Guy Tal: Experiencing the World at Its Most Sublime

A Conversation with the Landscape Photographer, Author & Educator

Speed of Silence, Photography by Guy Tal

From a young age, Guy Tal loved being outdoors. At one point he borrowed his father’s camera and photographed with it. The experience was etched deeply into his memory. He slightly lost touch with his passion during his late 20s when he was busy building a career in IT.

But, soon he realised the increasing sense of void and started yearning to go out in the wild again. His journey into the world of photography, that halted temporarily, had truly begun. Today not only is he known worldwide for his art but also as an acclaimed educator and author.

It is often quoted that ‘Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.’ How much is this true in your exploration of life and art in general?

It is not only true but expresses one of the most valuable lessons I learned on my path to becoming an artist. It’s not a life I ever planned for myself. I also did not plan to find my home in the American Southwest, many thousands of miles from where I was born.

Looking back, I can attribute my greatest accomplishments to a simple principle: keep moving until you find happiness; don’t allow yourself to get stuck where you are not happy, no matter how convenient it is or how many people try to convince you to settle down. And, to my delight, the journey does not end when you do find a calling. There is always more to learn, more to experience and more to live.

What have been your observations of nature in its many hues as an artist and as a human being travelling through some of the most desolate terrains on earth?

I find it hard to think about Nature (capitalised) as something separate and distinct from other things. Nature is everything – it is existence, and it is far greater than the enterprises of humanity, the limited capacities of our senses and intellect, or anything we might do with the little planet we evolved to inhabit. I find that my experience of life, which is the foundation of my art, is greatly enhanced by an appreciation for the astounding beauty of it all, and by acknowledging how much grander and more inspiring the natural world is that any artificial reality we may manufacture. As Wallace Stegner said: ‘Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed …’

Most of my work is done in deserts. The naked landscape offers a visceral feel of transforming with the passage of time and the immense forces at play – more so than landscapes hidden under a cover of vegetation. The desert is also a place where life asserts itself more decisively than in other places. Where living is hard, life is at its most ingenious. Every plant and animal in the desert has a fascinating story of adaptation and perseverance. And, due to their relatively low worth as real-estate, deserts are among the few places remaining where one can still escape the many strange trappings of human societies, and engage with the world with just their own skill and ingenuity, and their own thoughts for company.

It is my sincere hope that humanity realizes the value of such experiences before they are gone, and stops short of eradicating them completely in the name of needless economic growth.

Multihued, Photography by Guy Tal

How the adventurous Guy Tal comes to the aid of the photographer Guy Tal in his many journeys?

In my mind, there is no such separation. If I separated the person from the artist, the adventurous from the photographer, etc., all will be diminished. Who I am is a synergy of all that I do, think, feel and believe. Each may offer the world a different view of who I am, but ultimately they are just different views of the same thing.

At a more practical level, I think that meaningful work is best made when the mind is free of distractions and concerns. As such, being comfortable living and travelling in remote places is essential to experiencing them at the emotional level required to produce meaningful art. Knowing how to meet basic needs of food and shelter; being prepared for various weather conditions; knowing how to move and navigate in wild terrain; and how to survive possible mishaps, allow me to not dwell on these things when I’m engaged in my work, no matter where I am. For the same reason, I may find it much harder to produce meaningful work in settings that are uncomfortable to me, such as bustling cities or environments I am not familiar with.

Not only have you travelled far and wide but also explored not so frequented places closer to home. Did it reveal a newer facet with every trip that you have taken to ‘know’ your home better?

The majority of my work from recent years was created in the area I live in, known as the Colorado Plateau. I find it much more satisfying to work in places I have an intimate, personal familiarity with. This is why I don’t consider myself a travel photographer. Travel photographers generally work from the perspective of an outsider, documenting their short-lived encounters with places they don’t belong to. While such images can be moving and profound, I find that I’m more interested in gaining the kind of deeper understanding and appreciation that can only happen after spending a considerable period of time with a subject. And yes, I find new things to appreciate, new concepts to develop and new meanings to portray in my work all the time.

Unlikely Foothold, Photography by Guy Tal
Unlikely Foothold

How social interactions enrich artists and help in the development of individuals on the web and more importantly off it?

I don’t think there’s a universal answer. Each person is affected differently by social interaction. Those who are more extroverted generally will seek out and gain from more frequent encounters, on- or off-line. Admittedly, I’m an introvert, and can only socialize in small doses. When I do, it is generally with just one or a handful of people. Solitude is absolutely vital to my well being. In fact, I spend most of my time by myself, whether working or not.

I was fortunate to play a small part in the evolution of the Web. As far as I know, I was the first professional web developer in Israel, where I grew up. I worked for the country’s first (and at the time, only) public ISP after a period of exploring web technologies to satisfy my own curiosity during my time working at the Tel Aviv University. I later relocated to Silicon Valley where I pursued a successful career in Internet technologies. They were exciting times and many of us had great hopes for the Internet, many of which were realized. I do think we have reached a point of diminishing returns, though. I still believe that any value we garner from these technologies should be balanced with a hefty dose of solitary explorations in natural settings, disconnected from technology, experiencing the world at its most sublime and in the most personal and tactile way possible.

You have collected many gems of experience over the years. Is there anyone in particular that stands out in memory and you wish to share?

There are many. I feel I would be doing a disservice to readers if I focus on just one dramatic experience without mentioning the greater goal of living a fulfilling life. There’s an often-quoted foolish saying along the lines of life being about ‘moments that take your breath away.’ Using food as a metaphor, such moments may offer appetizing nuggets but don’t, in themselves, make for a satisfying meal. So, on the whole, I don’t believe in living for moments or singular experiences. Life can be meaningful, even if just in quiet and nuanced ways, at any time. Writing off all that happens in-between memorable anecdotes is to ignore the greater story – life itself; and to cheapen the great gift that is to be alive and conscious in this amazing world, independent of anything else. So, if I may share something other than one gem, I learned that a life of sustained fulfilment, discovery and beauty is far more satisfying than one of the mundane meanderings interrupted by the occasional moment of fleeting bliss.

Awash in Colour, Photography by Guy Tal
Awash in Colour

Your images of Badlands covered with a carpet of scorpionweed and bee plant are striking examples of the triumph of life over adversity. How do you keep yourself inspired and your sense of wonder afresh for life’s journey through its varied alleys?

That’s an excellent question. Along the same lines as my previous answer, I think that most people are under the incorrect impression that being inspired is a passive state resulting from the occasional encounter with something unique. In fact, inspiration is everywhere, all the time. It’s within us, no matter what we happen to be doing at a given moment. It takes training and discipline to proactively maintain this mindset. It is a state of sustained wonder, interrupted sometimes by adverse conditions, though those are the exception rather than the norm. Rather than thinking in terms of keeping yourself inspired, it is much more rewarding to just stay there and to keep yourself from becoming uninspired.

Portrait of Guy Tal

Guy Tal loves being in the deserts, highlands and mountains of the Colorado Plateau. Hardly anything attracts him more than being out in the wilderness camping with books such as Walden by Henry David Thoreau, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery with the whispers of the gentle breeze to accompany him.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Guy Tal