The Meaning of Places

| October 6, 2016

The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself. ~Italo Calvino

I made relatively few images this past year. For several months I was sick with an illness for which I had no name, and mired in anhedonic haze for weeks at a stretch. In my lowest times I could not even recall what it was like to not be sick. I am better now.

There is a loneliness in being sick for prolonged periods of time. People try to avoid the subject of your illness, those close to you may withhold their own problems out of a misplaced desire to ease your burden, and some may even grow upset with you as you become absorbed in your own thoughts and misery. In those times when I could not find solace among people, I went to my desert. I went to visit with familiar places—friends incarnated in rocks and trees and waters—places of refuge and shelter and solace; places that always accept me as I am; places that calm me down and where my mind feels at ease and finds rest; places where memories and sensations converge to a version of me that is independent of age or health or circumstances; places where the mundane does not intrude. On most of these outings I made no images. The camera would have been a rude and unwelcome distraction—a mechanical eye observing a decidedly private ritual.

A place is not a place is not a place. Places assume meanings as we interact with them; as we accumulate experiences and memories in them; as we gain knowledge about them; as we evolve relationships with them; as we become familiar with them and comfortable in them. There is a world of difference between a place as partner in a lasting relationship, and a place considered as just a photographic subject. The latter does not interest me much. I have long found that my work is most meaningful to me as an expression of my life and my relationships with the world. Without such relationships, aesthetics alone, while enjoyable to view at times, do not move me to create. In creating I need more than just beauty; I need a story—a good one—and I need to be a character in that story. And my story unfolds here.

I was never content to stand apart form the landscape, looking in, being a transient visitor—a tourist, an outsider—showing up to harvest an image or practice some form of recreation before moving on. When in a place that interests me I am not content just seeing it; I want to be a part of it, to immerse myself in it, to know it, to become comfortable in it. Certainly I might accomplish these things in a great variety of places, but they take time to evolve. And my time, alas, is limited. I have made my choice, and there is no doubt in my mind that I chose well.

It’s not about the landscape; it’s about this landscape.

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

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. The Meaning of Places – Guy Tal | Ed Lehming Photography | October 6, 2016
  1. Dave Benson says:

    Very timely article Guy… especially after I attended a presentation titled Photography is Not Art… or so it seems

  2. I like the life that I’ve chosen to live, and I value what I do. But there is no doubt that I miss living in the mountains, or next to the desert. The times that I return, it takes me days before my head and heart catch up with my physical body that hurtled along blacktopped highways at 75mph, and I wonder what stories I might have crafted had I stayed.

    Thanks for reminding us what else is out there, Guy.

  3. Robin M. says:

    Guy, you so eloquently translate heart into art, both in words and in photography. Time aftet time you manage to tap into the truth of the human experience and come away telling us more about ourselves than we know, or could hope to unearth on our own. I recognize myself in the lonely landscapes of which you write–the interior as well as the exterior. Thanks for telling your story, and for validating mine.

  4. Paul Beiser says:

    Wow, Guy, this is so good, really speaks to me. Thanks so much for your profound insights and for sharing them.

  5. Robert Heckendorn says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about relationship to a landscape. Makes me think about how I return to familiar landscapes again and again for the comfort they give and at the same time how much I enjoy the surprise and delight at new landscapes or even old landscapes seen in new ways.

    hope you are getting better,

  6. John Wall says:

    The best landscape is the one whose center is everywhere, its circumference nowhere.

    I’m glad you’re feeling better and stronger and are going to be bringing us more amazing tales from the desert.

  7. Frank B says:

    Guy, I am glad you are over your illness. I hope it stays away and you are able to enjoy the desert in the winter.

  8. Nick Livesey says:

    Guy, I now and then call in to read your thoughts on photography and that which is its genesis and I, more often than not, find resonance in your words.

    This piece is one that chimes very loudly with me and echoes my thoughts entirely.

    My entry into photography was through my love of climbing and walking in the mountains of Britain. Once I became a photographer I flitted here and there across the British Isles trying to record my love for the places I visited.

    However, it wasn’t until I relocated to Snowdonia, North Wales (a place I thought I knew well), that I realised my work was without narrative, meaningless and nothing other than photographic tourism.

    Three and a half years later I am in an ongoing relationship with a land I am becoming ever more in love with. I am free of the angst that is a feature of long distance relationships and the dissatisfaction of one night stands…I am home.