Wendell Berry and Guy Tal.

Winter in the Mentasta Mountains, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.

A winter sunset over the Mentasta Mountains, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

“The effort to clarify our sight cannot begin in the society, but only in the eye and in the mind. It is a spiritual quest, not a political function. We each must confront the world alone and learn to see it for ourselves”. So says Wendell Berry, one of my favorite writers, in his book “The Unforeseen Wilderness”. The book, a dearly needed plea to save Kentucky’s Red River Gorge from a nefarious plan to dam it, was written nearly 40 years ago. I haven’t read the book completely yet, as I just bought it this afternoon. But I glanced at it, and this passage caught my attention. Berry continues on:

“the figure of the photographic artist – not the tourist-photographer who goes to a place, bound by his intentions and preconceptions, to record what has already been recorded and what he therefore expects to find, but the photographer who goes into a place in search of the real news of it”.*

Wendell has long been an advocate for “place”, for living in, and hence coming to know, place. I was interested to read his take on photography and the exploration of place, as I’d written an article that touched on this a while ago. That article can be found here. I found it interesting to see his clear distinction between the ‘tourist-photographer’ and what he essentially is referring to as the ‘artist-photographer’. Wendell Berry describes the journey and experience, and value, of the photographer who becomes the artistic process, and during that experience, explores and comes to know place.

“His search is a pilgrimage, for he goes along ways he does not understand, in search of what he does not expect and cannot anticipate. His work involves a profound humility for he has effaced himself; he has done away with his expectations; he has ceased to make demands upon the place. He keeps only the discipline of his art that informs and sharpens his vision – he keeps, that is, the practice of observation – for before a man can be a seer he must be a looker”. *

When I read this I thought immediately of a favorite photographer of mine, and one of the coolest people I know, Guy Tal. Guy has clearly spent time as a ‘looker’, and is a ‘seer’ of the highest order. It’s Guy’s vision that comes through in his art, as vividly as the landscapes that he so intimately portrays. Guy’s an interesting artist because his technique, while clearly so strong and obviously important, is superfluous when we view the final product; his images reflect ‘the practice of observation’. I’ve had the opportunity to tool around a little with Guy, in the desert near his home in Utah, and treasure those lessons; being around someone who is as sharply attuned to his place is an all too rare treat. Guy sees in a way that few of us are able to, and it comes, in part at least, simply through his ‘profound humility’, to borrow Wendell’s phrase. Guy doesn’t carry his personal stamp, his ID, into the wilderness; he leaves it at home, and opens himself up to the moment – the hallmark of a great artist and an incredibly present person. I’d hate to have to limit my viewing to only 3 of his images, so I won’t; here’s 4:

And I would just see a dead tree

Or a few live trees

Dawn

Spring time.

“Knowing the heaviness of the dead-end search for wealth and ease, what a relief and joy it is to consider the photographer’s pilgrimage to the earth. He is seeking, not the ultimate form of creation, for he cannot hope to find that, but rather creation’s inexhaustible manifestations of form”.* Berry refines his description of this search;

“It is an endless quest, for it is going nowhere in terms of space and time, but only drawing deeper into the presence, into the mystery, of what is underfoot and overhead and all around. Its grace is the grace of knowing that our consciousness and the light are always arriving in the world together”. *

Ultimately, THIS is the beauty of art; the alignment of our selves with the universe. It’s said by some that God made us in His image (of which French writer-philosopher Voltaire so poignantly observed “we have certainly returned the compliment”); God as Creator then suggests that through Art, through our acts of creating, through our own creation, we engage this likeness as fully as we might be able. Art is, as such, not a production, an artifact, but rather it is ‘the transmission of a feeling the artist has experienced’ (Leo Tolstoy). Michel Foucault takes it further, asking the question ‘couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not your life?’ These 2 ideas are congruent, to me, life as art, and art not just as a transmission of our experiences and feelings, but of who we are. The artifact, be it a 16″ x 20″ print, a poem, a clay figurine, or a lamp post, is the product of art – the art is the ‘arriving in the world together’ of our consciousness and the present. Wandering through the desert canyons of the American Southwest with Guy, I became aware that this is how he does his work, observing and studying creation’s endless ‘manifestations of form’.

“In relation to the enclosure we all civilization, these pictures are not ornaments or relics, but windows and doors, enlargements of our living space, entrances into the mysterious world outside the world outside the walls, lessons in what to look for and how to see”. *

And this is what Guy’s photos are; portals into the mysterious, the wonderous, lessons in how to observe. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote “To wonder is to begin to understand”. This to me suggests that through artists like Guy Tal and Wendell Berry, through their work, their humility, their expression of mystery and wonder we might all come toward greater understanding. So from me, this is just one simple ‘thank you’ to Guy Tal and Wendell Berry, for all that you do, for the gift you bring the world, for the generous and patient lessons you offer us all; you’re good people.

Cheers

Carl

* = excerpts from ‘The Unforeseen Wilderness”, by Wendell Berry.

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3 thoughts on “Wendell Berry and Guy Tal.

  1. Jerry Greer

    Carl,

    As you know Wendall Berry is one my favorites, books and poetry. “The Unforeseen Wilderness” is my favorite book and the passages you quote from “One Inch Journey” are so incredible. The “sense of place” is a topic that I’ve talked about for years with students in my workshops and during presentations. In fact, I just finished an article for our “Mountain Trail Photo” website about this very thing. It seems to me that most photographers that I meet these days are only caught up in the “Art” of photography and will do anything, in Photoshops power, to create the perfect image of nature. When brought up the first response is always, “I’m not a photojournalist, I’m an artist and this is the way that I see it!”. Yeah, if you had dropped a bit of acid, is my usual comment! I have a really hard time with the statement “I’m not a photo journalist, I’m an artist”. I’m so confused as to how a photographer can have no connection with the environment that he/she is immersed in when working. When the photographer becomes aware of his/her place and truly connects with the environment being photographed the image becomes more that an over-processed derivative of that place. The desire to create through technology, aka Photoshop, becomes much less important. One starts finding images within images and no longer relies on the “WOW factor” for visual impact. This was hammered home for me a few days ago. A longtime friend and I were chatting and the conversation turned to over-processed images. As always with this subject, “sense of place” becomes the center of my thoughts. I asked my friend about his feelings on the environment that he photographs and he stated that he doesn’t work for that environment and that he is just there to take pretty pictures. This is really disturbing to me and a feeling that I cannot comprehend at all. Needless to say, Guy Tal is NOT one of those photographers! Guy Tal has found his “sense of place” and that is in the Desert just as I have found here in the Blue Ridge and, as it seems, you have in the cold arctic of Alaska. Thanks for giving me the motivation to reread “The Unforeseen Wilderness”, it is an inspiration to me as I put the finishing touches on my soon to be released new book, “Blue Ridge – Ancient and Majestic”.

  2. Carl D Post author

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks.

    Hey Jerry,

    Thanks too – I’ve always admired what you’re doing there in the Blue Ridge area man. Let me know when the new book is out.

    On the issue of ‘artist Vs ‘photojournalist, I’m with you. Regardless how clever we might be with computer trickery, or how great much we want to mess with a photo, a photo’s inherent power is it’s moment, it’s embrace with a reality. And that means it is, to some degree, intrinsically journalistic.

    Cheers

    Carl

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