artist spotlight – guy tal

Nathan: If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?

Guy Tal

Guy: I practice photography as a self-expressive art inspired by my experiences in wild places, primarily in the deserts of the American West.

Nathan: Describe your connection(s) to the subject matter(s) you photograph? For example, if you are drawn to landscapes, what about the landscape, or nature, draws you to photograph it?

Guy: I spent the first half of my life living in places that never felt like home to me. Still, since my earliest memory I always found solace in solitary explorations in natural places. The country I grew up in requires mandatory military service, which only caused me to feel more alienated and out of place. During my conscription, I happened to find a book titled Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. The book is about Abbey’s experiences as a ranger in what today is Arches National Park. His descriptions of the desert were beautiful and haunting to me, but at the time I didn’t think I would ever get to see it in person. As it turned out, through a very strange and improbable life journey I found my way to this desert, and for the first time I felt like I was home. Today I live in my favorite place in the world—a tiny town at the foot of a lofty plateau above the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. I spent about two decades exploring and photographing these places with ever growing fascination. As my familiarity with the place grew, I also became more aware of the nuanced and less-obvious facets of the desert, canyons, mountain ranges, badlands, and high plateaus. It is a vast desert—millions of acres of wild lands, most of which are not accessible by road or trail. It is the perfect home for a loner and introvert like me.

I don’t just photograph landscapes in the abstract; I photograph landscapes that are personally meaningful to me: places that over the years have become my friends and sanctuaries and that are intricately woven into my life story.

Nathan: Photography is many things … but one of its most important facets is the connection between what a photographer sees and how he or she chooses to capture it. This relationship typically changes over time— so much so, in fact, that many photographers feel it changes how they see. What are your thoughts about this?

Guy: I always took issue with the characterization of photography as “the art of seeing.” Seeing is easy and intuitive. Anyone with a functioning visual system only has to open his or her eyes to see. The kind of photography I practice—creative, expressive photography—is not about seeing but about visualizing, not just being aware of what I’m looking at but also formulating what I’m seeing into compositions, using visual elements to express specific moods and ideas, and using processing tools to make the captured image into the visualized, expressive, image I have in mind. It’s a simple but important difference: seeing is about what is, visualization is about what could be.

Certainly, I feel that my ability to visualize, to compose, to be attentive to visual elements—lines, shapes, textures, patterns, colors, etc.—to be able to arrange these elements in creative ways, and to process my work, is constantly evolving. It does not evolve gradually and linearly, but in occasional epiphanies and realizations that lead to new means of expression and to a broader visual vocabulary. In evolutionary biology this is referred to as “punctuated equilibrium”—every so often, a major shift happens, and then everything settles into a “new normal” until the next “punctuation.” The same type of progression, I find, is also at play in my evolution as an artist.

Fond Memories

Nathan: Do you (a) previsualize what your photograph is going to look like, (b) discover what you wish to create as you create, or (c) engage a little of both?  Neither?  Something else?

Guy: Actually, neither. I always visualize, meaning that I deliberately compose and “process” the image in my mind until I have a mental rendition of the finished image. This is not antithetical to discovery, and doesn’t usually happen as I create (by which point I already have a good idea of what I want). In fact, I think that discovery is an essential part of it: I come across something that inspires a certain feeling or mood, and that feeling sets the creative wheels in motion. Once I have a concept for an image, I distill and compose the elements I have to work with, taking into account what I will do later in processing, until the finished image communicates the feeling I had in mind.

To photograph with a pre-determined outcome, without discovery, is not really (pre)visualization, it is preconception, and is more of a technical exercise than a creative one, which makes it less interesting to me.

Being a photographer, I know that the technical aspects of photography are not very difficult to learn, and most anyone today can create very impressive images with little or no experience, and with little or no investment of creativity or emotion. So, photographs (and photographers) boasting just technical skill are not very impressive to me. I am much more impressed with those who have the creative insight and courage to showcase something of their inner works: something that is personally meaningful to them—things no one other than them has, or could have, done. (at least initially; I’m not happy about the copycat culture that is unfortunately so prevalent among photographers).

Nathan: When you process your photos, do you listen to music? If yes, what music do you prefer to listen to and do you think that music influences how you process your images?

Guy: I very often listen to music when processing. Most often it is jazz, folk rock, or downtempo, sometimes classical. And yes, music does influence the way I process but mostly still within the boundaries of what I already determined I want to express in the image.

Nathan: Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?

