Guy TaI: My Landscapes Are Intimately Familiar
The label "landscape photographer" is easily what most people use when faced with Guy Tal photographs. But the author is not a "landscape photographer," more someone that photographs, writes and breathes the places he is most familiar with.
I've known Guy Tal's work for quite some time, but never exchanged words with him until now. His colour work is something I admire, not only for the grandiosity of the scenery, but also for the quietness that exhales from each rectangle. It feels like opening a window to other spaces, not just to stare at "a great shot," but also because one feels that there is more meaning in the image than just lines and composition. There's emotion.
Recently, I came across some black and white work from Guy Tal and I was excited and puzzled. Colour and black and white are somehow, from my point of view, different disciplines, so I felt I had a good reason to go for an interview that would be meaningful and would not only answer my questions. but also, I expect, those you would also like to ask Guy Tal.
QWho is Guy Tal and what does he do?
In the broad sense of the term, I am a full-time artist and writer, though such labels often fall short of offering a true sense of what I do (I suspect I’m not alone in that among artists). I spent more than four decades in various settings.
I’ve been a soldier, a university teacher, a technology consultant and manager, and many other things. I ultimately found my calling in a remote region in the Western United States known as the Colorado Plateau – a vast, beautiful and sparsely-populated landscape of deserts, canyons, mountains and forests that I have come to know intimately and that inspire my work.
QHow did you start in photography?
Like most people, I first picked up a camera to document events and people in my life. As a teenager, I loved to explore the fields and orchards around my house. One day, for reasons I can’t even recall, I borrowed my dad’s old Minolta and went for a walk.
I ended up spending hours photographing everything from insects and flowers to trees and clouds. It was invigorating and exciting. My excitement was soon curbed when I got my film back and found that not a single image on it was properly exposed or focused, but the experience was so profound that I decided to improve, and the camera became a companion on almost all my explorations since.
Q Correct me if I am wrong: you do live from your photography. Do you feel the same passion you had when you started, or is it more a 9 to 5 profession now?
To be precise, I live not only from photography, but also from teaching, writing and speaking about creative topics. If anything, my passion only increases over time. If it ever were to feel like a 9-to-5 profession, I would surely lose interest very quickly. There are much better jobs than creative photography, but not many better lives.
Perhaps it is worth noting that I don’t compartmentalize what I do. There is no “photographer Guy” distinct from “writer Guy” or “off work Guy." There is only one Guy. Photography is just one means of sharing myself with the world, but I don’t separate it from who I am, or from anything else that I do. I am a very quiet person who prefers to work in solitude and strives to create work that imparts intimacy and introspection.
QYou've stated that titles like nature photographer or a landscape photographer or artist don't truly describe what you do. And you add that you know nature, travel, adventure and landscape photographers, writers and authors, and what they do is not what you do. So what are you?
I think that using such simplistic categorization is often detrimental to an artist and what they try to convey in their work. When you look at van Gogh’s Starry Night, for example, you don’t relate to it in terms of “an oil painting by a Dutch post-Impressionist artist” (unless you spent way too much time in the Academy, that is).
Rather, the knowledge of van Gogh’s biography, and the motivations behind his choices of style, color, subject and media feed into a much deeper impression. Categories help divide things by objective characteristics; but art, ultimately, is perhaps the most subjective form of expression. The more you know about the artist, their inspiration, their background, their philosophy and beliefs, and the progeny of a specific work, the richer your experience will be.
So, what am I? I am someone seeking to lead a meaningful existence, and for me that means communing with the wild, often using it as metaphors to interpret my own existence and establish my own world view. I seek to be inspired and to share my inspiration.
I seek happiness, not in the superficial sense, but in terms of a deep and lasting contentment and satisfaction with my life, and I find that helping others find the same elevates my own experience. To that end, I seek meaningful experiences in everything – in what I do, in the place I chose for my home, in how I relate to other people, and in the things I find beautiful. I’m not sure there’s a simple term that can properly describe that.
QThe American Southwest, where you photograph, seems to be a unique place in terms of landscape opportunities. Do you think you would be a different photographer if you were living somewhere else?
Yes, very much. This is one area where I differ from most landscape photographers. I don’t spend much time pursuing things for their visual beauty alone. I want to portray my relationship with the landscape I photograph, and my relationship with the places of my home is much richer and more complex than any I may have with a landscape with which I am not intimately familiar, no matter how visually appealing.
Put another way, I have much more to “say,” and many more stories about places that are personally meaningful to me, where I spend my days and nights – places that were the setting for some of the most memorable and important events in my life and with which I am intimately familiar, than I would about a random mountain or river or beach where I am but a casual visitor.
I don’t wish to simply document the external veneer of a place. I want to offer an interpretation of it, and in order to do so I need a certain level of familiarity and rapport with it over a significant period of time.
