Landscape Portraits

| February 20, 2018

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. ~Oscar Wilde

The great painter Henri Matisse described the portrait as “one of the most curious art forms,” requiring not only special qualities in the artist, but also “an almost total kinship with the model.” As an introvert who generally favors solitude over company, my own natural inclination is to distance myself from people rather than to engage with them, and to allow them the same dignity I wish for myself, of private personal space, rather than to point a camera at them.

As a consummate wilderness explorer, most of my travels, by design, take me to places where the trace of humanity is minimal or ostensibly absent. Thus, there are very few people with whom I find the kind of “total kinship” that Matisse described.

Photography, to me, is a medium for creative expression, and by that I mean that my goal as a photographer is to find visual metaphors for my own thoughts and emotions. These thoughts and emotions, for the most part, are inspired by the ways in which I respond to the things I photograph, although at times the things I photograph may also merely be expressive vehicles for things that are entirely unrelated to them. Put another way, my photographic goal is not to portray the appearances of things, places, or people strictly for any objective qualities they may possess, but to use those appearances in order to express something of my own mind.

Human faces prompt me to ponder the thoughts and feelings of the persons they belong to, rather than my own; and while these may interest and move me, it is not their thoughts that I wish to express in my photographic work, but my own.

For these reasons, and with few exceptions, I do not photograph people. I do, however, still make portraits.

Painter and educator Robert Henri wrote, “An interest in the subject; something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait.” And indeed, I feel I have a great interest and much to say about my subjects; it just so happens that my subjects are not people. Taking the liberty of decoupling portraiture from the requirement for human subjects, a portrait, to me, is an intimate and revealing view into those features of a subject that are most expressive, distinctive, and nuanced: the properties that make the subject unique, dignified, interesting, and complex—to me. By that definition I consider much of my work as portraits of the landscapes that inspire me.

In my work, I do not seek to make the landscape identifiable. I do not wish to limit my viewers’ impressions of the places I photograph to just their objective, literal, appearances, nor to their commonly known names, geographic locations, or other data that are irrelevant to my expressive intent. I also don’t wish to glorify the landscape for the sake of aesthetic appeal alone. To my way of thinking, a true portrait should not be an image of someone or something, but an image about someone or something—their inner beauty, the things they symbolize and inspire in me, the traits they reveal only to those who have earned the privilege of their trust, and the nature of my relationship with them. And so, the places I prefer to photograph are ones with which I feel a connection, having visited with them many times, explored them in earnest, and witnessed their many moods. They are not just attractive models to me, but in a sense also friends and sanctuaries and refuges—places I go to not only because they are beautiful or otherwise photogenic, but because I feel comfortable and inspired in them; and it is these qualities that I hope to express in my portraits of them.

Distinct from people, places have no literal personalities, minds, or egos of their own, and so my portraits of the land are, to a substantial degree, self-portraits: projections and reflections of my own thoughts, liberated from the constraint of my own appearance and allowed to inhabit an independent visual form. And I can do so without concern for offending someone else’s view of themselves, or their own desire to appear in any certain way. And so, much like the author of a story, I also can assign personalities, thoughts, and moods to the places and things I portray in my photographs.

My goal in photographing the landscape in intimate and personal ways seems to me to be one that some human-portrait photographers may share as well: not only recording objective beauty, making a sale, or as a common interest around which to socialize with fellow photographers, but also as a means of expression and exploration, of both subject and self.

In many ways, making portraits of the land is also a good way of being introduced to it, and introducing yourself to it. A short-lived encounter may yield a superficial impression, but just as with human subjects, as familiarity, comfort, and trust increase over time, portraits begin to reveal more nuanced dimensions.

Images of random, unfamiliar, subjects reveal something about these subjects, but as the connection deepens, portraits show more of the photographer and more of the nature of the relationship he or she shares with the person or place photographed. Among the finest examples of this progression, in my opinion, is Eliot Porter’s portfolio of Glen Canyon, featured in his book, “The Place No One Knew.” Porter, a pioneer of intimate landscape photography, knew very little about the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau when he was asked to photograph one of its most striking features—Glen Canyon—before it was sacrificed in order to establish what today is “Lake” Powell reservoir, stretching into parts of Utah and Arizona. Describing his first encounter with the place, Porter wrote, “So powerful was the impression, I didn’t know where to look, what to focus on; and in my confusion, photographic opportunities slipped by. I always seemed to be photographing the wrong things… I knew that what I had photographed was a superficial record, the slightest vision of this wonderful place.” And so, he returned to Glen Canyon several more times, each time becoming more intimately familiar with its hidden secrets. After several visits, he established a personal relationship with, and appreciation for, the place that resonates in his later writings. About one of the canyon’s features, he wrote, “Cathedral in the Desert was the single most spectacular place I visited—to me it epitomized the very heart of the southwestern canyon country.” In a sense, Porter established the same kind of “total kinship” with Glen Canyon that Matisse suggested was needed by one who paints the portrait of a human model.

