To: That Young Photographer

| November 22, 2016

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk! ~Friedrich Nietzsche

A friend forwarded me a post titled, “To: That Grumpy Old Photographer,” written by Simon Patterson (presumably an affable young photographer) and posing some poignant questions, and asked how I might answer them. I’m (choosing to be) certain that my friend did not mean to imply that I am either old or grumpy, although I confess that I have noticed subtle increments in both traits in recent years. I have also never said to anyone that their work “sucks,” nor would I ever condemn anyone for seeking to improve their understanding by asking questions. In fact I consider it a great compliment when someone expresses interest in my opinion and believes I have something useful to offer them. So, while I do not presume to be the addressee for Mr. Patterson’s essay, I do feel I may be able to offer him at least some of the constructive input and actionable advice he is seeking.

My primary bit of advice is this: when it comes to creative endeavors and to deciding the value of your work, don’t assume that anyone can give you specific and actionable advice. Most of us who practice photography professionally did not receive this kind of advice from our predecessors, either. We had to figure out a lot by ourselves; we had to contend with shifts in business and technology and to find creative ways to sustain our work; we had to conceive original work that has not been done before us;  and sometimes we even had to do those things in direct opposition to what was then considered “common sense” by our seniors.

Some of us had to completely invent jobs for ourselves that nobody else has done in quite the same way before us. And it is quite possible that we are unable to answer many of your questions simply because we don’t know the answers or because there are no answers. Some of the models that worked for us may now be obsolete or unsustainable, and you may have to come up with your own. And let’s face it, we also messed some things up pretty badly that you may have to clean up. I’m sorry to be blunt, but it’s your turn now. It’s time to leave the nest, and our maps of the world may only be partially useful to you in charting new waters. There are many avocations and professions that rely on skill and practice alone, and which you can learn and become successful in by following established paths. For better or worse, photographic art, especially as a profession, is not among these.

Those of us who also believe we have a duty to educate and inspire, and to “pay it forward,” will go to great lengths to explain to you our philosophies and motivations, teach you those techniques we found useful in our own work, and offer our subjective opinions. But when you scratch the surface you will find that each of us does at least some things differently (sometimes to a great degree) from others. And we each had to find what works for us as individuals, and to invent much of it by ourselves. And in the process we often had to make peace with varying degrees of financial and creative risks. What worked for us is not guaranteed to be repeatable by others. In fact, in some cases it may almost be guaranteed to not.

My next bit of advice comes from the fact that I was not able to find your photography anywhere, other than a few images posted on various sites alongside a selection of your writing. You do not seem to have a web site, nor any other place where one can go to view your body of work, to learn something about you and your approach—your philosophy, what you hope to accomplish with your work, etc. If you are interested in constructive advice, or any other kind of feedback from others, the least you can do is to make it easy for them to find you and your work.

You seek direct and unambiguous advice where regrettably little exists (at least little that is of any real value). Such is the nature of creative work, which is constantly evolving and reinvented, and is profoundly subjective. By far the most useful advice I received from those I consider to be my role models was not constructive or actionable. I read and researched the lives, words and images of a great many who I consider as luminaries, great thinkers and great artists. What I learned is that the things that made them and their work so important and evocative were distinctly unique to them: their personalities and attitudes, their backgrounds and life experiences, their intellect and sensibilities, the degree to which they were mindful and contemplative, and the depth of their subjective understanding of their world and of themselves.

I learned that, in order to truly accomplish what these people did—not to copy their photographs, but to create my own with the same depth and meaning—what matters the most are not those things they could have told me how to do, but the example they set in binding their work with their lives: the things that express without fear or barriers one’s innermost emotions and convictions, and the things that help elevate one’s living experience from the wretched and the mundane. If you wish to find this kind of inspiration too, I suggest this: read! Learn as much as you can about the giants on whose shoulders you stand, about the history of your medium and those who made it what it is, about the things you consider as most meaningful and elevated in the world, and about things that expand your mind toward a deeper understanding of reality and life, and that make you a deeper, more thoughtful, more informed, and more singular person.