Guy: To me this is an unanswerable question. I don’t really have unequivocal favorites in any area, only favorites-of-the-moment. So, my answer may be different if you asked me tomorrow.

I like a lot of photographers, for a lot of different reasons. My closest friends are photographers, and I like them on many dimensions beyond photography. So, to avoid offending anyone, I’ll stay safe and stick with deceased photographers. Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Minor White stand out among those I consider the most influential (certainly not the only ones). This is not just because they were “good” photographers but because they were fascinating and philosophical people who lived interesting lives and thought about photography (and life) deeply. Their writings, attitudes, and biographies are in many ways more interesting to me as any photograph they made.

I have no desire to mimic the style of any other artist. These photographers affected my work not in terms of making me want to be like them, or to make the same images as they have, or to adopt their style. Rather, I am interested in them because, as people, they symbolize to me artists who exhibited tremendous courage and lived their lives (expressed to in pioneering photography) with passion and dedication, and according to their inner callings. I’m also drawn to their work because of their written legacy: their ideas, contemplations, and revelations, which provided me with a great foundation for thinking about my own life and work.

Nathan: Select a single photograph by another artist that inspires you. Explain why you are drawn to it and how it has inspired you.

CanyondeChelly (c) Edward Curtis

Guy: There are many, many, such images, but I’ll go with an image by Edward Curtis from 1904 titled, “Cañon de Chelly,” portraying riders dwarfed by the majestic geography of this desert that is now my home. Curtis’s composition is exquisite, showing the power and magnitude of the landscape and how fragile, transient, and inconsequential humans are when portrayed against the creations of forces and time far greater than us. Even the faint cloud in the sky is perfectly placed to fill the “negative space.” And, of course, knowing something of the natural and human history of this place, as well as Curtis’s own incredible heroism, compassion, and determination, I can see so many stories in the image.

Unlike so many “eye candy” photographs made in these places, that may elicit an occasional “wow” or “that’s nice” before the viewer moves on, this image just keeps me looking. I can stare into it for a long time and let my imagination wander.

Nathan: What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)? 

Guy: Other than my own experiences and revelations, I am more influenced in my work by philosophy and science than I am by singular works of art. Therefore, those artists who influenced me the most are those who also thought deeply about their work and their life, and how the two intertwine. I love van Gogh’s thoughts about painting as therapy and as an affront to pain and depression; I love Cezanne’s perseverance as the so-called “art world” shunned him for decades, and as his work became the subject of cruel criticism; I love the poetry of Walt Whitman, Wendell Berry, and David Whyte, among others, for the way they relate to inner experience and nature; I love the music of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny, also among many others, for their brilliant compositions and heartfelt playing style. And this doesn’t even touch on writers, philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals whose works may not be formally considered as art but that to me are every bit as inspiring. I can go on and on… and on.

Nathan: What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?

Guy: Gear is a secondary consideration for me. I like whatever gear enables me to do my work with the control and quality that I need. I don’t own any “exotic” or pricey cameras or lenses. I’m more concerned with weight, dynamic range, and other practical considerations as I work in remote places. I also like gear that feels good in my hands: solid, responsive, with good manual controls and detailed finder image, etc. Then again, I could make most of my work with an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless and a couple of zoom lenses.

Resting Place

Nathan: How would you define fine art? Is it just a label?

Guy: Fine art is defined simply as art produced for aesthetic value. Anything with the word “art” in it is ultimately just a label when anything can be considered art. Generally I’m more interested in the creative experience of the artist. If a work did not emerge out of some inner experience, desire, feeling, or thought that the artist wishes to express, then the aesthetic qualities of the work alone are usually not enough to keep me interested. That kind of image, to me, is still useful, although its usefulness is more as entertainment than as art. A lot of works labeled “art” or “fine art” today does not ensue out of true inspiration or self-expression, which I think is lamentable. Not because the work is not “good” in itself, but because their creators deny themselves the greatest rewards possible from practicing art, and deny others the sense of awe, wander, and discovery that I believe are more powerful than any aesthetic for its own sake.

Nathan: If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?

Guy: If you are looking to reap the greatest rewards possible from practicing your work, have it express who you are and the life you live. If you feel that who you are and the life you live are not worthy of expression, consider making them so. Without that, there is little point to photography or anything else.

Nathan: What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?

Guy: Certainly, other than the rewards of creation, sharing can produce great rewards, as well. Studies show what may be intuitive to most of us, which is that helping and inspiring others—elevating their experience, even if only by showing them something meaningful—also increases the happiness and experience of the person sharing.

