Featured Photographer, December 2011: Guy Tal
This month, our featured guest is Guy Tal.
We want to sincerely thank Guy for taking the time to answer our questions and share his work and story with us! Please visit his site links to see more of his fantastic work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.
:: What is your photography background, and have you ever dabbled in other forms of photography, like weddings or portraits?
I was introduced to photography as a teenager. That was a few years before the introduction of Fujichrome Velvia, or the first release of Photoshop and long before consumer digital cameras were in existence.
Even as a child, I always loved spending time outdoors and at one point I decided to begin documenting some of my findings and the rest, as they say, is history.
In my early years I photographed every kind of natural subject, from macro to wildlife to landscape. It was more about finding interesting critters and getting a trophy documentary shot than anything else. It took me many years to move beyond the strict documentary interpretation and realize the creative and artistic aspects of landscape photography. It wasn't until I immigrated to the US in the 90s that I began pursuing landscape more vigorously, inspired by the abundance and tradition of fine photography in the American West. I never seriously pursued other types of photography.
Over the years I used most photographic formats, from 35mm film to medium and large formats and ultimately digital.
:: Were you born in Utah, or did you move there to be closer to great photography locations?
I was born in Israel and spent my first 26 years there. While serving in the military I discovered a little book titled, Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, and became fascinated with his descriptions of the desert landscapes of the Colorado Plateau. At the time I hoped to someday visit these places to see them for myself, but could not even dream of actually living here.
I was lucky to have discovered the Internet long before it became a public service. It was available to me through my school when I worked part time at the university's computer center. When the tech boom hit and demand for Internet technologies skyrocketed, I was one of few people who knew how to manage a network and develop web applications. I built some of the first commercial web sites in Israel and was soon offered a consulting engagement with a Silicon Valley startup. What started as a 30-day contract turned into a new life.
As soon as I was able to take some time off, I wanted to see Abbey's canyon country and drove to Utah. It was love at first sight. In the next few years I worked for several Silicon Valley startups, had my own consulting business and met my wife, who worked at Stanford University at the time. I kept making trips to Utah as often as I could and finally we decided to start a new life here. We moved to Salt Lake City, where my wife entered Law School and I worked for a local financial company. We stayed there for about 10 years but still wanted to be closer to the desert. Finally we decided it was time to take the next step and bought a house in the little town of Torrey, outside Capitol Reef National Park, and I became a full time photographer and writer.
:: You've got quite a lot to offer on your website in terms of helping other photographers (eBooks, how-to articles, and a blog). How and why did you get into the side of helping others so much? Do you ever feel like "man, I should keep some of this information to myself and let people learn the hard way?"
People will always learn the hard way or not at all. The least I can do is give back some of the support and encouragement I received myself in my early years. I often tell people that I'm the world's worst salesperson. Much as I love practicing my work, I'm very reluctant to promote and market it. In many ways it almost cheapens the experience and the creativity that went into it. Early on I tried to come up with a business model that will allow me to focus on those things I find most meaningful. I had a background as a university teacher, writer and outdoor guide, and decades worth of photographic knowledge I hoped others may benefit from. At the time just about every professional I talked to told me the same thing: photographers don't buy other photographer's work. Still, I've never been one to heed business advice. I knew from my own experience that it was simply not true. So, against common wisdom, I began offering my help to others to augment my income. Soon enough it became clear that the rewards (both personal and financial) for helping people discover the joys of photography were far greater than sifting through thousands of stock submissions.
When it comes to technique and helping fellow photographers discover and nurture their own creative and artistic potential, I have no reservations about offering as much of my knowledge and support as I can. I do believe, though, that there are no shortcuts to creating original and meaningful work. Certainly, someone may use my teachings to produce copies of my work or images that look like mine, but if they think that's what it's about, they are only cheating themselves. Any creative photographer should strive to gain confidence in his or her own ability to produce original and personal work that uniquely represents the person behind it. Getting there requires hard work, passion and dedication, no matter what or who is helping you along. A good teacher should guide their students and help them unleash their own vision rather than provide them with recipes.
:: How has the business side of photography affected the way you enjoy the actual photographing? How do you create that balance between, "OK, this is work" and, "This is something I do to unwind and enjoy?"
