The Image and the Experience

| March 30, 2013

My first “nature photography” experience occurred nearly thirty years ago, when for reasons I can’t even remember I borrowed my father’s old Minolta and went to play outside. Not a single image from that roll of film turned out, but the joy of seeking photogenic subjects and fitting them into the finder frame was intoxicating. My memories of that day include colorful beetles, the scent of wildflowers, warm sunshine on my face, watching a tortoise slowly chewing fragrant clover leaves, stalking large swallowtail and monarch butterflies, the diffraction of late afternoon sunlight through wild thistle heads, and the occasional pause, setting down the camera and just soaking in the experience of being in a quiet place, away from the din of the human hive, with all my senses on high alert and savoring the magnificence of a perfect spring day.

As my interest grew, I also became an obsessive reader and collector of photography books, the coffee-table variety, as well as the stories and biographies of notable photographers; and, to a lesser extent, technical references, as long as they were accompanied by noteworthy images. There always seemed to me to be an interesting schism in the way that photographers described their images in these books. Some opted for the dry technical data – camera, lens, exposure. Others described something of the location and technique used. But those that fascinated me most were the ones describing moving and emotional experiences associated with the work, a love for a subject or place, a reverence for natural beauty, the awe in the face of serendipitous circumstances, the merging of a passion for the wild and rare revelations with the expressive abilities of the photographic medium.

“I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I’m there get into states of mind where I’m more open than usual. I’m waiting, I’m listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me… Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass – sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out.” –Minor White

Those were the experiences I sought and which made photography so fascinating to me. The descriptions were visceral. Since my earliest childhood, I spent much of my time alone in fields  and could easily transport myself into these experiences, adding in my mind all the missing dimensions of being there: what it smelled like, what sounds were in the air, what the temperature was like, the quickening beating of my heart when encountering a rare sight. Still images animated themselves in my imagination and I could feel what it was like being the person behind the camera taking it all in with great gratitude.

I can distinctly set aside a period in my life lasting more than a decade in which my own images failed to live up to such experiences. I was in pursuit of the “keeper” often in a rush, on a short break from a corporate career. My images failed to capture such emotional depth because, I can admit now, I did not actually experience it. I would leave home early, rush to beat the sunrise, spend the remainder of the day rapt in an incessant and at times frustrating pursuit for something – anything – that may yield an appealing photograph before rushing back. In my mind then, the only difference between what I was doing and those wonderful experiences described by other photographers was merely in the time I had to dedicate to it. I went to the same places, used the same equipment, went through the same moves and came back with good images. But it did not feel like the real thing, because it was not.

When I finally decided to leave the urban corporate world to pursue a life of creative writing and photography, I looked forward to finding those deep and moving experiences I remembered from my own childhood and from the accounts of naturalists and adventurers I read in books. For a while, though, I was still unable to accomplish them. There was a period of transition. I still worked in the same rushed mode, favoring images over experiences. But, slowly, things began to change. I found myself daydreaming again, leaning against rocks and tree trunks taking deep breaths and smiling for no apparent reason, savoring smells and warmth and the dance of light on water. Slowly, I began to trust that images will present themselves in time without me seeking them out, and that my being there was more important than anything I may record. Gradually, the barriers came down, the rush gave way to quiet contemplation; the beauty and magic that seemed like manufactured tales in other times became real and visceral again as I remembered them from my youth. Being in these places that inspire me stopped being about sunrises or sunsets or “secret” spots and became about living and feeling and being the protagonist of a story that captivates me as much as any work of fiction.

Where for years I took very seriously the how of making images, with time and peace to savor and interpret and study and be fascinated, the why became a far a more serious and rewarding aspect of what I do. The poetic and emotional descriptions of images that once captured my imagination are no longer flowery platitudes; they are real and every bit as beautiful as I always hoped them to be.

I am currently in the midst of writing a new book, tentatively titled A Life of Quiet Inspiration (a play on Thoreau’s assertion that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”). In it, I have a placeholder for a would-be chapter titled “Should You Quit Your Job?” It is a topic that caused me much hesitation. In the past I answered such questions with a politically correct dismissal, saying that I could not answer it for anyone but myself. Indeed, I still believe I can’t, but in the book I will offer insight into the thoughts and meditations that led me to quit mine, and the rewards that followed.

 

Lakeside Aspens

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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 (7)

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  1. Jack Larson says:

    Over and over again, I return to the same places of natural beauty that have touched me deeply. The more often I return, the less concerned I am with getting the photograph. It is the experience of being there that matters most. If there is no compelling photograph to be made, that is just fine. (As is the case with you, I am fortunate to live in a place that is surrounded with great natural beauty.)

  2. Eric Fagans says:

    Guy,
    For a time I’ve just enjoyed your images, but lately I’ve been reading your blog and have found it a great source of inspiration. Photography for me is a great joy in retirement. While I seek to create better and better images, I even more seek to allow myself to be emotionally moved by world I see around me and to be able to respond to those times and places that seem to cry out to be photographed. I look forward to your “A Life of Quiet Inspiration.”
    Grace and peace,
    Eric Fagans

  3. Richard Wong says:

    Cool image Guy. That looks like a UFO!

  4. Peter Cabrera says:

    Great post Guy. You actually reminded me of my first interests in photography which were right around the same time as yours.
    You should definitely write the chapter on the job. It will be a big hit.
    Regards,
    Peter

  5. Ed Korpela says:

    Hi,

    I just want to say – when I first saw the images on your website a few years ago I thought – pretty but where is the soul? where is the depth? Too many stero-typical images.

    Your galleries now show that you have clearly taken your photography to a new level. While I am not an accomplished photographer I do have over 30 years in natural resources research and management from grasslands to North American “rainforest” and I can see it. I hope to meld my knowledge with my camera as I move forward. Congrats to you!

    -Ed-

  6. Your story and your journey of growth is really inspiring. Your writing really helps us, forces us to analyze our own path and journey. My travels with my camera effortlessly changed me but when I get back to the corporate world to start working again I often sense that I loose myself , my true self. I am glad that through your writings I am able to look forward to my next outing and gather myself back again…

  7. Greg Russell says:

    I can say, for me, “keepers” don’t come if I force them. They tend to come to me when I’m at my most relaxed, and–to draw on your previous post–living completely in the moment. It’s not about rushing to the viewpoint because there *might* be a spectacular sunset. Yes, the image may be stunning, but if there’s no emotion behind it, it’s missing something major.

    Should I quit my job? Probably. Is it in my best interest right now. Not really. Someday. :)