To me social media is a very flawed medium for sharing. It’s certainly easy and allows an artist to reach a much greater audience than they might otherwise. But, on the down side, showcasing art on social media sites, among the all the noise and distractions, for short periods of time, and alongside countless other works, greatly diminishes the viewing experience.

As a professional, I consider social media a necessary concession. I post with the hope that those who find my work interesting will them proceed to my website, books, or even purchase a print.
Personally, I never found the “virtual life” to be even remotely as meaningful as experiencing the world in person, using all senses, taking the time to study and savor those things I find beautiful or interesting. So, I stick with just one outlet (Facebook) which has been sufficient for my needs, and I don’t feel any desire to try others unless I have to.

Nathan: What are our thoughts about photography contests? Do you think they are (a) a true measure of artistic success or value, (b) just an opportunity for a business to make money off photographers looking for exposure and validation, or (c) something in-between a and b?

Guy: I don’t submit my work to contests. I believe that contests introduce motivations into an artist’s work that only diminish it and the experience of making it. Contests are about being judged by others, seeing how you measure up to others, pleasing an audience, making concessions in the name of popularity and digestibility, or for vanity for those who win awards. None of these I consider beneficial to artistic expression. My work is rewarding to me, and I have been fortunate to find an audience of like-minded people who understand what I do, can relate to it, and find it meaningful. Why would I submit it to the whims and taste of judges I don’t know, using whatever arbitrary criteria that may or may not be relevant to me. Whether some random person likes or dislikes my work does not factor into how or why I practice it.

Nathan: What photographic cliché or common photography question, if any, irritates you the most (e.g. did you use Photoshop or is it straight out of the camera)?

Guy: I don’t get irritated by such questions. To me they are opportunities to educate or to send a message. But what one chooses to do with my message is up to them. Whether someone agrees with my views or methods wouldn’t make any difference in why or how I work. To become irritated doesn’t seem a good use of my time or energy.

Although I would not have chosen such strong language myself, I always liked Paul Cezanne’s attitude toward such things: “The work which goes to bring progress in one’s own subject is sufficient compensation for the incomprehension of imbeciles.”

Nathan: If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?

Guy: I don’t expect that I’ll be photographing in this situation, so I might bring a Pentax 67 that I can use as a hammer, and maybe a lens to use as a fire starter or a magnifying glass. I don’t use filters so that wouldn’t be a consideration for me. I suppose a large tripod can be used as a tent frame.

I’ll bring the largest books I can find about current science, and the thickest anthology of philosophical writings. Assuming I can play CDs somehow, I’ll bring some classic and contemporary Jazz favorites (Pat Metheny’s Beyond the Missouri Sky will certainly be among them), good performances of Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies, Mozart’s Requiem, perhaps a couple of more eclectic titles (Saudade by Thievery Corporation is a current favorite).

If I may venture a bit outside the boundaries of the questions but still in the spirit of things I may want beyond meeting my existential needs, I’ll be happy to have a lifetime supply of notepads and writing instruments than any camera gear. And a selection of good tequilas.

Poem of Earth

Nathan: Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?

Guy: No. I never plan or try to predict what I might want to do next. Living is a grand adventure. I want to see what opportunities and revelations it might bring me, rather than choose in advance with no idea of what else is out there.

Nathan: Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?

Guy: I can spend many lifetimes within a hundred miles of my house and never run out of things to do. There are places I’d like to visit to see and experience them in person, but I doubt my photography will be “better” by my own judgment anywhere other than places I am deeply familiar with and inspired by, and that I can return to almost any day.

Nathan: Is there anything else you wish to add?

Guy: A lot, but I already took more of your space and bandwidth than I feel right doing. I cover more of my thoughts on art, life, and photography in my books More Than A Rock and The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop: A Visualization-Driven Workflow, on my blog, magazine articles (including my column in LensWork Magazine), and in future books I’m working on.

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Explore more of Guy’s photography: Website

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More Images

Kingdom of Ravens

 

Badlands in Bloom

 

Cottonwood, Winter Light

 

Early Autumn Storm

 

Early Signs

 

Gentle Evening

 

Let It Storm

 

Life, Just Barely

 

Ponderosa In Blue

 

Intricacy

 

The Dignity of Light

 

Visiting an Old Friend

All images on this page– unless otherwise noted– are protected by copyright and may not be used  for any purpose without Guy Tal‘s permission.
The text on this page is protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without  Guy Tal or Nathan Wirth‘s permission.