QIs it the landscape you live in that made you a photographer or is it an inner vision that helps us photograph other places with the same beauty we find in your photographs? In other words, do we have to find the beauty within ourselves first to be able to see, with a new perspective, what is around us?
That’s a hard question to answer in a general sense. The more I interact with other artists, the more I recognize that we each find our own path to our work. Speaking for myself, I need to be in a certain state of mind and be inspired by something in order to produce a good image by my own standards. Before becoming a full-time artist I lived in a city, and used to create images whenever I could get away from work.
At the time I believed that the only difference between what I was doing and someone doing it professionally was the amount of time I had to dedicate to it. I was wrong. Being able to immerse myself in the experience without distraction, and to literally live with my subjects, is a very different experience, and my images today are not the same as the ones I created then. They may portray similar subjects, but they don’t hold the same meaning.
These days I don’t go out explicitly looking for things to photograph. Instead, I go out looking to be inspired and trust that the images will come to me as part of the experience. A trophy image made on a rushed trip to an iconic place simply does not move me in the same way as one that reveals itself to me as I’m hiking through anonymous places, listening, looking and smelling, taking my time, moving at my own pace, thinking about life and reveling in the experience.
The landscape and the vision are not separate concepts. The landscape informs, inspires and evolves the vision, and the vision lets me appreciate more and more about the experience of being in the landscape.
QYou teach at workshops. Can these inner feelings be taught to people or does it all end in the technical aspects of photography? What do you teach if you don't consider yourself a photographer?
I draw a line between "taught" and "inspired." Skills can be taught, but feelings can only be inspired. I can describe my own experiences and why they are meaningful to me, and hope that my students will be inspired to seek their own. I also recognize different people may find their inspiration in different places, subjects and ways. I encourage them to not simply mimic the work of others, but to apply their tools to express themselves.
I didn’t say that I am not a photographer, but, rather, that referring to me simply as a photographer misses the more important aspects of who I am and what I do. Photography is simply a set of tools and processes, and, by virtue of using photographic tools, I am also a photographer and I do teach photographic techniques. In my workshops, though, I also spend a fair amount of time discussing creative topics, elements of visual design (composition, color, perception, etc.).
People respond in different ways, which is to be expected. Those who come to the workshop simply to return with trophy images will pursue those subjects, but I make it a point to emphasize that these are not the primary goal of the workshop.
I try to create an atmosphere where participants don’t feel pressed to compete with their peers and can spend their time practicing the skills learned. I never award anyone for a "best image." Instead, I ask them to share their work and explain the motivations behind it. All interpretations are valid.
QYou're mostly known for your colour work, but you use black and white in your new eBook, Creative B&W Processing. How difficult is it to move from all the colour you use to a more restricted palette?
I think that the separation is more one of perception than any objective characteristic, like palette or process. It’s a different way of experiencing a subject or, conversely, a different way of expressing different meanings.
I have experienced a very distinct progression in my approach to black and white work. In the past, I found myself seeing only what I was looking for. If I was out to make black and white images, that’s all I saw, and if I was out looking for color images, that’s all I captured.
I realized that such strict separation was ultimately a reflection of my own limitations. My brain had to think in terms of one medium or the other, since I was thinking in terms of images and aesthetics, rather than interpretations.
With more practice and skill, I became less concerned with images and more aware of what I wanted to say about a given subject. The choice of medium became a by-product of what I wished to say about a given subject. I like to think of it in terms of visual literacy. With practice, you acquire a greater vocabulary and your powers of expression are extended.
If you are equally fluent in the color language as in the black and white language, you don’t necessarily need to think in one or the other, you simply reach for the one that best lends itself to what you wish to express. The same is true for spoken language. People fluent in multiple languages know that some notions are best expressed, or only exist, in some languages and not others.
QYou've stated previously in your career that "photographs have a binding connection with real events, real elements, real light, and real moments in time. Any obvious departure from these realities will cause an image to be dismissed outright” and add to that “my goal is to produce images that inspire without venturing outside the realm of the believable.” Still you do black and white photography, which is, somehow, a departure from reality as we see it. Can you explain how it works?
As I mention in one of my eBooks, I think that black and white photography is one of the most fortuitous accidents in the history of the visual arts. Since its inception and for many decades after, all photography was monochromatic and most viewers are conditioned to it and do not intuitively consider it a departure from reality.
Every day, major news outlets accompany their factual journalistic reports with black and white images without backlash. I suspect that if color photography came first, this would not be the case.
That said, in the creation of artistic images, black and white offers tools and means of expression not possible with color precisely because it IS a departure from reality, which is not intuitively perceived as such.
In a black and white image you can portray a given subject in almost any shade without offending viewer sensibilities. This would not have been possible if we were not so conditioned for so many years to accept black and white images as valid visual representations. By mere coincidence, history serves to liberate black and white photographic artists from the literal constraints that otherwise bind color photography.
