Aboutness

| May 27, 2013

I struggle to make meaningful images while traveling, especially in places that are new to me and/or where I feel like a casual visitor. In my images I strive to tell stories, and in order for me to be an effective storyteller I need to possess some intimate first-hand knowledge of my subjects – the kind of knowledge that can only come from an ongoing relationship with them. Without such knowledge, the best I can hope for is to produce images that illustrate the external veneer of subjects and places, and that rely on aesthetics or interesting anecdotes rather than deeper insight. Indeed, it likely is fair to say that the vast majority of photography of natural subjects is created in this mode, portraying objective facts from the perspective of an outsider, rather than the subjective personal narrative of one who is an active participant having a role in the unfolding story. To me, this is a very important distinction in defining what I do, and how it is different from other common uses of the photographic medium.

Rather than “Photographer,” I often introduce myself as a “Photographic Artist.” The main reason having little to do with either photography or art, but with the fact that most people have no preconceived notion of what a photographic artist is, and I get to explain. Yes, I use photographic tools, and yes, I approach my work with the mindset of an artist. But, a distinction often missed is how such an approach manifests in the end result: the image. In particular, what makes an image expressive of the mind of the photographer, rather than a trophy for their technical skill or the aesthetic qualities of the subject. In my mind, expressive images are distinct in that they are not pictures of things; they are pictures about things.

Expressive images transcend subject, location, light and technique. These are all important, but secondary to the goal of sharing something of the artist’s own unique mind. As Minor White put it: “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” And that else is never inherent in the subject, it has to come from the creative mind and unique sensibilities of the person behind the camera; it’s what gives an image that elusive quality: aboutness.

Aboutness is what I struggle to express when working in places I am not familiar with; when working from the perspective of an outsider; when in a hurry or burdened by distractions. And yet, without it, it is unlikely that I’ll be satisfied with the result, no matter how beautiful, colorful, detailed or well composed.

After many years of practice, I find that I’ve become more and more specialized and less of a generalist. Indeed, I have become a firm believer in the value of self-imposed limitations. The more demanding I am of myself, the less likely I am to make images, and yet the greater is my satisfaction with the images I do make. Aesthetics alone no longer satisfy.

What may not be obvious is that such strict limitations also serve to liberate and enhance my experience as a person. When no meaningful image can be made, I am free to revel in feats of light and natural beauty for sheer joy, unencumbered by the camera. In the last few years I watched countless breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, spectacular vistas and abundant beauty, without photographing any of them. I learned to enjoy things for what they are, separating the rewards of witnessing beautiful things from the joy of creating beautiful things of my own, so I can enjoy both in different ways. When a meaningful image presents itself, I am ready for it. It takes more effort and discipline, it makes me less prolific, but when all the pieces fall into place it is a feeling like no other.

“Creativity… requires limits, for the creative act rises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” –Rollo May

Inner Sanctum

 

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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. Ansel Adams On What A Mountain Means » Landscape Photography Blogger | June 13, 2013
  1. Guy, what a well written article. It is inspiring to come and read your articles. But this time I am in awe with your image. Such well executed art! Great colors, contrast and light from above, sure looks divine! :-)

  2. Florian says:

    Hello,

    I think that I can follow, understand and maybe similarly experience at least some of the things you describe. However, I would not have made such a strong distinction between photographs that are taken (pictures about something) and those that are not (pictures of something). I see the distinction rather as a continuum.

    So my question would be: Is a picture ABOUT something also a picture OF something or, according to you, these are two completely separate things?

    All the best and thank you for your thoughtful texts and beautiful photographs.

    Florian.

  3. Pam Barnhart says:

    Bravo Guy!!! (Insert standing ovation here…)

  4. Guy:

    You never fully “know” your subject, even one with which you are very familiar, such as your Utah landscape. You are always discovering, and the “photographic artist’s” work reveals more about his/her _discovery_ and process of coming to know a subject than about the subject itself, in my view.

    So, when it comes to new or unfamiliar subjects you are still creating work that reflects your process of coming to know the subject, just at a much earlier stage in the process. I see new subjects very differently than I see more familiar subjects, but while I see them differently I see them no less.

    Dan

  5. Kent Mearig says:

    Guy – I tend to agree with Dan in this case. Where you lack a deeper knowledge of a location or subject, you do not lack an intimate familiarity with yourself. A photo in a new place can still be a story…it may be even more a story of yourself, of what you saw when you were seeing for the first time.

    I would also say that an intimate relationship with something that is behind, and underneath, and inside of the whole of the world can unite all of a photographer’s images as a collective story. It won’t matter whether she/he has seen the subject once or a thousand times, for the past twenty years or just a few minutes. – Kent

    PS – I also agree with Rajeev; the accompanying image is a blessing to behold!

  6. I haven’t had much chance to read blogs lately, but I’m always glad when I can tear away to read one of yours, Guy. Nothing wrong with beauty for beauty’s sake, with or without photographing it. I believe any art career is hollow without a connection to each creation and a meaning behind it that connects to the inner self in some way. However, just making beautiful photographs that are unique and you know will sell as prints because others will love them too is not such a bad reason to photograph either, as long as it’s not your sole purpose. Many creative types get hung up on the “sell as prints” part, as though this is selling out or something terrible. However, it is also one pure and perfect expression of right livelihood: creating images that others will find valuable because they bring enjoyment, not such a bad way to go.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    Guy, I think you nailed it, for me at least. In a new place, I often feel a sense of frustration because I simply don’t feel like I know it as well as I would like. Meaningful images can be tough to come by when one is feeling this way.

    That said, I do feel like I can connect with a new place quickly, in some cases. Last fall, I was able to spend a few days in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico–a place I hadn’t been to before. I went in, not knowing what to expect, and feeling a little bit of trepidation, knowing my history of frustration with unfamiliar places. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Mexico, but once I got off the plane in Albuquerque, I felt much more at ease, and was able to connect with the state–although I had never been to that particular part of it–somewhat quickly.