Balancing Breadth and Depth

| February 15, 2013

A strange thing happened recently when the social media site LinkedIn introduced its new skill endorsement function. Among other skills, some well-meaning connections endorsed me for Travel Photography – a skill I have often claimed not to have, for reasons I explain here.

As I mentioned to editor Brooks Jensen in a recent interview for LensWork Magazine, my work requires an intimate familiarity with my subject matter – the kind of familiarity that can only be accomplished over prolonged periods of time. By the nature of their work, travel photographers make short visits to a variety of places and portray their momentary impressions, always from the perspective of an outsider. In contrast, I never feel confident in telling the story of a place unless I, myself, am a part of the story.

In other words, the kind of work that most appeals to me favors depth over breadth; first-person narratives over third-person observations; and an intimate insider perspective over impressions of visual veneers.

This is not meant as criticism of either practice, nor to make a value judgment of one approach over the other, but rather to highlight a difference in approach, which I believe also translates into a difference in aesthetics and in the way the resulting work is perceived.

Considered more honestly, it is as much a reflection of our limitations as artists. We have to strike a balance between breadth and depth. We cannot do it all. The choice also offers insight into the artist’s own sensibilities and the way they engage with their subjects. I am not a travel photographer, not because I have any aversion to travel or to interesting images of foreign places, but because I am limited in my abilities to do it all well.

Much as I would love to see exotic and scenic places, and witness various cultures and practices, I cannot photograph them with the same sense of familiarity and reverence as I do the American deserts. For more than a decade I’ve made repeated trips to these places only to realize that to photograph them as I want, I need to do more than visit. I have to live here. I have to become part of their story, as much as they are a part of mine. I found that by limiting my impressions to just the visual qualities of a place, I also limited the depth of meaning I could express in my work.

Considered from the other direction, I am grateful that other creative artists strike a different balance than mine. They tell me stories I likely will never arrive at on my own. Through their eyes, I see a world as I could not see it by myself, and I hope to repay in kind by sharing some of my observations that they may miss on a random visit.

What better way to appreciate a world both broad and deep than through the eyes of artists? May each of us find our own balance.

Animated Death

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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.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    There is another way of looking at it Guy. You are a photographer of places others travel to, an insider guide to a place they want to visit. If you photograph places so as to inspire other to come see them, you are a travel photographer even if you do it “at home”. I know from your photos that they are of places I’d like to travel to.

  2. ONe way to partially reconcile this issue – and I agree with your observation of the depth and breadth concern – is that it is interesting to see how a person whose perspective comes from an in-depth knowledge of one place “sees” other places in that context. I have a hunch that my long experience seeing the world from the perspective of a Sierra Nevada traveller affects my other work – perhaps how I see “your” Utah terrain. In fact, I’ve been very conscious of how that perspective affects, say, by urban landscape photography.


  3. wei chong says:

    Nice to read your honest views of what you think is most important in your photography. I believe it shows in your work, that you intimately know what you’re photographing. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Your writing makes us think and it is hard to find such writers now a days! Especially when it comes photography related topics. We travel to the places you photograph through your images…. and we hope we do the same for you. Your knowledge of the photograph really inspires me.

  5. It was a great interview. I love to travel and experience new places but I for sure find myself more easily satisfied with images created from a location I’m not familiar with. It’s much more rewarding when you create something new from an often visited location.

  6. Greg Russell says:

    This is something I’ve thought about before as well, not so much in terms of travel photography, but in terms of wildlife vs. landscape photography. The way I’ve always thought of it is that I can be a Jack of all trades (and a master of none), or I can recognize the trade-offs and constraints of being a specialist and focus on one thing. You’ve obviously chosen the latter option.

    As a side note, I think it’s interesting (and appropriate) that you use the word, ‘reverence’ to describe your feelings towards the Plateau. I reference Paul Woodruff’s book, “Reverence: a forgotten virtue,” in this blog post:

    You might find it (the book) an interesting read.