Course Corrections

| January 28, 2013

AscentIn my earlier post recounting some thoughts about the year that was, I mentioned realizing that my thoughts on photography and art required a few course corrections last year. This is certainly not the first time and I thought it might be helpful to further elaborate on some of the ones that made a significant difference in my work.

Recognizing that some of these may be touchy topics, I would like to state that they are personal choices guided by goals I set for my own work. It is not my intent to proclaim them  universal truths, nor to suggest that opposing opinions are any more or less valid in an absolute sense. My intent is to share milestones in the evolution of my own thinking, in the hope that others may find them interesting or even helpful, whether they agree with me or not.

One reason 2012 was a pivotal year for me is that, after decades of holding on to stories and notions I was not quite prepared to share, I finally decided to “go there.” I stood on stages and delivered presentations revealing aspects of myself I never have before. To my surprise, the response was both favorable and cathartic. Prompted by a suggestion from a former magazine editor, I also began working on a book around the same themes.

Each of the sections below deserves much broader discussion than may be appropriate for a blog post. I hope to do them justice in the book.

I Don’t Want to be Ansel Adams

It was nearly two decades ago when, along with a few would-be friends and colleagues, I participated in early versions of various photography forums. It was a turning point for many of us, having recognized that our photography transitioned from being merely a hobby into a “serious” hobby. We shared an appreciation for the wild, for the beauty of natural scenery, for hiking and exploring. We pretty much all did the same thing back then – incessantly pursuing aesthetically-pleasing renditions of scenes from our outdoor exploits, pursuing sunrises and sunsets, checking off the same scenic locations, occasionally trying to find new views, arches, hoodoos and canyons not yet photographed, mostly for bragging rights.

We each wanted to be the “Ansel Adams of color” despite having little knowledge of Adams’ actual methods or philosophy and not quite realizing how nonsensical the very expression is. All we knew was that he was a successful photographer and, at the time, that seemed as high a goal as any to aspire to. Years of study resulted in a deeper understanding of Adams and many others, and the recognition that there was much more to photography than being “like Ansel Adams,” or anyone else for that matters. Ansel Adams was like Ansel Adams, and that’s enough.

It is interesting and inspiring to me today to see the different directions taken by some of the friends I made in those days, and how some of us found our own voices in our work. The fact that, to this day, we remain friends and are as passionate as we ever were, and continue along a journey of discovery and evolution of our individual paths – in life, in photography and in art – is a testament to the power of the medium to enrich lives and to serve as an inexhaustible source of inspiration and discovery. Without these, I surely would not be an artist today.

I don’t want to be Ansel Adams. I want to be me. I’m glad to be me. This wasn’t always the case.

Rainbow PatinaEmbracing Intimacy

There’s no denying the sheer power of the grand landscape, and the immense temptation it presents to a photographer. Just be there at the right time, with the right lens, and let the scenery do the singing. And who can remain oblivious to a heaping dose of sheer majestic magnificence?

To me, though, grand landscapes always presented a dilemma: how do I make my own voice heard? I’m an introvert by nature. I favor quiet solitude over social interaction. I find more joy and insight in quiet conversations than in parties. Despite my great love and reverence for wild beauty, I found that telling my stories in such images was like trying to recite a poem in the midst of a Rock concert. No matter what I wanted to say, the response was always: wow, this is beautiful! And the more nuanced story? What story? Was there a story?

Yes, there are exceptions. Still, few photographers I know truly immerse themselves in the experience when photographing grand landscapes. You can see it in their work. For too many, though, such bombastic compositions are easy means of impressing without taking the time to develop deeper relationships with the places they photograph.

Discovering Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes was a revelation to me. Here were images both quiet and powerful, containing subtle beauty and nuanced personal narrative. Not a “wow, look at this!” but a “hey, let me tell you a secret…”

I still very much enjoy grand landscape images done well. But, I no longer feel compelled to pursue them myself. I don’t need to. Others do a much better job at it. Realizing that I can tell my own stories in a way more consistent with my own temperament was immensely liberating. So what if there are great clouds over the mountain? I’m much more interested in this pattern in the rock, that fascinating arrangement of lines, the dazzling colors in a canyon pool, or the ephemeral warm glow among the trees. I’m just that kind of person.

