Conflicts of Interest

| September 5, 2016

The following article was originally published in On Landscape Magazine.


Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. ~Wallace Stegner, Wilderness Letter

Autumn Storm ArrivesMost of my photographic work is done in places that are relatively close to my home in a rural desert town. In my mind, this is the most beautiful and inspiring landscape that I can hope to live, work and be in. Some are surprised to learn that I do not offer guided tours of the wild lands I work in, and I generally do not respond to queries about specific locations where my images were made.

In the past I also declined to contribute to guide books about the area, and resigned my position with a local business committee that sought to encourage increased tourism in these places. Such decisions are, undeniably, in conflict with economic interests (my own and those of tourism-related businesses in my area) and may seem questionable until one considers that taking the opposite approach would conflict with what to me are more important interests.

At the root of such positions is the fact that I live where I do, and work as I do, not as the result of a calculated business decision, but rather because of two powerful life goals, which are these: my love of being in the wild, and the inner rewards I find in making expressive art. To encourage greater visitation to the places I love, or to encourage fellow photographers to pursue the same subjects as I do, rather than find their own creative expressions, would be in contradiction to both these goals.

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Life, Just BarelyIt is not often acknowledged that photographs depicting natural subjects may be created for reasons other than capturing the pleasing visual characteristics of a particular subject or place. Photography can also be practiced as an expressive art—art meant to communicate subjective thoughts and feelings, rather than objective appearances. Moreover, art can be pursued toward a variety of desired outcomes, the most common of which is producing aesthetic artifacts; but that is not the only reason to practice photography, nor necessarily the most rewarding one. Some photographic artists, me among them, produce art primarily as a means of finding and engaging in personally meaningful experiences, and with the hope of not just showing our audiences where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, but also something of our inner states of mind, as inspired by an intimate and lasting relationship with such places.

The notion of wildness is one most humans today, especially those living in industrialized countries, do not have personal familiarity with. Indeed, many may not ever have the opportunity to experience remote and wild places in solitude, without a hint of other human presence; to hike far into places where there are no trails and where other humans may never have visited; to rely on one’s own skills and faculties in order to navigate the terrain, to tackle obstacles; to provide for one’s own water, nourishment, warmth and shelter; to experience a place without the aid or interruption of machines and gadgets; to be disconnected, physically and emotionally, from the din of cities and mass media. Most humans living today may never experience the peace of perfect silence, or have the opportunity to spend a night gazing into an immense star-studded sky free of artificial light pollution.

In my mind the loss of such experiences amounts to a silent tragedy, because those who have lost such things often do not know that they lost them, or how deeply moving and rewarding they can be, to a point of affecting one’s course of life and factoring into their most difficult and important decisions. Such experiences are not possible within the bubble of managed and controlled areas and without wildness, even in places otherwise regarded as natural or protected.

What Lies AheadI am often greeted with skepticism and even some disdain when stating that I do not pursue my photography with the intent of promoting conservation of such places. This is not because I do not want these places preserved, but because I am at odds with what I know the effects of such efforts to be. Even if successful, they most often result in loss of wildness: preserved lands managed for visitation and recreation, and having to compete for “value” with industry. Rarely acknowledged is the fact that the value of industry and the value of wildness are not the same thing, not measurable in the same currency, and not interchangeable. My refusal to make public those places I love is exactly because I care about them deeply.

Regardless of any formal designation, many such places are not—and cannot be—protected due to their remoteness; and those that are protected, are often only protected as mere appearances, rather than as places where one may find wildness. Conservation efforts may “protect” such places in the sense that they appear to the eye as they would if left untrammeled, but often at the loss of other dimensions of experience: silence, solitude, remoteness, difficulty of access, risk, mystery and discovery.

Political correctness aside, the very presence of humans may alter such places profoundly and irrevocably; and the more they are visited, the less wild they become until they cease to be wild altogether. Simply stated, there are too few such places remaining, and too many of us. To turn such places into tourist attractions is, in my mind, often as destructive to their nature and to the experiences they have to offer a solitary and skilled wanderer, as any other form of human exploitation, and I do not wish to be complicit in hastening their demise.

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Glowing RampartsLike most photographers of natural things, I did not begin my journey with any aspiration for making expressive art. At the time I did not even know what it meant. Rather, I wanted to share the beauty of the things and places I loved. In those days it was inconceivable to me that anyone might be moved to go to the effort of tracing my steps in such wild and remote places just because they liked my photographs of them. Those days are now gone.

In recent years I’ve had my wilderness camps invaded multiple times, very often by photographers; and many now consider it almost a sport to sleuth the locations of other people’s photographs, advertise them for profit or bragging rights, and turn them into “must see” checklist items. Casually sacrificed in such decisions are experiences inspired by wildness and discovery, which can be among the most rewarding things that a person will ever feel. Wildness can only be assured by such things as anonymity and difficulty; and discovery is only possible when one does not know in advance what they may find.

As one who has seen such places utterly transformed with popularity, and as one who has learned the immense personal benefits of creativity and self-expression, I can’t emphasize enough how much I believe the copycat mentality to be damaging—to the places, to the original artists whose creative work is turned into common cliché, and to the imitators who may gain a trophy image but deny themselves the experiences and rewards of making original and personally meaningful work. And for what? For a few attaboys?

To anyone who wishes to elevate their experience of photography beyond simply seeking pretty places and checking known compositions off a list, my advice is this: find places and subjects that are personally meaningful to you, and immerse yourself in getting to know them—and yourself through them. Express your own thoughts and feelings about your own subjects. Do not encumber your art with the petty expectations of others, and do not sacrifice those things that are sacred to you in the name of lesser motives, no matter how popular or profitable. Examine your convictions and your work and, should they conflict with each other, find a way to reconcile them. The peace of mind you will gain will far outweigh the regret of failing to live up to your own sense of what is truly important. Do not compartmentalize any part of your life, be it work or photography or ethics, as separate from others. Find a consistent philosophy by which to conduct yourself as a person, as a professional, and as an artist.

