The Grateful Mind

| April 2, 2013

This essay originally appeared in Landscape Photography Magazine.


Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps the most prolific of Western philosophers on the topic of art. In his mind, art is a means of coping with the chaos, tragedy and imperfection that are the true nature of reality and, as such, makes life itself not only tolerable, but also meaningful and noble. Beyond random observations on art and its role, Nietzsche also sought to understand the minds of artists. Among his many profound and pithy observations, he offered that “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”

Gratitude is what allows us to venture beyond the mechanical act of creating images, making the very experience of engaging in the creative process rewarding in its own right, and independent of any outcome. It is a distinction often lost on those yet to have their first taste of it.

When we are thankful for simply being, experiencing, appreciating and enjoying what we do, something magical happens. Not only do we value the experience more, but our images also carry some of it in them. If all photographs have the power to capture the appearance of a moment in time, photographs created from gratitude can venture beyond mere appearances and encapsulate in them the essence of the photographer’s thoughts and feelings.

It takes little more than time and money to produce images of spectacular beauty and technical perfection. Yet, after nearly two decades of creating and viewing landscape photography on a daily basis, I find that I am no longer impressed or moved by yet more takes on the same subjects, not even ones adorned in perfect golden light or sprinkled with rainbows, star trails or the Milky Way, yet lacking in any personal narrative. All too often such images strike me as showcasing skill, technique and tools, rather than relating to the personal experience of a fellow human with an expressive mind and a sensitive heart. These days, I seek the quiet, soulful, intimate imagery that speaks to the mindset and sensibilities of an artist in love and in harmony with their subjects, rather than their tools.

It starts in the simple admission that, on the whole, none of us matters to any great degree; that our work merely serves to elevate our own life, and the lives of those we are able to touch; and will some day be forgotten. Rather than the preoccupation with the greatness of our skills, our technology, and our ability to control our environment; it is worth sometimes to remember that we are but tiny blips in the astoundingly complex and beautiful tapestry of nature, and that the greatest goal we can set for ourselves is to use our painfully short lives in the best possible way.

In our desire to comply, to fit in, to follow fashions, and to keep up with our peers, it is important not to lose the most important things of all: to live meaningfully, to find joy and contentment not just in what we have, but in who we are; to create not for our own glory but so we can grow and learn, and help others do the same.

Humility is the fertile soil for a grateful mind; and a grateful mind, beyond any tool or technique you may own or master, is the engine of creativity and emotion that manifest in meaningful art.

Distant Monuments

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an 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. John P says:


    This post really resonated with me, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s that soulful connection that I find increasingly important in my work as I’m progressing along this journey. I find that I’ve used the work “connection” when talking about some of my images. I ususally have a more satisfying experience and produce better work when I have that “connection” with my surroundings and subject. I think you hit it for me when you talk about gratitude; for being on location, for witnessing beauty, etc…. I think it’s the gratitude and humbleness that brings me a stronger connection to the world around me. I’ve just never found the words to express it before and I think you now have opened up a door a little bit. Thank you!!!

  2. What a wonderful way to start my day. You have a poet’s skills Guy. You have a wonderful ability to communicate the essence of your story be it told via image or words. Humility is indeed the fertile soil of the grateful mind. Personally the experience of being a father has taught me to be a lot less self centred in life and hopefully to appreciate as you say in the article “to create not for our own glory but so we can grow and learn, and help others do the same”. With self-centeredness comes a need for control. I believe an artist in love and in harmony with their subject/environment creates with the energy of response rather than that of control. Too much planning and control in one’s art inevitably puts focus on the finished product as already envisioned in the artist’s mind and hampers the ability to respond to the incredible moments that are a part of life and which we never see coming.

  3. Ed Rosack says:


    I enjoyed reading this article – thanks for writing it.

    There’s a lot to think about here. Landscape photography as an expression of gratitude for the experience of nature is a worthy goal that we should all aspire to.


  4. Steve Simon says:

    Thank you Guy. Beautifully put as usual. More than twenty years ago I studied and practiced Sufism. My teacher’s teacher had said that “without gratitude there is no spirituality,” which always resonated deeply with me. A few years later I lost faith in all spiritual and religious paths and had to find what had value for me in a world I had previously seen as unimportant compared with the eternity I was seeking. Eventually I realized that I was grateful and since that time gratitude has been enough. Once again, you express what I feel better than I can.

  5. Florian says:

    your piece also touches me; especially the section about the “admission that on the whole none of us matters to any great degree.” Although this is a simple truth, it may be frightening and difficult to accept or even realize. These thoughts make me think of a song in german that probably none of the readers here know. In one of his songs, the Austrian songwriter Rainhard Fendrich sings about “a tiny drop of time that evaporates in the endlessness”. Reading your lines brings these lyrics to my mind, together with a calm and even relaxing mental image.

  6. Florian I like that so much… “a tiny drop of time that evaporates in the endlessness”. Need to save that! … But Guy thank you for once again writing a very insightful piece. In life too gratitude makes so much of the hurdles we come across easier to tackle and it gives us a positive perspective. And I think from my experience you attract much more positive experiences when you are grateful. Thanks again….

  7. Beautifully written! Irrespective of the final outcome, I have always felt the difference between the experience of taking pictures while being happy and grateful is far more enjoyable than doing it mechanically. So yes, each of your words resonates with me… thank you for putting it across so simply and effectively.

  8. Dan Baumbach says:

    I don’t envy any photographers, but I envy greatly your ability to write so beautifully. So well said!

  9. This whole post is a great read, but the fourth paragraph puts into words better than I could my own thoughts on which photography I respect or do not respect.

  10. Greg Lessard says:

    Well written Guy! Personally, I find it easy to get sucked into the technical self glorification of photography. Yet, all of my most satisfying moments have always come in the moment, in the field. I have often felt humbled to witness the glory of our world. For me it leads to self reflection and prayers of gratitude. These moments of gratitude often lead to inspired photography, but sometimes the photography is secondary. Either way it is great to be alive!

    Guy, do you sometimes find the business of photography as an impediment to these moments of gratitude? I find that the pressures of selling images and leading workshops and tours can be a distraction. Yet, these things often lead to more opportunities for moments of gratitude. I am sure like everything else, there is a balance.

    Thank you again for eloquently communicating some of the deeper aspects of our arts and humanity.