too struggle with Photography. There are times when it gets hollow as you say and there needs to be something more. I have found that new challenge and it is daunting…

  7. jdb says:

    Mr. Russello misses the point by assuming the viewer/bystander is a photographer. Even if two similarly equipped photographers take the same shot side-by-side, the digital darkroom still allows plenty of latitude for each to uniquely interpret and present an image.

    What we consider some of Ansel Adams’ most famous prints were in fact much later reprints of images which he had done earlier but printed with entirely different brightness, contrast, and dodge/burn. His later prints had more darkness and contrast because they reflected his growing concern for man’s abuse of the wilderness. Analog or digital, we have latitude in our tools and how we choose to use them…

  8. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    Giovanni, I didn’t say that two photographers may not produce the same image. In fact, it happens far too often. What I meant was that if the image is indeed a product of the unique psyche and skill of a given photographer then only one of them would have seen/visualized it first. The other would not have seen it if it was not shown to them.

    Whether they both capture it is a different matter.

    Guy

  9. Carl says:

    Ok, so personally this article comes off a little elitist. Now the second thought, I guess I would believe what you are saying if I thought the photographs showed this transformation you are talking about in your article, however to me they do not. I know the natural world is what you are drawn to and that is great but I believe true transformation comes thru into your whole life, not just one section of it which due the singularity of your work to me is very one sided. Ted Orlando put it best, “if you live an interesting life you’ll make interesting art.”. There are plenty of photographers thru out history who have been drawn to the natural world and not just photographed it, in the sense of standing in front of a river or mountain but brought it into their lives and made art from a different perspective just as profound as any of Ansel’s work. The best example that comes to mind is the work of Paul Caponigro his work to is the epitome of true artist, while the natural world was his underlying theme he incorporated a variety of other photographs and portfolios that spoke just as much to me about the natural world but more importantly our interconnectedness with the natural world. For we as humans are just as natural as a tree or river and with majority of landscape photography today it seems to separate that way too much. Solitude is wonderful and a necessity but must be balanced with an understanding of our place in association with the natural world. All amazing phenomena in life require diversity love, spirituality, happiness etc. So one’s art does just as well! This in no way is saying to just go do portraits if your a landscape photographer that is to simplistic of a resolution. You just need to keep yourself aware to the world and open for true inspiration and realization, and hope you have a camera with you. And even if you don’t just enjoy the mental imagery that will stay with you!

  10. Mark says:

    I know that nibble guy, and the feeling of restlessness and frustration. Whether your recommendation for addressing it will help quiet it, or one I develop for myself someday will, I am not quite sure. One has to wonder if the path to quiet such discontent can be as unique as the resultant destination.

  11. Thank you Guy,

    A wonderful and insightful read. I think I need to come back and re-read this again.

    Steve