The Phase of No Emotion

| October 22, 2012

Today is different. I’ve been home for a couple of days now after two weeks on the road. There is something about this place that I always love coming back to; something that goes beyond the veneer of the red rocks and the big cottonwoods – a deeper sense – a feeling of home. These last couple of days were among the most beautiful of the year, but I was still in “work mode” and needed to unwind. Today the winds picked up, temperatures dropped a bit, big clouds are moving in, the air is laced with the scent of wood fires, and showers of fallen leaves swirl down from the tall canopies. I realized that “looks like autumn” and “feels like autumn” are very different things. Today feels like autumn.

The same distinction, I find, applies to images. Some images look, while others feel; some images are of, while others are about. It is a quality that defies definition and that cannot be distilled into simple rules or technique. It can be explained but not quite taught, experienced but not spoken, related to but not described. We know it when we see it. It transcends mere aesthetics and interest, adding a distinct personal narrative to the visual elements. The capacity to express such feelings in one’s work seems to me to correlate with a degree of maturity and mindfulness in the artist.

I recently watched a fascinating documentary titled Between the Folds. Among those featured in it is physicist-turned-origami-artist Robert J. Lang who spoke of the significant point in which skill and technique began to take a back seat to expressing emotion in his work. Among other things, the transition also resulted in simplification, favoring essence over difficulty. I can attest to experiencing this effect in my own work, and have heard other artists speak of it, as well. What I found most poignant about Lang’s description, however, is his assertion that every artist invariably goes through a “phase of no emotion,” as they hone their technical skills and before their work becomes truly expressive of the person behind it. I wonder, though, if this is indeed a period all artists go through, rather than a phase that only some artists, if they are sufficiently dedicated, manage to mature out of.

Having just returned from a stretch of photographic workshops in California, in collaboration with my friend Jack Graham, it also occurred to me that in a small way, this also serves to articulate one of the greatest challenges of teaching creative art. It is one thing to talk about emotion, about the need for introspection, about slowing down, about isolating the creative voice from distractions, and seeing beyond simple aesthetics. The irony is that in a workshop setting, it is nearly impossible to actually implement such lessons. On a workshop you are tired and rushed; you are socializing with new people, whom you are not likely to open up to; you are overwhelmed by abundant subject matter and new knowledge. All of these will prevent you from experiencing the quiet reverence that leads to the making of emotionally-rich images. This is not what attending workshops is about. The real test is how much of what you learn you will take back with you, work on by yourself, and implement going forward.

I’m often asked about “one thing” I might suggest to a budding artist. While I don’t know that such simplistic advice can be of any real use, one suggestion I will make is that, if you recognize yourself being in this “phase of no emotion,” make an effort to move past it. This has little to do with how technically proficient you are, any awards you won, or any heroic challenges you overcame to “get the image.” If your work is ultimately devoid of emotion, consider taking a break and looking inwards. Ask yourself what it is you wish to accomplish. All too often photographers look to technical solutions (gear, travel, software, etc.) for creative problems. The answer is not there. The answer is emotion.

The Passing of Autumn

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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 (13)

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  1. As other masters before you, though perhaps even more eloquently, you point out a very important element that much landscape photography today is missing. Ansel Adams wrote in a letter to my dad and in a Sierra Club Bulletin one time that he was interested in capturing the inner event as he responded to nature, rather than the mere external landscape. Your reference to Robert J. Lang also hits the nail on the head. Many photographers today seem to get caught up in their own technical proficiency not just with equipment but with composition, use of light, Photoshop processing, and even their gifted ability to gather visually striking imagery, that essentially what they were feeling or other aspects of the spiritual or inner experience in nature has nothing to do with the process.

  2. Dan Baumbach says:

    Lovely essay, Guy. I think what you’re saying is that making art, any art, is an inner experience. We used to talk about guitarists who were technically awesome, but had no soul. We’d call them machines. You can say that about any artist.

  3. Thinking about your advice deeply. The last image is fascinating. Keep sharing the wisdom.


  4. Kent Mearig says:

    There’s no denying that your adjoining photograph is richly beautiful.

  5. Mike Houge says:

    Thank you Guy, you’ve given me more food for thought, as always. Thanks for sharing a wonderful image also.

  6. Very nicely expressed Guy, and very much appreciated too. It indeed gives food for thought. Part of one sentence particularly caught my eye – “The capacity to express such feelings in one’s work…” To me, that’s a two way street. Not only is the capacity to express feelings important to the process, but also the capacity to “perceive” those emotions and feelings by the intended audience. Even with your images, which I always appreciate, there are some images I feel much more attracted to than others, not because you felt more or less emotion when capturing or presenting them, but for whatever reason I didn’t perceive the same amount of emotion on my part when I viewed them. I think that’s inevitable with anyone’s work simply because humans are indeed different animals and see things with a different eye for art and emotion. Regardless, thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts!

  7. I’m asked to teach fairly often. Although I have more than one reason for saying no, one of the biggest ones is what you talk about here – how do you teach someone to move beyond seeing into feeling. The day I can answer this question will be the day I say yes to teaching. Still hoping our schedules will afford a visit in person while you’re here.

  8. Mark says:

    I often feel much less emotional attachment to images where I feel I am already walking where others have before. Those images where I feel I have pushed myself, found a new place, or had a particularly memorable event associated with them, are always among my favorites. Nice essay Guy.

  9. Great words of wisdom. I go through these phases periodically, and it’s a good reminder to look deeper!

  10. Nice essay that speaks to me, so thanks. Your statement “the quiet reverence that leads to the making of emotionally-rich images” caught my eye. I snicker to myself as I have been trying to write about those images that move me but may not be technically perfect. Personally I’m in one of those phases so maybe some time on a quiet retreat is in order. Thanks, again for you writings!

  11. Guy

    As usual your words ring true. Looking deeper into oneself is an often overlooked aspect of life. It seems that today’s society is concerned with the next best thing. Faster, better, more, more, more.

    The emotions are revealed by developing, and then taking action to fully embrace that which one truly feels for. I believe it was Galen Rowell who said the more of his images of the Eastern Sierra were published over his lifetime and any other location. It was his backyard, so access was easy, but more importantly, he truly felt connected to the Eastern Sierra. He loved putting his time, energy, and contemplation into creating there, more than anywhere else.

    I sense that you love the Southwest in the same capacity. I am looking forward to thinking about this while shooting.


  12. Kate says:

    What I know, from my own experience, is that you cant teach someone to feel, they have to want to embrace their art form from a very deep, almost spiritual place, within them. Once you have embraced this heart-felt way of living a whole new world, so to speak, opens up. Instead of seeing nature, beauty, you actually feel it. As youre viewing it with your eyes, youre viewing it with your heart, in a way that you feel connected to it. Trying to balance your heart felt way of living with your many thoughts of day to day responsibilities is a juggling act and quite challenging. Attending School of Philosophy helped to fine-tune living from the heart.

  13. Scott says:

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing this. I think I’ve been in the “no emotion” phase but didn’t realize it until very recently (and wouldn’t have really known what to call until reading this post). I’ve noticed over the last several months that something has been missing from my photography and I think it was the fact that I got caught up in ‘things’ that took me away from the emotional connection with the landscape around me.