To know how to make a good photograph is only useful to the extent that you wish to entertain yourself and others. In order for a photograph, or any product of creative work, to also possess power as to elevate your own being, and that of your viewers, it should be about something meaningful, worthy and important, which brings me to my next bit of advice: wake up! actively pursue those things that make your life meaningful, regardless of photography or anything else. Become mindful of the world you live in and your place in it; acknowledge the bare facts of life and how they should factor into your most important decisions—both personal and creative: your time is limited, the world is changing, there are no guarantees. Therefore, choose to  invest your time wisely and carefully in the things you consider as most worthy. Seek experiences that elevate your being and that, when you are long past them, you will look back upon with yearning and pride. And, should those experience inspire a photograph or more, consider yourself doubly rewarded.

The joy of creation is far greater than any accolade, award, or other affirmation that anyone can confer upon you. Learn to find joy in the creative process; don’t chase after shortcuts and easy solutions—you are only shortcutting your own joy, flow and creative faculties.

Don’t aspire for your work to be like that of anyone else’s. When someone tries to convince you to be “like Ansel Adams” or anyone else, politely walk away. I am quite proud that my work looks nothing at all like Ansel Adams’ or others. Being different and unique—being me, and creating like me—rather than attempting to mimic and copy, is my way of honoring these great people and their accomplishments, as well as finding pride and purpose in my own approach to art and life.

To your closing line, I will add this: nothing I do is driven by any concern for the future of photography. If people don’t care to practice photography, the universe will not be worse off without it. I found my own calling in photography, for very specific reasons. It is a technology that enables me to express myself creatively in a way that most fits with my lifestyle, with my love of the wild, with my penchant for spending time removed from the buzz and hum of the human hives. These are the things whose futures I worry about, and to which I’d like to draw awareness. Without these, I would have no use for nor interest in photography or its future.

Find those things you are passionate about and the tools that best fit your own mode and temperament, and with the goal of saying in the most effective way something about your world. If you are not completely certain of it, don’t assume that photography is the ideal medium for every creative individual or for every form of creative expression. Try writing and music, try poetry and painting, try speaking and organizing.  Try anything. Pick what feeds your soul and invest your best effort in finding experiences and in building expertise, for no other reason than being who you are and having something meaningful to share with the world. What that something is, only you can know. If you don’t know it yet, keep looking, but don’t expect anyone else to know what it is.


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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. To: That Young Photographer | Guy Tal Photography Journal | January 5, 2017
  1. Steve says:

    Your Existentialism is showing. And I thank you.

  2. Alister Benn says:

    Epic essay Guy. I agree wholeheartedly with all of it. Thanks so much for being there.

  3. jerry grasso says:

    As always, Guy, thoughtful words and advice on topics that alarm most of us “old” photographers. Your specific examples and suggestions are concrete starting places for exploration on many of the issues you discuss. Not only the young but also the old can always use the refresher! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Simon Patterson says:

    Well that is a fantastic reply to my open letter. So much incredible advice and much food for thought in there. I think I will come back and re-read this periodically.

    My “open letter” was prompted as a reaction to a number of online posts by experienced photographers, who only seemed to complain about other’s attempts at photography. My letter attempted to request some positive direction from those “grumpy old photographers”, rather than merely negativity. Clearly you are not one of the “grumpy old photographers”, however you have provided exactly the kind of advice and direction I was requesting anyway.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful piece in response to mine.

    Simon Patterson

  5. Dave Benson says:

    Once again thank you… I keep trying the “wake-up” and not just from the 7-8 hours of sleep… but from the most active times of my life…

  6. “[Photography] is a technology that enables me to express myself creatively in a way that most fits with my lifestyle, with my love of the wild, with my penchant for spending time removed from the buzz and hum of the human hives. These are the things whose futures I worry about, and to which I’d like to draw awareness. Without these, I would have no use for nor interest in photography or its future.”

    Indeed. That’s a three-sentence manifesto for the ages.

  7. Fergal says:

    Great writing Guy. One of the frustrations of the modern photographer is that everything appears to have been done before. They find it hard to be unique and different. This cant be taught but it can be found. The interesting thing is that no two photographs not matter how alike they are, are exactly the same. They technically it’s not even in the same spot The solar system is travelling at 828,000 km/h around the galaxy. Every time you take a photo of an object it’s in a different place in the universe. In terms of being different I find the Helsinki Bus station theory quite useful. You spend a lot of your early life as a photographer taking photos someone has already taken but if you stay on the bus your work eventually deviates from the norm and starts to become unique.