Guy Tal is an artist, writer, and teacher whose home in the high desert landscape of Utah’s Colorado Plateau inspires him. He, in turn, inspires many others as one of the foremost living nature photographers. He generously shared his time and ideas with us for our Photo Stories series.
Editor’s note: Out of the rather confused jumble of preface remarks and questions that I sent him (there was so much I wanted to ask that it was difficult for me to narrow things down), Guy wrote a remarkable combination of story and insightful instruction on vision and artistic creation. I have distributed my questions throughout Guy’s response here so that readers may understand the various topics that he was addressing. However, it may help to know that I sent my questions to him in one email, and his response was an unbroken essay that wove together his thoughts on both the “Arctic Canyon” image and on the overall concepts that I asked about. -Heather N
When you finish reading this interview and find yourself hungry for more, get Guy Tal’s ebook Creative Landscape Photography. “Originally designed as a companion to Guy Tal’s Creative Landscape Photography workshop, this is the first in a series of instructional texts aimed at intermediate and advanced photographers seeking to evolve their skills beyond the basics.”
To set the stage, this image is a bit unusual for me as it depicts a fairly well-known location. I generally prefer more anonymous places. The reason I was there is that a couple of days prior we had to say goodbye to our beloved old dog and I felt I needed to get away and just be with my thoughts for a bit. Around that time we were also experiencing a stretch of very cold temperatures (below 0°F) so I decided to head out for the day instead of going on a longer backcountry trip, which is my preferred mode of work. I was fairly certain nobody would be at this (otherwise popular) canyon in the middle of the week and when it was this cold. So, I decided to drive by the trailhead, which is not too far from my home, and see if there were any vehicles at the parking area. As I expected, there was nobody around and I decided to take advantage of having the place to myself.
I didn’t have a specific goal in mind other than to be in a remote place that inspires me, and where I can appreciate the wild in solitude. I’m fortunate to live in this amazing part of the world and have the time to explore it and commune with it. Where many other photographers use photography as motivation to experiencing the wild, my approach is the opposite – I live here and work as I do because I seek the experience first, hoping that it may inspire a meaningful photograph. Whether it does or not is a secondary consideration.
Can you talk about the mental process of deciding what to include/exclude in your photos, and how you work on making them so striking? I ask in this context: We frequently read advice like “eliminate all distracting elements — if it doesn’t add to the composition then it shouldn’t be included” — but hiking in the backcountry, being struck by the beauty in almost everything that surrounds you, I find that to be some of the toughest advice to apply.
With regards to composition and process, this is a good example of why I recommend letting go of the copycat checklist and getting to know a place intimately, going back over and over, seeing it in different conditions and having the time to think about it between visits. The more you know about your subject, the better you’ll be able to articulate what it means to you, whether in a photograph or an essay or a poem. As photographer Paul Strand said: “the important thing is you must have something to say about the world.” This is a place I have been to dozens of times. It is part of my home. I have seen it under many moods (mine and the landscape’s) and feel I have something to say about it beyond just how pretty it is.
To refer to [such things as exposure, focusing, etc.] as important is like saying that it’s important to know how to start and steer your car. Think, instead, of the much greater importance of where you want to go.
The single most important thing anyone can do to improve their work is to slow down and focus their attention on the task at hand, block out everything else and consider the possibilities and what you wish to express in the image. Attention is a precious resource and the more things are on your mind the less of it is left for creative work. So, get to a place, see what it has to offer, walk around, determine where the light is coming from and how it may change over time, consider possibilities and try to notice as much as possible before setting up your camera (which is another distraction best left for after you know what you want to do).
The basic question…is: How do you “find” a photo amid a riot of scenery?
One thing I suggest to my workshop participants is to make a list in their minds – a visual inventory – of what’s around them. This serves several purposes. For starters, the act of deliberately focusing attention and looking for things will ensure that more of your cognitive powers are dedicated to studying the scene. More than that, it will help train your brain to do it increasingly better the more you practice. Creativity is like a muscle; the more you exercise it the better it will perform, whether you end up making an image or not. And, of course, assuming you are there to appreciate the wonders of the place, your experience will be richer the more you notice. It’s one thing to notice a huge waterfall, but if you stop there you’ll miss the greater pleasures of being aware of every leaf and sound and bird and scent around you.
