Guy Tal - USA
1. In one of the first essays of your book "More than a rock" you tell us that you stood at some difficult crossroads in your life. What was the main reason that lead you into the photographic world?
I can describe my life’s path as improbable. I grew up in Israel, at a time when it still had abundant fields and wild lands. As a young child, I recall times spent roaming in beautiful surroundings, as well as times punctuated by runs to the communal bomb shelter as air raid sirens were howling. I served in the Israeli military, then studied and taught at the Tel Aviv University. I hope readers don’t consider these facts as indicative of any political stance on issues related to the Middle East. I never felt at home there (not in the sense that I now understand the meaning of the word) and I left for a reason.
I never really thought of my engagement with photography as being in the “photographic world.” For many years after my first introduction to photography, I photographed for myself and sometimes to share pictures with friends (that was long before the Internet and social media). I first used a camera “seriously” when one day, for reasons I don’t even remember, I borrowed my father’s fixed lens Minolta rangefinder and headed to my beloved fields that no longer exist. I don’t think even one exposure from my first roll of film was usable, or looked the way I hoped it would. But the memory of being completely enraptured, framing flowers and insects and patterns in the viewfinder, is still very vivid in my mind. After that, I started studying photographs in books and magazines, and strived to improve my skills. In those days, I didn’t know anyone else who was an avid photographer. That changed about 20 years ago when I joined an early version of a photography mailing list and a few photography related Usenet groups (I doubt many today remember these) and began interacting with other photographers.
2. You`re not just a photographer but also a writer, a teacher, an artist. How important is the combination as a means of artistic expression?
Actually, I am only one thing—me. These titles are just ways of encapsulating parts of what I do in a way that can be readily communicated to, and understood by, others. I don’t separate my photographic work, or other aspects of what I do, from my life as a whole. Everything I create is with a self-expressive goal, meaning that my work derives from who I am and from my experiences. Without that, I don’t really care how interesting or pretty something is, I will not photograph or write about it.
I believe that it is ultimately damaging to compartmentalize one’s life, and especially so when it comes to creative pursuits. I had to separate my work life from my “real” life for many years, pretending to be one person in my professional endeavors and another person when left to pursue the things I love. Tearing down this barrier has been very liberating. As Kierkegaard observed, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
Recently, after a presentation, someone in the audience asked me how important it is to specialize in one area of photography or another. My answer to him was that it depends on what he loves to do. Some people become passionate about one thing, or one category, while others have diverse passions and skills. Be who you are, whether a specialist or a renaissance person. There is no formula for a satisfying life that fits all people.
3. In your writings you often talk about the experience. It feels like your individual experience is much more important for you than any great picture. Is that true in your eyes and which advice would you give to other photographers?
Yes, that is very true. As I said in one of my essays, if I have to compromise my experience or the experience of others in order to “get the shot,” then to hell with the shot.
Still, it would be arrogant of me to assume that others share (or should share) my priorities. My advice is for people to just be who they are, and to use photography as an expressive means. That may be an intimidating proposition for those who rationalize their fear of acknowledging who they are, or who lack the courage to make the required choices to live and act as they are. But I believe that Nietzsche was right when he concluded that, “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Those who are satisfied with the experience of spending their days in the virtual worlds of “social” media, or who are motivated by things that I am not, such as careers, riches, or celebrity, may not appreciate what I have to say, and that’s OK. I wouldn’t want to live like they do at least as much as they likely wouldn’t want to live like I do. Ultimately, we each must choose from the options available to us, and accept whatever rewards or difficulties result.
The people I hope to reach are those who are afraid (for whatever reason) to pursue a life they consider as more meaningful than the one they lead, and that they may actually have a chance of attaining, even if they do not know how—people who may derive much greater joy and meaning from their lives and from photography simply by adopting attitudes and modes of thinking in their choices that they may not be aware of, or that intimidate them. I believe that when people come to understand and value the power of meaningful experiences (whether later expressed in photographs or not), they may find themselves feeling liberated and alive in very profound ways. For me, solitary experiences in remote and wild places make my life richer and more meaningful than any other way of living that I know of.
4. You once referred to photographer Paul Strand who said: "The important thing is: you must have something to say about the world." How significant are these words in a world overloaded with photos and information?
For me, they are infinitely significant. Each of us is unique and different in our personality, sensibilities, and perceptions. When an artist portrays his or her unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world, that artist may experience some of the most powerful feelings that a human being is capable of: flow, the thrill of discovery, being understood on a deeper level, etc. Also, those who see their self-expressive work may be better for it. For some, such an artist may open doors to new revelations and experiences that a viewer may not consider otherwise; for others, it may just be an aesthetic experience to make their day better; and for some it may be a nudge toward finding the courage to lead a more satisfying life.
I can’t describe how boring and disappointing it is to me to visit a photographer’s portfolio only to find yet more of the same compositions of the same subjects and places and visual gimmicks. To me such great investment of time and effort in copying others seems like a tragic waste of effort and time. Time is life. What you waste you will never get back. It especially saddens me to see skilled and motivated photographers driven by conformism, rather than self-expression. They may not even know how much more rewarding it is to pursue unique and personal expressions—things that nobody other than them can make (or at least originate, until the copycats catch up).