I had a successful career as an IT manager, which I could have stuck with if my goal was to just earn a good income. Since I made the transition on my own terms, I wanted to build my business in such a way that it would not feel like yet another job. It took some creative thinking to make it happen but it worked. On occasion I may need to meet a tight deadline or cut a trip short to meet an urgent client request but that's about as close as it gets to it feeling like work. I live in my favorite place on Earth, have millions of acres of scenic public lands at my doorstep, and for the most part can make my own schedule. None of it feels anything like "work" did in the 9-5 days. In truth, I enjoy every day and don't really have anything I need to unwind from.
:: How has your study of Economics (in college) benefited your photography? Surely you had known a bit about risk-reward and cost-benefit analysis and the life of a fine-artist before venturing out, so what caused you to take that high risk in such a competitive and often struggling field?
I suppose it helped in indirect ways by exposing me to a much wider array of knowledge and sparking an interest in learning more about other things. Out of high school it was easy to sum up my academic view of myself in observations like "bad at math" or "good at English". I needed higher education to open my eyes and my mind to the greater potential in me (and, I believe, in anyone else). This is not to say that it's the only way to achieve such awareness, but for me it was the boost I needed to aspire to bigger things and believing in myself and in others enough to take the necessary risks.
Ultimately the decision had nothing to do with education though, but with the realization that there were greater things to experience and more meaningful ways to live than what Thoreau called "a life of quiet desperation" that most people simply accept for the sake of conformity and financial stability. In my mind, that is a very high price to pay for it, though. Taking the leap was scary but not as scary as the thought of some day looking back on my life in regret when it is too late to do anything about it.
:: You live in an amazing area for landscape photographers. Locally, what is your favorite location to get out and photograph, and why?
I heard a recent interview with John Shaw in which he said that his two favorite places in the world to work are the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. It really is an impossible question to answer. I supposed if you gave me the option to be anywhere in the world at any particular moment, more often than not I'll choose to be somewhere on the Colorado Plateau. Other than it being visually spectacular, it holds deeper meanings for me and feels like home more than anywhere else, which helps me better relate to it as an artist.
:: You seem to focus mostly on the southwest and west coast for photography? Is that by choice or are there some places you're itching to get out and explore?
It is very much by choice. I grew up on the Mediterranean coast, 8,000 miles away from where I live today. I could have ended up anywhere in the world. Since the first day I came here, though, I knew this is where I wanted to live and it took me many years to make it a reality. Every so often I'll get the itch to see other places but there's nowhere else I've been to that inspires me in the same way.
:: What plans do you have this year? Any projects, such as eBooks, trips, etc., that you're excited about?
Thank you for bringing up eBooks! This is very much the area I'm most excited about these days. Anyone who tried to publish a traditional book knows the hurdles and costs involved and the creative sacrifices that often need to be made to ensure a return on the investment. eBooks changed the rules of the game. As an author and teacher, they allow me to write what I want, for the audience I want, and publish it directly with no middlemen. Readers also benefit as high quality content can be made available at very reasonable prices since authors have much less overhead and don't necessarily need to target low common denominators to ensure sufficient sales volumes. In my mind this is nothing short of a revolution and a democratization of the publishing industry.
I plan to put a lot more effort into writing in the coming year, starting with instructional books (3 of which are already available) and moving on to more creative writing, hoping to inspire and promote photography as a form of artistic expression for anyone. I set up a separate web site (guytalbooks.com) to host my eBooks and plan to have at least one more title out before the end of this year and several more in the months to follow.
:: Who do you think influenced you the most as an artist growing up? What about as you've become a professional what continues to inspire you?
I have to admit that art did not play a big role in my life as I was growing up. Like most people, I spent a great deal of my early years more concerned with the pragmatic aspects of life, education, making an income etc. One of the greatest revelations for me was the realization that my material life and emotional/spiritual one must be at balance in order to be satisfying and meaningful. I think that too many people are scared of taking a step back in terms of income in order to make room for things that enrich their spirit. The irony is that no matter how much you make, how big your house is or how expensive a car you drive, if part of your personality is starved out, you will never be truly satisfied.
While it may not be what you meant, I will list my wife as first on the list of people who influenced me most. She always showed unwavering support and confidence in me, even when I doubted myself.