QWhat are your aims with black and white photography, and how does it fit in a world where people will know you more for your colour work?
I hesitate to prognosticate about how people will know me in the future. To me, black and white is as much part of my visual vocabulary as color, and I use it where I deem appropriate. If I had a say in the matter, I hope I am remembered as an artist, writer and teacher, rather than the narrow constraints of color or black and white.
My aims do not differ based on the medium I use. Photography as well as writing, are the tools I happen to possess. I try to place much greater emphasis on the things I want to express in my work, rather than the mechanics of the tools used to express them.
They are all means to an end; no one is more or less valid than the others, and no more or less valid than other artistic means like painting, music, or sculpture. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but are not nearly as important as the impression they ultimately make with their audience.
Q How does a photographer work within these two different realities?
I’ll defer to the wisdom of Hermann Hesse: “There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”
There is only one reality I work within, and that is my own view of the world. It may be expressed in different ways and in different media, but it is always the same reality.
QHow and when do you decide that a photograph is to be taken in black and white or colour? At the taking stage or afterwards? How does it work to visualize the possibilities? Can you explain the process?
A lot has been said about the role of constraints in art. Much as we praise artistic freedom, constraints are vital in order to focus the work so it is more effective in achieving its desired effect. And, ultimately, none of us can be a master of all arts, languages, and styles.
We end up choosing those constraints that best fit what we wish to express. For some, the constraints are as narrow as all-color photography or all-black and white photography, or haiku, or iambic pentameter. For others, they may be broadened to such things as photography, poetry, or painting.
Others still are able to master several disciplines and produce meaningful work in all of them (was Leonardo da Vinci a painter? a scientist? an engineer? a musician? all of the above?). This in no way reflects on the value of the work, but merely on the personal sensibilities of the artist.
As to who sees more or less; some people can produce rich bodies of work in just color, or just monochrome, while others can’t make a meaningful image no matter how many media they work in. The distinction lies not in the tools but in the mind, skill, imagination and creativity of the artist using them.
In my work today, the decision is not made explicitly, but implicitly. Beyond the simple mechanics of using a camera, the most important skill that a photographic artist can possess is the ability to visualize effectively. That is, to imagine all the possible ways in which to express a concept, and to choose the one that fits best.
Most often, this means that I will instinctively know whether a concept is best portrayed in color or in black and white before I ever touch the camera. But that is not a hard and fast rule. The nature of creativity is such that epiphanies may happen at any time I am engaged in my work. Sometimes I will realize after the fact that my original visualization may not be the most effective one, and I may choose to take the image in a different direction during processing.
The creative process is not a linear one, other than in its mechanical aspects. When it comes to expressing a concept, new ideas may guide the work in different ways. It is important not to become locked into just one possible outcome. Doing so stifles creativity, which is the engine that makes art possible.
QCan you share some tips for people interested in landscape photography? The most obvious and also those that may come from the heart, if you think that's something sharable with people? Is there a path to go beyond the simple technique suggestions?
The answer is in the question. Technique is important, but without emotion, imagination, experience and creativity, at best you can hope for well-crafted images. Strive, instead, to make meaningful images. These can only come from introspection.
The most important question someone can ask about an image is not how it was made, but why, and the why is not contained in the subject or the tools. It has to come from the person behind the camera. Rather than look for simple aesthetics, look to express something of your own making – your thoughts and feelings about the things you photograph, or about anything else that can come through the image.
The simplest and most effective advice is reflected in the words of Mark Twain: the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Experiment, work, practice, spend as much time as you can with your subjects, study, research, read, take classes, and be prepared to fail over and over before you succeed.
There are no shortcuts. There is a wealth of knowledge out there to help you build your foundation, but always strive to express something of yourself in your work. Remember that there is a difference between a great image and an image of something great.
QYou've published eBooks, the Creative series, covering different aspects of photography. Now you've published a printed book, Exposures, Views from Both Sides of the Camera. How do you feel the publishing market is right now in terms of authors, and do you intend to keep on creating new eBooks in the Creative series and also in print?
I think that the publishing market is in the throes of a revolution – a democratization, where big business interests no longer dictate what sees the light of day and what doesn’t. With eBooks, anyone can be an author and reach any audience.
This has profound financial and creative implications for anyone who wishes to share their written work. I think it is an absolute boon to both authors and readers, but should not be taken for granted. It also imposes greater responsibility on readers in terms of researching, filtering and consuming written content.
I do intend to offer more titles in the Creative series (most likely addressing the subjects of visual composition and field techniques). I also plan on offering a different kind of eBook exploring, dare I say, more philosophical aspects of approaching visual art and the rewards of incorporating it into one’s life.