Working From Home

| February 15, 2014

It may be true that art should be able to stand on its own, but I find that my appreciation of a given work almost always benefits significantly from knowing something about the artist, why they do what they do and how it relates to their stories and other forces in their life. In an era when millions of  new images are offered each and every day, and original creations often are difficult to discern from covers, such knowledge also helps me find those artists whose work I find most meaningful and inspiring. Over the years I shared some of my own stories with those interested, for this same reason.

By and large, most of my own work is made in the landscape that is now my home – the Colorado Plateau. People who visit my town often are surprised to realize how small and remote it is and wonder how I ended up here. It is, in fact, a long and convoluted story, but I thought it was worth sharing some of its highlights. How I came to live and work here is, in more ways than one, a love story.

In another life I was a soldier. This was not by choice. I grew up in Israel, where military service is mandatory. The experience changed me in ways too numerous to recount, but little did I suspect at the time how one seemingly minor event ultimately will shape my life. One day, as my platoon camped in the Golan Heights not too far from the Syrian border, a delivery truck arrived with letters, care packages and a stack of books. One tattered paperback piqued my curiosity and I borrowed it to help pass what was otherwise a decidedly uninspiring time. During a four-hour shift I read it cover to cover. Later that night I dreamed about it, and the following day I re-read several chapters again. The book was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It recounts Abbey’s time as a ranger in what is today Arches National Park in Utah. Fascinated as I was, it was not a place I ever expected to see in person and soon after, I forgot all about it.

Life took many strange and unexpected turns in the following years, and whether by chance or fate, I found myself one day at a musty used-book store in California. When the proprietor asked me what kind of book I was looking for, the memory of Desert Solitaire suddenly arose and I casually asked her if she had anything by Abbey. She pointed me to a selection of paperbacks and then, as an afterthought, said she may also have something by him in the coffee table book section. There, on a lofty shelf, was an enormous tome titled Desert Images written by Abbey and illustrated with photographs by David Muench, whom I have not heard of at that time. With the aid of a ladder I carefully brought the giant book down, found a place to sit among the cramped labyrinthine aisles and began paging through it. Most images were from Death Valley, but one in particular portrayed a scene that seemed familiar ­– the iconic view of Dead Horse Point, near the town of Moab. The first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, I know this place!” followed instantly by the recognition that I had never seen it before in my life, and yet something in me recognized it. I was curious and found a couple more books specifically about Utah. With every image, the sense of familiarity became stronger. With each page came another déjà vu – places I had never been to and only read about years before. I purchased a couple of the books and spent the evening marveling at the red rock scenes and the sensations they inspired, which I never knew I had in me. A yearning was born. I had to see these places with my own eyes. My wife Sarah and I were just dating at the time and this was to be our first road trip together.

Among the things I packed for the trip was my old Nikon camera, which I had not used for a couple of years. After leaving the Bay Area, Sarah and I stayed at a motel in eastern California before crossing into Arizona the next day. We charted a course through various back roads that were marked as scenic on the map and later that afternoon we got our first view of the red rocks. I vividly remember stepping out of the car for the first time on the Colorado Plateau, two decades ago. Before opening the door I already knew what the dry air, accented with the distinct aroma of sagebrush, juniper and pine, would smell like. I knew what the gritty texture of sandstone would feel like to my fingers. I knew the calls of ravens and mocking laughter of pinyon jays, which I had not heard before. I could almost swear I knew the way to places I had never been to. Everything felt startlingly familiar – not at all like seeing a place for the first time but more like returning to it after a long absence.

After barely touching the camera for a few years, I began making images with renewed passion. Roll after roll was exposed until I ran out of film. We stopped at a little camera store in a small town to purchase more. In the display case, among other things, was a beautiful Nikon F4. I wanted it badly but could not afford it at the time. A few minutes after leaving the store, Sarah asked me to turn around saying she would lend me the money. We spent the next few days camping and hiking, and the sense of being where I had already been never waned. Soon after our return Sarah and I were married and in the years that followed I visited my beloved desert every chance I got, each time venturing further to lesser known places and each time feeling renewed and inspired by the experience. To this day, in all my travels, I never felt this way in any other place.