Photographing the Experience

Few things will stop a photographer in their tracks as simply asking them why they photograph. For too long, I reached for the easy answers: because I enjoy it, because I want to share the beauty, because it’s my job. I always knew it was hogwash, but I did not have better answers. Not ones I wanted to share, anyway. How can I compress into a quick retort my life’s journey, my painful inadequacies, the torment I escape by coming into the wild?

I photograph because it’s the one visual medium I was ever any good at, and because I need to. I touched on this in a previous post. I photograph because I would be in a deep dark place if I didn’t; and I share it with the world because I find that my experience is enhanced and in some way validated by doing so.

In truth, photography is a very small part of “it.” It’s the greater experience of communing with the wild, of feeling like I belong in the grand scheme of existence and wanting to understand it better through deliberate explorations. Being socially awkward, it’s my way of being social.

It’s not about photography. It’s not about telling the world where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. It’s about the things that make my life worth living. I no longer go out in search of images; I go out looking for meaningful experiences to inspire me, and I photograph them as I find them, or, as they find me.

Reaching Across TimeUnderstanding Art

For many years, I referred to myself as an artist. A lot of people I knew did. It didn’t mean much. We were artists because that’s what you call someone who produces beautiful things and wants add a little prestige to their work.

I took some art classes in the past. I forgot most of it by the time I became a “serious” photographer, though. As my interest in photography grew, I began to read and study. My first encounters were with the hero-genre of outdoor photographers – people who photographed to document their passion for extreme outdoor sports, or for remote destinations or other feats bordering on the superhuman. These are people whose lives I envied. To this day they are among my most admired role models.

But, I realized that my own photography is rooted in something different. Reading Ansel Adams led me to Edward Weston and to Minor White and to Alfred Stieglitz and others. I found a deeper understanding of landscape photography – photography motivated by things other than impressive outdoor feats or sublime natural phenomena. I became fascinated with photography practiced as an expressive medium, inextricably linked with the artist’s emotional core, interpreting their world and evolving their understanding of it by engaging in creative work.

It was hard to admit, but at that point I felt that much of my own photography until then did not live up to such lofty goals, let alone worthy of being called art. With this renewed understanding of art, the word itself became something to be revered, to be earned and aspired to, and not to be used in vain. I felt a deep desire to live and work more deliberately, to tell my own stories in my work.

I did not stop with the writings of photographers. I began reading about painters and musicians, art critique, art history, and the science of visual perception. And all of a sudden “art” was so much more than just a marketing buzzword and more than just a touch of prestige – it became a means of engaging with life itself.

During that period I discarded large volumes of images; thousands, all told. It was a painful gut-wrenching realization, to a point where I felt that I needed to start over from scratch and create more meaningful work. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. It not only made me a better artist; it made me a better person.

Sell Your Work, Not Your Soul

This is a hard topic to broach. Being “in the business” opened my eyes not only to the many benefits of living a creative life but also to the the fact that for many, it really is just a business. In my years of practicing my work I have seen more hypocrisy, narcissism, and acrimony than I would have expected for a profession rooted in beauty. Between ego, competition and the almighty dollar, I have seen otherwise good and caring people become angry, dishonest and mean-spirited. In truth, without noticing it, I was close to being consumed by such forces myself when the warning signs hit me like a ton of bricks. I did not want to become that person. Becoming an artist was a profound life decision for me, and I was not willing to let it become just another job.

I admit, there are aspects of the business that do not appeal to me. Among other things, I do not believe in limiting print editions; I do not want to profit from copying other people’s work and don’t like it when others copy mine; I do not believe that there is real value in competitions and awards. It used to anger me until I realized the wisdom of not wasting my time worrying about what other people do. If it does not fit my own values, I will not do it. Even if it costs me business.

Beyond Aesthetics

One thing I find especially difficult to teach, especially to budding photographers is that “just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s art.” In fact, the dominant paradigm today makes beauty a kiss of death for anyone wishing to make it in the “art world,” though that attitude, in my opinion, goes too far.

