This week I’m very excited to announce that our featured photographer is Guy Tal. Guy is both an artist and an author based out of the American West whose work provides an incredibly thoughtful and intimate look into his experiences in the wilderness. His work is a constant source of inspiration and challenges me to always be thoughtful when it comes to my choices and approach. I want to thank Guy for his time and effort taking part in this interview. Make sure to visit his website and blog to view more of his work and writing!
You’ve been a photographer for over two decades and it’s very clear that you have a deep understanding and confidence in regards to your approach and interests. Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions you had about landscape photography compared to how you view and value it now?
There are some things I believe and practice today that are very different from, even opposite to, things I used to do and believe in other times. However, I’m not sure I would call them misconceptions. Even things that I used to believe in and that I no longer do were true in their day and fit my understanding of photography and of myself at that time.
I think that it’s very important for creative people to not become dogmatic and set in their ways. I practice my work as expressive art, which simply means that my images are meant to convey something of my subjective thoughts and feelings, rather than just be records of things I happened to see and find attractive. So, it’s only natural that as I evolve and mature as a person, the things I wish to express in my work evolve and mature as well. In fact, I find it comforting sometimes to hear opinions from others that I used to hold and no longer do. It confirms for me that I let go of them for a reason, having given them serious consideration, rather than just accept (or reject) them outright and without careful examination.
I think that at the core of most of these “misconceptions” was the misplaced belief that photography is one thing, always to be practiced for the same purpose, and under the same “rules” that should apply to everyone, no matter what their goals or motivations are. In time, I came to conclude that this fundamentalist approach, regrettably still held by many, is plain silly. Photography is a form of language: a means for creating and communicating information and meanings. To suggest that all uses for photography must comply with the same rules is like saying that all writing must be in the form of factual journalism, and that using language for such things as poetry or fiction should not be tolerated. In truth, photography can be every bit as poetic and expressive as other media.
When you decided to pursue your craft full-time, what were some of the early struggles you faced, do they still exist today and how have you managed them over the years?
The most obvious hurdle was giving up the regular paycheck, and learning to make peace with the fact that income from photography (and writing) is not always predictable or consistent. Certainly this is still true, but what I learned over the years is that I was my own worst enemy, and that overcoming such hurdles was primarily about adjusting my own attitude.
In reality all I did was trade the anxiety of feeling that my life was wasting away—living in a place I didn’t like, spending hours each day on things that did not inspire me, and not having the freedom to engage in the experiences I found most rewarding as often as I wanted—for the smaller anxiety of having to generate sufficient income from my work.
I suppose you can say I managed my struggles by coming to accept them and realizing that, on balance, my life is far better today than it was before I decided to change course.
Inconsistency and self-doubt are two of the biggest road blocks stopping many people from reaching their true potential. Do you ever experience a lack of emotional or creative drive, and if so, how do you push through those periods of time?
I do, but I also believe that having such blocks is a cyclical and inevitable part of creative work. I know some (who call themselves) artists who work in very formulaic and calculated ways, targeting their work to known audiences and sales channels, and who do not experience such blocks. By definition, however, such work is not creative. Creativity requires novelty, and there is no magic formula that is guaranteed to yield novel and lucrative ideas. Expressive art reflects the life of the artist, and just like life has its ups and downs, so does the art that expresses it.
There are, however, things that do increase the probability of creative epiphanies, one of the most important of which is consistent practice. The more I do what I do, the more whatever brain circuitry is involved in making expressive art is exercised and becomes more productive.
But when the well runs dry (and it does, every so often) the best thing you can do is to look back at all the previous times it happened and realize that it’s a natural thing and that it just needs to run its course.
Rather than feel defeated and anxious, use the time to, as a friend once expressed to me, put yourself in the path of opportunity: study, read, process images, continue to engage in things that are enjoyable and inspiring to you even if they don’t yield immediate results. In time, something will spark your creativity again. After all, creativity is part of what it means to be human, so you just learn to trust it.
I also find that having multiple means of expression often is very useful. In times when I’m dissatisfied with photography, I often find that I can still be creative (sometimes even more so) in my writing, and that the two often feed off each other. So, perhaps one bit of advice I can give is this: do not become too obsessed with just one means of expression. What you have to express is more important than the medium you use to do it. If you’re also a writer, a musician, a woodworker, a dancer, etc., turn to your other passions for a while.