There came a point when Sarah and I wanted to do more with our lives than the workaday tedium. It was time for a new start. We decided to move to Utah to be closer to the wild. It took us a few more years to finally leave the urban hive behind and make a home for ourselves in this magical desert. Today we live in one of the most remote places in the US, a tiny town of 200 residents at the foot of a majestic volcanic plateau looming above the sandstone wonderland of the Colorado Plateau. To me, it is home in a sense much greater than merely a place of residence. It’s a place that hurts to leave, that makes anywhere else in the world seem less interesting, a place that offers more beauty and inspiration than I can fit in a hundred lifetimes.

My images of this place are not just “landscape photographs” to me, they are each a small journal entry, part of the grand story of an amazing place and my small role in it. They speak not only of the beauty of the land, but of the friendship I formed with rocks and trees, canyons and mesas – a relationship as complex as any I have had with another human being.

My love story of this place and of this life continues to unfold. It is what inspires my images and writing. It is why I’m not a travel photographer. It is why I seek intimacy with this land in the same way that I do with anything and anyone that is dear to me.

Those of you familiar with such experiences know the feeling of being in remote and lonesome places, surrounded by the wild, the sense of freedom and wonder, when worries and anxieties seem less relevant and less ominous, and fantastic discoveries may arise at any moment; whether a majestic view, a star-filled night sky, the warm glow of reflected light in a womb of sensuous rock, a rare encounter with wildlife, the scent sagebrush after a rain, the crackling of a small and fragrant campfire, or the magic and mystery found in thick and velvety silence on a dark night. It used to be that I needed to escape where I lived in order to find them. I no longer do. Wherever I am in this sublime desert, whether in the depths of a canyon, by a small stream surrounded by aspen trees, breathing the sweetness of pine and spruce in an alpine forest, visiting ancient dwellings and rock art, or in my own living room – I am always home.

A Place of Refuge

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Journal

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.

Comments (8)

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  1. Wonderful story of your journey Guy. Thank you so much for you openness and willingness to share your passions with us. I am a better photographer for it.

  2. Theresa says:

    What a wonderful story of your beginnings and how life circles around and steers you to where you authentically belong, no matter what you do.

    I feel similarly for the moors of England… and with everything IN me… I’ll get there someday. And landscape photography will become more of a focus for me THEN, than it is now. Right NOW, it’s boudoir/intimate. People.
    Where I want to be… won’t have “people” to photograph in it, at all *grins*

    Your photography continues to inspire me.

  3. pj says:

    A beautiful and inspiring read. I can relate to the feelings even though not the actual area, never having been there. But I have my own. Many thanks for the post.

  4. Thanks for another great read Guy. I too read ‘Desert Solitare’ back in the mid-80s. That book and John McPhee’s ‘Basin and Range’, plus the many years of wandering this nation with its stunning landscapes are the reasons why I too became a landscape photographer. The inspiration that I found in those books led me to escape the urban wilderness into a place that constantly amazes me with its diversity. Thanks again and have a great weekend.

  5. Yes, to everything you said about this place, a thousand times over. 🙂

  6. Tom Getts says:

    Guy,

    What a beautiful story about your history and have ended up in one of the most beautiful places on Earth!

  7. Guy, I am moved by your personal journey described here. I found it also pertinent how supportive your wife was early on. This account seems different from your other blog posts in that it is less psychological, which I also like, but it is mainly straight narrative and feels more heart centered as you have opened up and gone deeper into your life story. You usually weave personal stories and your philosophy as an artist together so well, but I like this raw, mainly personal experience style as much or more.

  8. Cecil Whitt says:

    What a charming story. Some of it I was familiar with, but some of it was new. I might imagine that the busy season is coming up for you soon. May all of your journeys be auspicious ones, C.