Art, Existentialism and Freedom

| January 14, 2017

I found these words in my archive recently. They were originally written a few years ago but never published. At the time I wondered if it would be premature for me to espouse such provocative thoughts. In the years since, my confidence in them has only grown stronger.


To create is likewise to give a shape to one’s fate. For all these characters, their work defines them at least as much as it is defined by them. ~Albert Camus

On occasion, I receive random letters asking about photography as a profession. These come from both younger people (students, mostly) as well as those who are already employed in other industries but feel the hunger for something else—more beautiful, more adventurous, more rewarding—yet are deterred by the inherent risks. While I can offer all the sympathy and encouragement and whatever experience I have, ultimately I have to turn the question around. This is not a decision one should delegate to other people.

Having resigned a well paying career for the unpredictable reality of being a self-employed artist, I can describe the transition as akin to a trapeze artist who lets go of one swing and hopes not to miss the other. With all the thrill, optimism and excitement, there is still no ignoring the dreaded fall that may result from a miscalculation. Even Ansel Adams, when asked for advice on becoming a professional photographer by a passionate park ranger, described the profession of photography as, “a grim business with terrific competition,” and advised pursuing it as an avocation.

But that is not the whole story, of course. If you are of a certain sort, you know that the soul can become every bit as hungry as the body and, like the body, when nearing starvation it will drive one out of even the most comfortable of shelters into the open in search of nourishment. Your true reward for taking the leap likely will not be measured in dollars and cents but in balance and meaning. There will be moments of ecstasy and moments of terror; there will be times of plenty and times of want. And if you manage that balance, there will also be those moments, more precious than anything you may experience, when you look back and examine your life and know without a doubt that you are doing what you were meant to do and that you will never have to look back in regret, regardless of material accomplishment.

I remember seeking similar encouragement as the days neared and I knew the decision was looming. Much as I wanted someone who had been there before to provide me with assurances or a clear direction, I also knew I would be fooling myself to rely on such anecdotes. We each define and find success in our own way and what worked for one is not often likely to repeat itself for another. As existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”

In moments of doubt, I knew that my happiness depended on wildness and art; and that wildness, in order to be experienced and expressed, requires freedom. To some, freedom is given; to others, it is something to accomplish, often at risk. Being free, however, is not just about attaining freedom; it is also about how you use it or, as Sartre put it, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” And the decision to free yourself, whether successful or not, may well be the most profound and proud one you ever make.


I now consider it my greatest accomplishment to have escaped the rat race: to live without obsessing about careers and management strategies and leadership and allegiances to abstract credos and “missions” originating in employment, rather than in personal convictions, and other contrivances that today seem so distant to me from the experience of living; to live away from traffic and industrial noise, away from the incessant buzz of human hives, away from whatever contexts in which fashions and appearances are important.

I found freedom through philosophy, wildness and art. But finding it would have been little more than wishful thinking if I did not also find the courage to act on what I knew to be true.

Sheltering Walls

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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.

Comments (6)

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  1. Tif says:

    Thank you, Guy.

  2. Lori Ryerson says:

    When you use the word trapeze…surely you know you are poking the bear LOL. One of the most important things to learn when you fly is: if you miss the catch, how will you land? We don’t always consider it “dreaded” so much as practise!

    • Guy Tal says:

      Should have known this would get your attention, Lori. This was one where missing the catch would have landed me in a world of pain. Made it all the more powerful.

      • Lori Ryerson says:

        Keeping the metaphor in place: Working without a net of any kind is reserved only for the most elite athletes. And even when you see the highest of high wire acts who appear to be without a net, somewhere, hidden from sight, is a very fine safety line (mind you, there are a few crazy ones out there who refuse it!). For those of us who have chosen to step away from the safety net of full-time employment and follow an artistic path, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, there is often a very fine safety line somewhere nearby, if or when we choose to acknowledge it. That safety line is usually in the shape of a human, sometimes even multiple humans. They are known as “friends and family”. It may be a tenuous line, not much more than a filament that catches the light in the wind, but…it’s there. No matter who you are.

        Seems to me from what I’ve read over the last few years, in various places, you were already in a good deal of pain by staying in that other world. As I said earlier, the trick (when flying without lines) is learning how to land, to best mitigate any errors in calculation. 20 something years into your practising…you appear to have learned how to land. Bravo. Take your bow (and always remember to swish your cape, that’s the best part…)!

  3. Well said Guy. Also interesting is the Camus quote, which reflects a common misconception of that time; that is, that everything has been figured out. One hopes that time will never come, or at least that a universal proscription for how to live will never exist.

  4. The challenge in an art career is that the moment you swish your cape, as you put it Lori, you suddenly discover that by swishing it you have triggered another fall of even greater magnitude, which if it doesn’t kill you will disable you for life. Furthermore, I have noticed that those who swish their cape most flourishingly and get away with it, usually have some other means of support and did not work as hard to earn the cape in the first place. No, it is those who don’t take the risk of swishing their cape, who remain the most likely to weather the swings of art, photography in particular… and furthermore also best weather the court of public opinion, the results of which translate to popularity that drives the sales of artwork. Though in some rare cases, as with a man like Guy, or like my father Philip Hyde, he does not flourish or swish and resists fame and popularity with all his might, yet still gains the greatest applause and furthermore gains it on his own terms, keeping its effects at bay and away from his focus, his grip on the swing, on the art and life itself.