What is one risk or chance you took in your career that didn’t work out as you had hoped, and how important do you think failure is when it comes to growth?
Some experts claim that failure is a necessary part of personal growth. I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that: it’s not actual failure that is necessary but coming to a point where you are truly prepared to accept failure as a real possibility and are willing to take the risk, anyway.
I’ll be a little snarky and say that one of the greater risks I took in my career was pursuing the career path in the first place. That did not work out at all as I had hoped. I hoped that with greater income and responsibility, greater financial success, etc., I would be happier and more satisfied with my life. In reality, the exact opposite happened. And I paid for that risk dearly, and in the most valuable currency there is: many years off my limited lifespan that could have been spent in much more satisfying ways.
I’ve taken several big life risks over the years: I left my home country to start a new life in the US; I left my consulting business in California to start a new life in Utah where I could be closer to the wild places I love; I then left the urban career-driven life altogether to live in a small town and to become a full-time artist. Not a single one of these worked out as I had hoped at the time I decided to take the leap. Some things did not work out as well as I thought they would, and other things worked far better than I thought. But I think that the greater lesson is not in picking out what worked and what didn’t, but rather in the realization that the best things to come out of each decision were ones I could not have hoped for because at the time I did not—and could not—know what they were, let alone that they were even possible. In these, I include personal growth, meaningful experiences, discoveries, etc.
Our culture is a little too obsessed with planning, and with the false belief that we can eliminate risk and still reap great benefits from important life decisions. I often hear from those who wish to make such decisions that they’ll maybe do it “some day, if/when…” Perhaps with the exception of retirement, I don’t know of a single case of “one day” having arrived, making the decision easy and obvious. For me, it was always a case of arbitrarily deciding that “one day” is today, even when today was pretty much the same as the days that preceded it.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the outlet that most photographers choose to share their work. Unfortunately, it seems like the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on the direction many photographers take while creating their images. What are your thoughts on authenticity and why do you think it’s important for people to embrace their own creative vision?
Conformism, the need for acceptance, the desire for external validation, etc., are innate to the human psyche. Being social creatures who learn by imitation has served us very well in terms of evolutionary selection, making us the most successful life form to exist on Earth in terms of dominion and control, at least to date. We are programmed to want and to feel good about such things. However, there is also ample evidence to suggest that even greater personal rewards are to be found in such things as creativity, discovery, and self-expression, making them worth breaking away from the herd on occasion and investing (at times, significant) effort in pursuing novel things.
Our life and work can be immensely more satisfying when the temptations of socializing, popularity and conformism are placed in balance with the inner rewards of creative work, inspiration, flow, etc.
Still, even among those who understand these benefits, some still lack the motivation, courage, and/or willpower to invest the effort needed in order to accomplish them, which is a great shame.
I think that the most important reason for people to seek and embrace original creations is for their own benefit. There is no external reward that can match the inner experience of flow, or substitute for moments of deep and profound emotional engagement with something personally meaningful, even if there is nobody else to witness it or know about it. We are all capable of feeling such things if we put our minds to it and invest the required effort. To give up such tremendous rewards when they are within reach of practically anyone seems to me nothing short of a personal tragedy, and regrettably a very common one.
Your work displays a very personal and intimate approach in regards to image making. You’ve always been very transparent about not following the traditional path when it comes to both your art and your business. At what point in your career did you become comfortable creating for yourself and following your own direction?
I’m not sure I can think of a singular point where this happened; perhaps a better way of characterizing it is that I was never comfortable with any other approach. Over time I allowed myself progressively more freedom, and taking this evolutionary path was also very useful in affirming my philosophy. The more personal my work became, the more rewarding it got, too, and the more it freed me to consider the kind of work I wanted to make, rather than work designed to sell or appeal to a pre-determined audience.
Of course this is not to say that one should completely disregard practical concerns, especially when it comes to making an income, but I always knew that while not everyone will agree with my approach, there are enough people out there who share my philosophy, and who are seeking meaningful life experiences and ways to accomplish expressive and personal work. This is my audience, and so long as enough people of this mindset are out there, and willing to purchase my work, join my workshops, read my books, etc., I’m perfectly happy not having to compete for popularity or pursue a lower common denominator.