Still, the more important point is that in order for an image to make a lasting and meaningful impression, beauty is not enough. Important, certainly, but not enough. There has to be more. Minor White famously suggested photographing things “not for what they are, but for what else they are.” There has to be an “else.”

The “else” is not inherent in the subject, no matter what it is or how aesthetically pleasing it is all by itself. The “else” comes from the artist. The more meaningful the “else,” the more of the artist is in the work, the greater the investment they put into their choices, and the more they put their own soul on the line.

Beyond aesthetics is the relationship the artist has with their subjects, the degree to which they are willing to share bits of themselves, the sensibilities, thoughts and beliefs that make them who they are. Don’t stop at aesthetics. More importantly, don’t favor aesthetics over substance.

Guardians

 

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Category: All Posts, Featured, 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.

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  1. bits and pieces #27 | January 30, 2013
  1. Eric says:

    Deeply thought provoking and beautifully written as ever. I’m looking forward to the book.

  2. Aleks Miesak says:

    You nailed it with this one, Guy. And there is absolutely nothing in here you should feel obligated to apologize for. Do what makes YOU happy :)

  3. Mike Houge says:

    Wow,just like Eric said- very thought provoking. I love it when you make me stop in my tracks and force me to look inward. I will keep following to see where this all leads. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Heidi says:

    Very well written. Thank you, you have given me something to think about.

  5. Dan Baumbach says:

    Beautifully expressed and moving as always. I’m waiting for this book. FINALLY!!! Put me down on the list.

  6. LAJ says:

    Eloquently expressed, as always. I like when you draw parallels with with’s going on in other genres of photography, as well as the influences (or not) from art history. Most photographers are just about the f-stop or the bus stop, and much less about the internal journey. This is a book I would read – just wish I could do it today. ;)

  7. Gay Tozer says:

    Involved in many aspects of photography for 40+ years, I find this one of the most thought provoking, interesting and factual writings I have read. It is plain to see you are at a turning point in your photography as your writings suggest. Love your eye and as an added bonus your word. The BEST.

  8. Thank you for the timely words, Guy. As a recovering accountant taking the dive into art/photography, I need such reinforcement to stay true to my own vision rather than elbowing through the crowd at Delicate Arch.

  9. Ben Keys, Jr says:

    WOW! Thanks for putting in print what I’ve really felt about photography without the words to express it. I can’t wait to talk shop with you. One day-keep up the great work that you were obviously put on this earth to do!

  10. Izabela Matej says:

    Deep. Thank you.Inspiring. The something else is what is missing from many pictures presented by many photographers these days. Anyone can click…not everyone can add the something else…

  11. Thanks Guy, I appreciate your honesty and openness in sharing personal thoughts.

  12. Vasu S says:

    Thanks for Sharing, Guy! Very thought provoking and beautifully expressed.

  13. Kim Barton says:

    Ahhh….so well expressed, and I so agree! I’m glad I was part of the audience that heard your story this year. It’s very powerful, and I think we all appreciate the insight into what makes you tick.

  14. Greg Russell says:

    Guy, this is a very interesting post. First, it is probably some of the most personal and direct writing I’ve read from you regarding why you are in photography. Second, you have done what I cannot seem to, and that’s to put those reasons into words effectively. I have known for some time that I must go beyond making “pretty pictures” and my eye gravitates toward a particular style, but finding those words is challenging.

    Only through ruthless editing of imagery and words will I arrive there, though, and your post sparks some inspiration. Thanks for that.

  15. Kent Mearig says:

    Guy – I’ve kept track of your writings and let your thoughts influence mine for quite some time. It’s interesting that you’ve “forced” me to come to some similar conclusions about photography, but we’ve chosen to move in different directions from those conclusions. I find myself tending to agree that “art” is necessarily more about the artist than the physical subject of that art, but I don’t want my photography to be primarily about me. I want to be an extension of the lens.

  16. Jamey Pyles says:

    Great post Guy..