Among photographers I greatly admire Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe for their love and passion for the places they photographed, as well as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Minor White, Edward Weston and Philip Hyde for opening my eyes to the creative and interpretive powers of the medium.
Among my personal friends, Michael Gordon, Tony Kuyper and Marc Adamus always provide me with inspiration and insight and are always willing listeners when I need feedback on new ideas.
My inspiration comes from more than just photographs, though. I owe as much if not more to the great American nature writers - Stegner, Leopold, Abbey, Muir, Thoreau, Emerson etc. I'll even go as far as to say that an hour reading Muir or any of the others may do more for your photography than any technical text.
:: What do you see as being the biggest challenge in the future for landscape and wilderness photographers?
I think we are the lucky ones. We still have wilderness available to us, and revolutionary technologies we can employ to create images like never before. While I see technology improving, I fear that the experiences we are after are fast disappearing in favor of misguided corporate and political agendas. If at some point in the future you could have a 100-megapixel camera that weighs less than a pound and costs $500 but nowhere left to hike and experience and camp in solitude, there will no longer be a reason for what we do. This is something I care about very much and write about often (example here)
:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment that you take with you everywhere? What makes it so indispensible?
Other than the practical gear needed to safely hike and camp, I always bring a pad of paper and pen to take random notes. When I'm out in the wild, I experience things more profoundly than anywhere else and being able to capture those fleeting thoughts and insights as they happen gives me the foundation to expand them into new ideas, both in images and writing.
:: Landscape photographers are often out in remote places, in varied conditions. What has been one of the scariest moments you've experienced while out in the field?
I've had encounters with bears, got caught in the open during freak lightning storms with nowhere to hide, etc. Still, none of these were as scary to me as the thought of being truly lost. This only happened to me once. I spent the better part of a day hiking various tributaries of the Escalante without regard to where I was headed. I was confident I could orient myself using a map and plan my way back when the time came to turn around. What I didn't realize was that I was surrounded by deep canyons with no easy descent routes. The map I had was not detailed enough to judge which routes will be passable and I could easily have spent hours only to end up at the top of a sheer cliff, no matter which option I chose. My best option would have been to retrace my steps, though I didn't pay close enough attention coming in.
I ended up walking a perpendicular cross-country route towards a canyon I knew was accessible somewhere upstream. When I got to (what I hoped was) it, I walked along its rim hoping to find a good entry point somewhere. Fortunately I did. Once in the canyon, I could follow it upstream until I got close enough to find my way back. The trip back ended up being about twice as long as the way in. At one point I considered improvising a campsite for the night (I didn't bring camping gear) but knew I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. It came to a toss-up between staying put (which is what you should do if you are sure you're lost) or trusting that my plan had a better chance of getting me out. I decided to give myself 2 hours of hiking before making the call and within that time was able to get to a spot where I could identify an obvious landmark to navigate by.
:: Why did you go the eBook route over trying the traditional route?
I wouldn't say I was forced into it as much as I realized the benefits. I didn't want to write yet more "Photography 101" type of books, which are the mainstay of large publishers. Instead, I wanted to write the kind of books I hoped I had available to me at some of the more important points in my own training; books that go beyond the basics and the obvious and promote a different way of thinking about the art and craft of photography. From experience I knew that mainstream publishers and magazines were not interested in these niche audiences. The eBook format allows me to do exactly that, though. Even if the audience is only a few hundred readers, I could still have the same or greater return on my investment compared to a paper book.
Not only that, I didn't have to give up creative control or have a large upfront investment other than my time.
I'm also a big believer in making my work accessible so I loved the idea of being able to offer what would otherwise be a $20-25 book for half or less of that price, given the low overhead.
I have so far been extremely pleased with the sales and responses I get. Just look at some of the reviews I include on guytalbooks.com. They are every bit as rewarding to me as sales, and I know these books may never have seen the light of day if commercial printing was my only option.
:: What is your favorite image in your portfolio, and what makes it special to you?
Wow, that is yet another of those questions that are impossible to answer. Really, if an image is not special or meaningful to me for some reason and at some point in time, I will not post it. Of my most recent work, this image stands out to me as one of the more memorable: CLICK TO VIEW IMAGE
It's very likely that my choice will be different by the time this interview is posted, though.
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