Was there ever a point where you felt that you should be doing something a certain way because it was what seemed to be the most conventional or popular?
Of course, I think that’s how most of us started: we saw photographs that inspired us and wanted to be able to make them, ourselves. Mimicry is very useful in learning technique, and the means of expressing things visually. But, just like writing, when one has accomplished sufficient vocabulary and a good command of grammar, there are far, far, greater rewards to be found in conceiving and writing your own stories, your own poetry, your own journals, etc., rather than limiting yourself to making copies and derivations of other people’s work.
I believe that it’s important for any creative person to reach a point of proficiency. That is, a point beyond which the value of self-expression exceeds the value of learning yet more techniques and mimicking others. Arriving at that point requires a sharp change in priorities in order to sustain personal growth and satisfaction with your work. Failing to make that change in priorities will result in creative stagnation, and set a hard limit on how rewarding your work will be from that point on. At that point, you no longer derive much joy from making work, and instead, become completely dependent on external factors: popularity, accolades, awards, etc., which become progressively more meaningless and more difficult to sustain over time. This is why so many who have come to this point and did not recognize it are incessantly seeking “the next level.” However, the next level is not anything you can learn or buy, it can only be accomplished by changing your attitude and setting out to apply what you learned toward more personal ends: put your skills and tools to use in finding your own meaningful experiences and telling your own stories.
I like the way photographer Paul Strand put it: “…composition, design, etc., cannot be fixed by rules, they are not in themselves a static prescription by which you can make a photograph or anything that has meaning. They signify merely the way of synthesis and simplification which creative individuals have found for themselves. If you have something to say about life, you must also find a way of saying it clearly. And if you achieve that clarity of both perception and the ability to record it, you will have created your own composition, your own kind of design, personal to you, related to other people’s, yet your own. The point I want to make is that there is no such thing as THE way; there is only for each individual, his or her way, which in the last analysis, each one must find for himself in photography and in living. As a matter of fact, your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees. You may see and be affected by other people’s ways, you may even use them to find your own, but you will have eventually to free yourself of them.”
Why do you create images, and do you have any advice for someone who is struggling to discover their purpose in regards to their craft?
I’ll start with the advice and hope that it will make the “why” more obvious. The simplest and, in my mind, most important bit of advice I can give to anyone is to think about your life as a finite experience and as the greatest gift you will ever be given. When approached with this mindset, the inevitable question is this: how do I put this gift, this short and precious interval of time, to the best use possible?
To me the answer is obvious: try to fill your time with as many rewarding experiences as you possibly can—experiences that elevate your life. By this I don’t necessarily mean just pursuing adventures or accomplishments, but also studying things that are interesting to you, making meaningful connections with places and things and people, seeking to understand things you find inspiring and beautiful, etc. In short: be very deliberate about setting you priorities and investing your time in things that bring the greatest personal returns.
Even simple things, such as reading, learning skills or making time for rewarding hobbies can be far more rewarding than so many mundane preoccupations. Other things are dependent on the kind of person that you are. If you are a social extravert, surround yourself with people who inspire you; if, like me, you are fascinated by natural places and revel in solitude, get out there and commune with places and things that inspire you, etc.
One benefit of living life with this attitude is that, beyond just making life more enjoyable, it also makes you a more complex, knowledgeable and interesting person; and thus also gives you unique and interesting things that are worth sharing with others. And since there is great joy in creative work and in meaningful interactions, then turning these things into a form of expressive art—images, writings, or any other—also yields a different kind of meaningful experiences. And so the short answer, for me, is this: my work is a byproduct of the experiences that I find meaningful, and makes them even more so.
As you’ve grown throughout your career, how do you find yourself reacting to some of your older work, that maybe doesn’t possess the same creative choices (both in the field and during processing) that you’d prefer today?
I don’t generally throw anything away, and I sometimes find new ways of using older work, but for the most part work that doesn’t satisfy or interest me anymore is removed from public view. It still sits in my archives but I rarely revisit it. To me, it already served its purpose and I look forward to making new work and having new things to “say,” both in images and in writing.
