Q & A with Landscape Photographer Guy Tal

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Guy is a professional artist, author, photographer, educator and public speaker. We have always been inspired by his work. We were fortunate enough to get him to share how he got his start in photography and show us his world behind the lens.

What got you started in photography?

Since my earliest memory I always found inspiration in the wild. I used to explore the fields and abandoned orchards around my home for hours at a time until one day, for reasons I can’t even remember, I decided to borrow my father’s old Minolta on one of my forays. The memory of that experience is etched in my mind as one of the most transformational events in my life. I was completely lost in the experience, chasing butterflies and birds, looking for interesting patterns and colorful flowers. At the end of the day I was excited to drop the film off at a local 24-hour lab (hope at least some of your readers still remember those). A couple of days later I picked up the resulting prints. To my horror not a single one had turned out as I expected. While few exhibited proper exposure and focus, none appeared as I had remembered them.

Thankfully, my enthusiasm was not diminished and I kept trying until I got it right. I since realized that, in a sense, I was fortunate to start my journey in photography with the important lesson that merely knowing how to operate a camera was not sufficient in order to reproduce images as I saw them in my proverbial “mind’s eye.” The reason was one I did not fully acknowledge until some years later: the awe and fascination I wanted to express were not in front of the lens, they were in my mind, and I had to learn how to express them through my subjects by means of effective composition and careful processing.

It scares me to realize that this happened almost 30 years ago, but my passion had only increased since.

Talk a little bit about how you decided to “go pro”. What is some advice you would give to someone looking to follow that dream? 

As I mention in a recent blog post, I struggled with the decision to “go pro” for a long time. I spent years in offices and cubicles, yearning to be elsewhere. For decades I made a good living, lived a comfortable life, and patted myself on the shoulder for having accomplished the fabled American Dream. But, I was not happy. I was not fulfilled. I did not feel like I was living my life to its fullest. It made me bitter and angry. It took a toll on my health and my relationships. Like many others, I’m sure, I found myself struggling with the question of whether the celebrated career-driven urban lifestyle was really all that there was to aspire to. And, having realized the answer, I could no longer pretend to not know what it was, or that it did not matter.

There came a point when I could no longer reconcile my most fundamental notions about what makes a life worth living with the actual life I was living. I could no longer be one person in theory and another in practice. I could no longer be one person in my “off” time and another person in my professional endeavors. I could no longer be the person secretly admiring others for doing the things I wanted to do and being the things I wanted to be, rather than doing and being them myself. I had to at least try. Either that or give up hope. The scale tipped when I realized that the latter was a far more terrifying prospect than the former.

I’m hardly qualified to offer business advice but one thing I suggest to anyone considering such a move is to apply the same creativity to your business model as you do to your photographic work. It may not be easy, but it is possible. If you are not independently wealthy, also keep in mind that it requires more than just having the right images, but also having the right temperament and being prepared for the realities of doing creative work for a living, which means you always worry about where the next image/essay/sale will come from. However, if you can live with the stresses and uncertainty, the rewards can be tremendous.

As viewers, we only see one side of a photo. If you would, share with us an intriguing story behind one of your photos.

I very rarely photograph well-known places and avoid compositions already photographed by others. I pride myself on making original work, conceived from my own mind and accomplished by my own skill, so to me every image has a personal story.

The way I tend to work draws directly from the reason I love photography – it’s an extension of my love for being in remote and wild places. My mode of work is in many ways almost the opposite of what most other landscape photographers do. I’m not chasing after decisive moments or extreme feats. I generally find an area that inspires me and keep going back to it, over and over, staying a few days each time and developing a relationship with it, seeing it in all seasons and all hours of the day and exploring it as far as I can walk or drive. Some of my images can, therefore, be years in the making rather than instinctive reactions. One such image is Badlands in Bloom.

Badlands, as their name suggests, support little or no plant life, and this place is no exception. In most other times this place is almost completely barren, and I photographed it in its arid state many times over a period of nearly fifteen years. I first saw this explosion of flowers in 2005. Regrettably it was on a quick stop en route to a different location so my images of that event were not too exciting. That also happened to be the first time I visited the place in spring, which made me believe it was a recurring seasonal effect that I could plan to photograph the following year.

To my surprise, on the same date the following year, only a few flowers were out. The year after, there were none. During that time I befriended one of the local farmers and learned that it’s a fairly rare phenomenon occurring only once every few years. As luck would have it, the following year I actually moved to a small town within a 30 minute drive of this area, which allowed me to explore it more deliberately. Still, year after year I went looking for the flowers and found none.

I finally saw them again in 2010, which was a very wet year here. For a period of about two weeks I visited almost every day but was still not quite satisfied with what I got. When the weather forecast finally suggested a cloudy morning I was almost beside myself with excitement. I camped there the night before, and was able to make this image just before dawn, five years after I initially conceived it.

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I did not want the generic blazing sunrise because my intent was to let the flowers take center stage, and to illustrate the stunning contrast between these vibrant little plants and the foreboding monochromatic landscape. The diffused overcast light helped me do just that – keep the landscape appearing desolate and let the flowers be the most vibrant thing around. A fiery sky may have made the image more impactful but would have missed the mood I was after and likely would not have been as memorable.

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As it happens, this place is not only beautiful but is also a battleground between conservationists and off-road vehicle users. This particular spot is surrounded by several signs saying “no motor vehicles” but still, it is often marred by tire tracks. I included an image made in the same place and around the same date three years later. Some areas show tracks and others are completely shredded. Being a desert, these scars take years to heal and this scene may not look that way again for a very long time.

Every pro was once a beginner. Who have you looked to for inspiration?

In the beginning, nobody. I grew up in Israel and when I first started photographing I did not even know who Ansel Adams was. There was no such thing as public Internet then. It was the sheer joy of making images in the places I loved that got me to pursue photography. A few years later I was gifted my first coffee table book authored by Scottish nature photographer Laurie Campbell, which became my favorite book for a while and prompted me to begin looking for more like it. It was then that I was introduced to the likes of Art Wolfe, Jack Dykinga, Galen Rowell and, of course, many of the classics. I’ve been an avid reader and researcher of all things related to creative photography since.

Talk to us about your recent ebook, More Than A Rock. Any new books/ebooks we should look forward to on the horizon?

More Than A Rock is a collection of essays motivated by the things I learned working in the landscape. It is as much about photography as it is about art, life and the wild. It is by no means a how-to book, but more a book for anyone who shares my love of wild places and who wishes for their images to express more than just the aesthetics of naturally-occurring phenomena (which is certainly worthy in its own right, but to me there is more to it). For anyone curious about the title, it comes from a line I found in the Daybooks of Edward Weston: “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”

My working and living as I do is not a coincidence, it is a result of a life-long desire to lead a more meaningful life – a desire that, for whatever reason, found its expression in photography and drove me to live in one of the most remote places in America. These essays describe many of the thoughts and motivations and forces that made me not just a photographer but also an artist, and in a larger sense the person I am today.

I am currently working on a related title that will offer more practical advice for those interested in implementing my approach and methods in their own work.

For those interested in more detailed hands-on techniques, I cover them in my Creative Processing and Creative Printing eBooks.

All books can be found at: http://guytalbooks.com

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