Once you have a better idea of what you have to work with, two related skills come into play. One is visualization – the ability to imagine, to see in your “mind’s eye” the possible image (or images) that can be created before reaching for your tools, whether it’s the camera or notepad or Photoshop. Having an idea in your mind of what you want the finished product to look like gives you a target to aim for, and helps articulate the steps you will need to take to realize it, whether it’s choosing the best aperture or color temperature or dodging or burning or selecting the best paper to print on. This is something novice photographers often fail to take into account – the quality of your work will evolve over time as you practice more of the skills of your craft. The more you know about composition, exposure, processing, printing, finishing, etc., the more you will consider when visualizing the possibilities. There are no shortcuts. Following formulas may still give you pleasing images, but without experience built over time your repertoire will be limited. Don’t rush to “master” anything. Take your time to experiment and discover. That’s what makes creative work so rewarding – there’s always more to know and to try than you can fit in a lifetime.
…there’s a difference between representational images (literally re-presenting something anyone would have seen at the scene) and creative images (creation being the production of something new, originating from the artist’s own mind). The distinction I use is that representational images are images of things, while creative images are images about things.
The second important skill is, of course, composition – the arrangement of visual elements within the frame. There is a gross misconception about composition among photographers who believe that composition can be reduced to such simplistic things as the rule-of-thirds or other templates. In reality it is a much larger topic, having to do with psychology and visual perception. Everything in the frame has meaning; nothing is benign. This is why you should be very careful about what is in the frame and where, and what may be distracting to what you wish to express and is better left out. Colors, shapes, lines and contrast all contribute to how your viewer will feel when they see your image. Some things are obvious, for example: red elements will draw more attention than blue ones; but other things are more subtle, for example: the direction of diagonal lines can completely change the mood of an image, whether it is seen as forceful or calm, dramatic or subtle, etc. Here, too, the more you know the more possibilities you will consider in your work and the more original and successful images you will produce. No one essay or list of tips can teach you everything.
Note that I did not include such things as exposure, focusing, etc. among what I consider important skills. Certainly they are important in the sense that without them the image may never exist at all, but they are easily learned and become trivial with experience. To refer to them as important is like saying that it’s important to know how to start and steer your car. Think, instead, of the much greater importance of where you want to go.
When you got to this spot…how did you go about composing the image–deciding on angles, framing, what to include/leave out?
Going back to the image, it is a result of what was there in front of me, as well as what was inside of me. I felt sad and contemplative; it was cold; but it was also impressive and beautiful, which inspired me and made me feel hopeful. It was this combination of moods that I wanted to express. I knew that blue would be an important color to convey the chill and melancholy. I chose a wide lens to emphasize the grandeur and magnitude of the place, and deliberately left out the sky for a more intimate feeling. Similarly, I left out the immediate foreground and trees since they did not contribute to what I had in mind.
One way to think about it is that there’s a difference between representational images (literally re-presenting something anyone would have seen at the scene) and creative images (creation being the production of something new, originating from the artist’s own mind). The distinction I use is that representational images are images of things, while creative images are images about things. This is not meant to be an image of a waterfall; it is meant to be an image about seeking solace and hope in a natural setting after suffering a loss.
Your photos – and this one is no exception – often contain a lot of visual information. Some are simple and intimate, and some are highly complex in terms of the amount of “stuff” in the photo, but they all have a look of organic, striking simplicity.
You asked specifically about complexity and simplicity. When considering these it’s important not to think of how many literal elements are in the image but about the ways in which the human brain groups them together. If you consider some of the conclusions originating from Gestalt Theory and other studies, this image is easily reducible to only four elements: the pool, the falls, the wall and the icicles. These are the things your brain will register and use to determine how you feel about, and respond to, the image. So, despite the myriad of details, this is actually a very simple composition.
Many artists learn to compose intuitively and with experience honed over time. This is how artists of the past learned when apprenticing with more experienced ones, trying to absorb wisdom accumulated over thousands of years despite not being expressible or explicable in words. Today we have the benefit of science, too, and some artists turn to it to better articulate these intuitive senses of what “works.” As a teacher I know too well that when it comes to learning there is no one size that fits all. Some artists value “book” knowledge and others are distracted by it. Any approach is equally valid if it leads to a satisfying and rewarding engagement in the creative process.
Those who are familiar with the writing of Guy Tal will probably not be too astonished at the level of insight and the moving narrative contained in this interview. I was already familiar with his powerful writing, but I was nonetheless overwhelmed by the generosity of this admirable man, who took the time to respond to my questions in such depth and detail after a brief email exchange. I thanked him privately, and would again like to thank him publicly, for sharing his time, his personal story, and his ideas with us. -HN
Photo Stories is a series that provides a look at how our favorite images were made.