Francis Bacon wrote, “He that gives good advice, builds with one hand; he that gives good counsel and example, builds with both; but he that gives good admonition and bad example, builds with one hand and pulls down with the other.” And likewise I cannot in good faith care for the sanctity of wild places while also contributing to the loss of their wildness. Nor can I acknowledge the importance that creative self-expression holds in my own life—and my gratitude for the complex ways in which my journey was affected by finding a personal kinship with my subjects—and not advise fellow artists to invest time and effort in finding their own.

Liberated by Light

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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 (12)

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  1. Thank you for sharing such personal and ethical insights. You are an inspiration to those of us who apply these shared philosophies to every aspect of our lives in the work we do, whether for income, for self-expression, or to muster awareness of the need for wild, silent land and dark night skies.

  2. Guy,
    You seem to have taken up the mantel left by the incomparable Edward Abbey. Bravo!

    Sam

  3. Jeff Ross says:

    Yes! Wonderfully said.

  4. Paul Beiser says:

    Hi Guy,
    As always your words and insights and photos give me pause to think, reflect, and challenge.

    Thanks so much for enriching my life.
    Pau

  5. Herb says:

    As always, great stuff, Guy-I spent some of my youth on a ranch in Texas, and know firsthand what it is to be in a place with no sign of man; but I was never lonely, just at peace.

  6. Fergal says:

    Hi Guy
    As always an interesting read and quite deep in many ways. I can understand the sentiment and agree with the consequences. I feel though there is a giant paradox in what you say. You find a great location and the world falls in love with it. What are the natural consequences, others will follow and the place is no longer wild. All the worlds most famous natural locations were once wild. Now they have a McDonalds 500 metres down the road. Your message appears to be go find your own location and don’t bother mine because you’ll wreck it.
    The very showing of the location by you is what puts the location eventually at risk. Should you stop photographing these locations – no I don’t think so. Should we stop others getting there – no I don’t think so. People who live in these locations can often be poor. They can’t eat the scenery. They need tourism to survive. It’s a very delicate balance between preserving and utilising a piece of national heritage . Travel used to be the preserve of the wealthy elite. Now the great unwashed can afford to travel. This creates big environmental problems. Is it right to keep such experiences to a privileged few in order to preserve it.
    Personally I think the world is owned by everyone. I’d support the right of anyone to go into any wilderness if they so wished. I find it only natural for people to want to see what you see (your photography is too good). Will it cause the wreck of it – yes that’s a grave danger. Once you open Pandora’s box (which your photos do) it’s very hard to close it again no matter how high minded your principles are.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, Fergal! This is not a theoretical threat for me, I know of at least a couple places that have been destroyed when people found them because of my images and information I provided. If you review my work of the past few years you’ll see that the majority of it is deliberately composed so as not to reveal any qualities of the location that would make it easily identifiable (or at all). The few exceptions I make is when it comes to places that are already well known, although these make a very small portion of my work.
      I am not advocating preventing anyone from accessing these places, nor do I consider them “mine” in any possessive sense. I simply refuse to name them. I may not prevent their ultimate discovery and inevitable change, but I can avoid being a contributing factor to it. Moreover, I think that the photographer who is more concerned about copying other people’s work is ultimately only cheating him/her self out of a much greater, more personal and more meaningful accomplishment.

      • Fergal says:

        Thanks for the reply Guy. What I really admire about you is your sincerity. I think you are correct on the copying. I think most of us start out like that. To perfect technique sometimes you try to emulate masters like yourself . Over time you learn to find your own view and you look for something different from the standard view. Creatives often run out of steam but there’s no sign of you letting up. You continue to make beautiful images and your writing is excellent.

  7. Guy,
    I read this article today about one month after buying More Than A Rock and have since come to fully identify with what you have written about being a Patron Of The Arts. As a new photography hobbyist in my retirement your book inspired me to think more widely about what my photographs were “about” rather than what they were “of”, to seek to capture experiences and their essence, even to visit art galleries which I have rarely done in my 70 years. Walking around the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in The Prado last week was a privilege and a memory that will stay with me for ever, and I hope that in my own small way, buying books such as yours, visiting the Louvre, Prado, Museo Ralli, The Slav Epic, Groeninge ……. I have become a Patron too. I still don’t understand how the camera works though!

  8. Frank B. says:

    Hi Guy,
    I read your article with great interest. It remaindered me a little of my cadre of friends back in the 70’s and 80’s when we were in college and post college. We would quite often hit the road on weekends and travel from Salt Lake City to the deserts of Southern Utah to roam and explore. We all had cameras and some were even very good photographers and managed to sell some photos. We had our “secret” places that we loved and would not tell anyone about least they may encroach on our private special place. Of course as you can probably guess that did not last. Our “secret” areas got discovered as the places became more popular. One friendship even became greatly strained when one friend took some of his other friends to a spot that another friend had shown us in confidence. Those were the high minded days and despite out best efforts the places were discovered and more and more people came to ruin them. I am retired now and in a couple of years will move back to Utah and again take up roaming and exploring the deserts and mountains of the west and want to apologize to you in advance should our paths cross and I encroach on your “secret” spots. I’m not out looking to tick off hero photos or go looking for you locations (I do admit I admire your photos) but only to enjoy the solitude, beauty and public land the western USA has to offer and it nature sees fit to serve up a nice photo opportunity, my camera will be ready.

  9. A great piece of writing, ethics and as always your images idiosyncratic.