5. Please describe the significance of the social network for you and your work. Is it harmful for art?
I like social networks as means of interacting with individuals that I can’t reach otherwise, for being introduced to works of other artists (which, if I like, I continue on to pursue in other media that is more conducive to appreciating art), for reaching a broad audience, and for promoting my work and teachings without having to engage in overt marketing, which I despise.
It’s hard to say what is or is not harmful to art, especially since it is impossible to find a consensus on what art is, what purpose it should serve (if any), and how it may evolve in response to certain forces. For example, for centuries almost all art was in the form of portraying religious motifs and celebrating gods and powerful people. That art doesn’t interest me much, but it ultimately led some artists to rebel and to apply their skill and insights toward expressing things more meaningful to their own lives: natural scenes, social commentary, etc., which I consider a very good thing.
I can tell you that for me it takes just a few minutes of watching social feeds rolling by to change my mood for the worse, so I limit my participation in these sites to just those things I enjoy: to interact with individuals who enlighten and challenge me, to seek an audience for my work and offerings, etc. Beyond that, these sites serve no useful purpose for me, and I would rather spend my most precious and limited resource—my time as a living, conscious, being—on more rewarding things.
6. You love the wild places of the American West and found your artistic approach in this area. Why does this work best for you? Could you also imagine to be a world traveller and create art as well?
I can imagine falling in love with other places, but not being a world traveler just for the sake of travel. I much prefer taking the time to get to know a place deeply, beyond superficial impressions, rather than running from one place to the next and always having the perspective of an outsider. I can appreciate the beauty and interest inherent in some places, but I found that it takes many years to really get to know a place and to feel a part of it, which to me is much more satisfying than just seeing beautiful scenery. And I only have so many years.
7. Where do you find inspiration? Which artists have been the greatest source of inspiration for you?
I find inspiration primarily in my inner experiences, which are continually enhanced as I mature and gain more knowledge, skills, and insights. Those people who inspire me the most are deep thinkers who also possess the gift of expression—whether artists, scientist, philosophers, or anything else doesn’t much matter to me. I’m not interested in repeating anyone’s accomplishments, I’m more interested in their experiences, thoughts, and ideas, and what I might learn from them that will make my own life more interesting. I’m not in “it” (life, art, whatever) to make cover version, but to make my short time on earth as meaningful and interesting as I can.
8. In your writings you`re radiating peace. Have there also been times of rejection? How did you get over those feelings?
I’m an emotional rollercoaster. The times I’m moved to create are times of peace and beauty (although sometimes preceded and prompted by much less pleasant states), which may explain why my writings and images inspire these perceptions. I go through cycles of depression and euphoria, which I prefer to persisting in some benign emotional state for any period of time. To me, intense emotions and sensations, both good and bad, are all beautiful. As for rejection by others, that has never been much of a concern to me. I simply don’t care, and it doesn’t factor into the decisions I make.
9. Have you ever been scared when you spent time in the wild places that you love so much?
Not really. I am very comfortable alone in the wild (more so than in cities or other congested places), and have come to these places after experiencing, and making peace with, some difficult times in my younger years. I’m a very rational person, and to me there is no rational reason to be afraid, even in situations where my life may feel threatened. I actually know the answer to “what’s the worst that can happen?” (in fact, all people do even if they choose to deny it). And, having seen it up close, and recognizing both its inevitability and the futility of worrying about it, it’s really not something that scares me. I am grateful for having passed the point of feeling like I already lived a very full, interesting, and satisfying life at a relatively young age. Certainly, I do not look forward to my life coming to an end, but even if it ends today I feel like I have gotten to do and see and experience and learn far more than most, and more than what a little ape living for a blink of time on a small clump of cosmic dust can hope to.
10. Final Question: This project is called "Vision and life". What do the terms "vision" and "life" mean for you, Guy?
I know that some photographers are enamored with “vision,” but to me it’s really not a very good term to use in this context. It means almost completely opposite things when considered literally vs. metaphorically. When taken literally, certainly I love having the physical ability, and related emotional sensations, to perceive electromagnetic waves as colors, lines, shapes, patterns, and textures. But when taken metaphorically to mean a way of imagining and perceiving, I don’t think it’s a very good metaphor. Experiences that affect me emotionally consist of many more dimensions than just what I see or visualize.
Life, similarly, may be too broad a metaphor because it encompasses all aspects of conscious existence, not all of which are equally (or at all) satisfying.
So, in my mind (and in my work), I prefer to think of experiences, which are subsets of life—distillations of what’s essential and meaningful about a particular episode in the course of conscious living, vision (whether literal or metaphorical) being just one of them.
Experiences are enhanced by mindfulness, by deep thoughts, by acquiring new and interesting knowledge and perceptions, by revelations and realizations, etc. To me, experiences are those portions of the entire living experience that make it rewarding and worth engaging in. To simply persist as a living being—even if comfortable and safe—but without meaningful experiences, doesn’t seem to me a worthy use for the gift of conscious living.