When I make a portrait of a place, I declare its importance to me as a person and as an artist, and express why, to me, it is, as the saying goes, “more than just a pretty face.” Introversion is a trait often leading to a sense of isolation, as those who possess it often feel left out (most often, by choice) of much discourse and social rituals that other artists may better leverage or engage in. It is my hope that those who share my personal inclination for introversion and reclusion also find in my work some validation and acknowledgement that a sense of kinship and profound emotion are also possible in solitude, and not just with human subjects.

Restful Tapestry

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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.

Comments (7)

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  1. Antonio Aleo says:

    In your words I always find myself, incredible. I agree with every word, even in this article. When I portray a landscape, in its intimacy, I actually portray myself, my fears, my phobias, my melancholies. For me it is really important to create a proper soul-landscape connection. In all this obviously an important role, perhaps the main one, has our unconscious. Digging inside it, will open a nondo to see the landscape, and conceive the photos. A hug Guy.

    Antonio Aleo

  2. Jim Austin says:

    Guy,

    Highly thought provoking piece and well expressed. I find my inner soul wanting to express a differing viewpoint, and grateful to you for a nudge to write a positive critique, along the lines of “Can we make portraits of a landscape?” with some grpunding in Neuroscience and the perception of faces (a topic you’ve researched if I understand one of your prior essays). More in a month or so in response…

    • Jim says:

      Guy,

      You’ve written clearly about the healing power of landscape, and I join you in the beauty and harmony of the intimate and image we continue to find in nature.

      I have been an amateur student of how we perceive and how much of our seeing is tip down, if you will, from our image mind to our eyes. Where I differ from your ideas, and this could be mere semantic differences rather than spiritual ones, is your associations with “portrait” of a landscape.

      To my limited view, we are, in your words “innately programmed to respond in specific ways to certain natural phenomena”. The first and most important natural phenomena is the face. Babies must perceive its meanings, eyes and the face are the first naturally important thing for us to notice. Portrait means person and face more than land. The image predisposition is our brains massive systems, groups of cells, and mostly important connections devoted to seeing, recognizing and remembering faces. This is inate at an earlier, more fundamental way than recognizing sky, forest, or canyon. Guy, as you well know now, neuroscience shows us our brains facial recognition system is fast, inate, and develops early.

      So, while I agree with you, and I do feel that the healing, the emotions, and the all spiritual thwt enlivens our senses, ineffably, in nature and are vital sources of energy and creative power deep within our craft, I part with you on “Portrait ” of landscape, as for me portrait is a unique description for the experience of being with, sympathizing with, listening with, and loving with another human. And, if we persist, photographing that person in a humanistic, enabling, timeless expression.

  3. Mattia Oliviero says:

    Guy, this and your previous contributions are definetely two revealing writings about the relationship between inner feelings and creative expression. Through your images and your writing you really help me to understand why I use a camera and what I want to express. More importantly, as a nature lover as I am, you make me realize that the reward is the relationship with the landscape and the consequent emotions I feel when I am out there, and not the anxiety about obtaining an image to show to other people. Surely for this achievement I have to thank you. Keep up the good work.

    Mattia

  4. Jack Larson says:

    There are very few people with whom I feel the depth of intimacy that I do with the natural world. It is in the natural world that I feel most alive, whole, and safe.

  5. Jim Austin says:

    I am grateful to both Bonnie Lampley, above, and Guy Tal. Thanks first to Bonnie for insight and empathy, in your observation that there are neurological reasons why many of us do not photograph human faces. Our brains are amazing and unique, and there is a spectrum / continuum of brain conditions including autism spectrum disorder that reduces the ability to recognize the structure, meaning and identity of the human face.

    To Guy Tal. I admit having doubts about the idea of portraits of a landscape after first reading the well-written piece. Then, I read it again and a third time, after running across this quote by John Loengard:

    “If I’m very close in on the face, expression doesn’t exist. The face becomes a landscape of the lakes of the eyes and the hills of the nose.”

    So, Mr Tal, once again I am learning from your vision that our perception and creative vision has great potential : we can make portraits of landscapes, and also landscapes of the human face.

    Thanks!