In what ways has photography influenced your view of the wilderness, and when you’re out creating, how do you balance the experience with the process?
Photography for me was always an extension of my wilderness experiences, and influenced by them, never the other way around. I never went to a place just to “get the shot” if a more prolonged wilderness experiences (hike, camp, backpack) was not also part of it.
Wilderness experiences are greatly misunderstood, including, in my opinion, by most who refer to themselves as nature- or wilderness photographers. Wilderness, as I experience it, is only found where human involvement is non-existent, or limited to a point of not being noticeable. My favorite places to work in are those where seeing another person, or even evidence of the presence of modern humans, is almost inconceivable; where other than what I bring with me, the only evidence of the existence of humanity may be in the form of an airliner passing high above.
The states of mind that such places inspire are ones that most people find hard to even imagine: complete freedom to be as you are, complete disconnectedness from the trappings of humanity, complete absence of the sounds of machinery and human voices, complete lack of judgment and expectations and responsibilities other than tending to your own physical and emotional wellbeing.
My process of making photographs always begins with what I call a concept: something that the image is about. That is to say that my purpose is never so simple as to make an image of something, but rather to make images that are about something—something personal, a response to an experience, most commonly a wilderness experience. So, it is not so much a question of balance, but more of a natural progression: I see, I feel, I think; something presents itself that I find meaningful and moving, and I try to express it visually. As I often say: if making a photograph requires compromising the experience, then to hell with the photograph.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing gifts that come from being involved in photography. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
Without exaggerating I can say that photography gave me freedom, and not just in a metaphorical sense. My early involvement with photography, and being positioned to derive some income from it, allowed me to find a life that is satisfying and meaningful to me. It certainly was not the only factor, and it is possible that I could have accomplished a similarly satisfying life in other ways, but by some wonderful coincidence I was able to do it in large part thanks to photography.
Through photography I met some of my closest friends, found my way to the places that today are most meaningful to me (including the place I now live in), and a means of sharing my experiences with an audience.
It seems like for a lot of people, pursuing a passion can easily consume them, leaving them feeling like there’s not enough hours in a day. How do you balance your photography career with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
Strangely, I never felt this way about photography in itself. To me, there are not enough hours in the day, or days in a lifetime, to experience all the things and places that I want to experience. My challenge was always fitting the other pieces of my life around that, and photography was one of the easier pieces to place. Not only does it fit with what I love to do; it also gives me a means of expressing and sharing some of the things that make such experiences important to me, and even to earn an income from it.
At a more practical level, I made very deliberate choices along the way so as to make it possible for me to live the way I want to, rather than fall into common patterns. I decided at an early age that I did not want to raise a family; that I preferred to live simply in a rural place rather than in a city; that I did not want to take on much financial debt, etc. All these things ultimately allowed me to be more flexible with my choices and gave me more control over my time.
What is the best advice you can give anyone looking to make changes in their life, follow their dreams or pursue their passion more seriously?
The best advice I can give is to consider your priorities and make deliberate choices, rather than just go with the flow. Live with the perspective of someday looking back at your life—the gifts and opportunities and abilities and times you’ve been given—and how you put them to use. To me the prospect of looking back with regret when it is too late to do anything about it is downright terrifying. When that moment of reckoning arrives, undoubtedly there will some things I’ll wish I would have done differently, but on the whole I will know with certainty that I did not let it go to waste.
If your highest priority is to raise a family or work toward some other important goal, then stop tormenting yourself and be content that you are doing the most important thing you can.
But, if avoiding the hard choices means not doing things you consider most important, and it is within your power to reach for them, even at some risk or sacrifice, I see no way of living that is more appropriate than at least trying to live that life.
I used to be that person who was looking to make a change, and for many years I was beholden to fear. I believe that I am a better person today than the person I was then. If I could reach back through time to confront my former self, I surely would admonish him to face his denial sooner. And if this is the advice I would give myself, how can I justify not giving it to others?
Certainly, failure is a very real possibility and you should be at peace with it, and prepared to pick up the pieces if it happens. But, as Francis Bacon wrote, “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”
Here at Image & Rhythm we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?