    I keep finding myself realizing things like this. The section about artist really reaches me at this time… I keep feeling like I wish I could just start over with new goals, more meaningful images.

    Cheers to a new year, may the deserts inspire you further and further.

  17. Boyan says:

    You will never say that yourself, so let me say it for you – photographing intimate landscapes is much more difficult than the grand ones. In its common form the grand landscape is quite suitable for a formulaic approach. Slap on as wide a lens as you have, find a couple of rocks in the background, a stream or a cascade in the middle ground, and a peak in the background, wait for a colorful sunset and shoot away. In contrast, the intimate landscape requires that the photographer really see — what is around them, the harmony of shapes and colors, without crutches such as a fiery sunset. It is way more difficult to keep the horizon out of your photos than in them. I know because I tried to do so in 2012 and failed miserably. But I will keep trying.

    P.S. David Ward’s “Into The Light” had a similar effect on me as Elliot Porter had on you.

  18. Sue says:

    Guy, your words are inspiring and thought provoking. I too, love the solitude and exploring which comes with capturing those intimate landscapes. I shall look up the Eliot Porter book now, thanks for sharing! Cheers Sue

  19. An excellent post Guy that has resonance for me, many thanks for writing and sharing it.

  20. I will simply say, your article is encouraging. Thank you for putting these words, Guy.

  21. chris says:

    Very difficult subject thats very well put. Would love to have a book of your writings and images someday, although i really enjoyed your ebooks subjects like this and as well written as this need to be read properly from a page (imo). Thanks.

  22. Well said, Guy. This is where I find myself heading in both my photography and my writing. Inspiration comes when I am feeling something, not when I am going somewhere, and not always when or where I expect it. Live and yearn, and you will create: that’s my new motto.

  23. Guy, one of your best musings. You certainly accomplished your intention with this article by revealing and exposing much of your own personal journey, while at the same time cause me, the reader, to think about my own work. Very thought provoking Guy, thank you.

  24. An absolutely beautiful and moving piece, Guy. Please put me on the book list!

  25. A very touching and revealing piece Guy. I’m sure it will cause most who read it to question, or re-question, their motivation and intention. Many of us probably share a somewhat similiar course of revelation, doubt, and growth, but it’s nice to discover someone as talented as yourself has traveled some of the same paths. Excellent read.

  26. Daniel Ruf says:

    A conversation that I know I’ve been wanting to be a part of yet couldn’t find the right words. Beautifully written and thank you for sharing.

  27. Bill Rau says:

    I, too, became attracted to the intimate, the designs and graphic qualities. First it was parts of old barns and buildings, then the details within the landscapes of the southwest US. As I photographed these details, I was also moved by the context within which they fit–and it seemed that viewers of my images wanted (or needed) the context. A single image might show both, but often not. Yet, often we are confined to presenting just a single image, whether it is at a camera club competition or a small exhibit. I appreciate, Guy, your conclusion that you have to do what feels like you, your essence. Thanks for a stimulating article.

  28. Frank Field says:

    Guy — In an era of too much hype, too little thought and even less introspection, your post is so refreshing. Thank you for your candor and courage. Courage both to “clean out” a large number of your images and to push on guided by your own north star. I join with the prior comments in looking forward to the result of your book project. Very best for 2013! Frank

  29. Guy, your writings and photography are solace to many. I am grateful that you and your work are part of the contemporary photography landscape. Artists and teachers like you make all the difference. You are an inspiration and motivation helping each of us find our own path as you share how you have been finding yours. Thank you.

  30. Jack Johnson says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Guy, and I really look forward to the book…

    Your comment about the dark place touches on my reason for being a photographer, which I, too, have had a very hard time discussing in public. I’ve recently started working on a new website / blog along those lines, and your writing has been a great inspiration to me.

    I’m enjoying the coincidence of your selection of “Reaching Across Time” for this post; it reminds me very much of one of my personal favorites of my own work, “Impermanence”… I’m looking at it hanging above my desk as I write this.
    http://www.jackjohnsonphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/MG_7571-Edit_flat_sig.jpg

    Many thanks for sharing your work with us all, Guy!

    — Jack