In Praise of the Intimate Landscape – Guy Tal
Guy Tal is a photographer, writer, and blogger based in Utah’s scenic canyon country. You can find more of his photography and essays on his web site guytal.com, or visit his gallery located in the town of Torrey, UT just outside Capitol Reef National Park. You may also follow him on Twitter at @guytalphoto.
In Praise of the Intimate Landscape
By Guy Tal
Though I didn’t know it at the time, 1979 was to be a significant year in my growth as a photographic artist. More than that, it was a landmark year for all contemporary landscape photographers, and for the acceptance of color photography as a fine art. On that year, I celebrated my 10th birthday against the backdrop of a historic Middle East peace treaty, the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Back then, I had no inkling of such concepts as exposure or composition, or even how to operate a camera. I lived in a world thousands of miles away from the places I will later come to call home, and was entirely unaware of their turbulent role in the American conservation movement. More pertinent to this article: on that same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held its first ever exhibition of color photography, celebrating the work of a quiet and passionate man in his late 70s with whom I later discovered I shared many similarities. The man was Eliot Porter, and the exhibit was titled: Intimate Landscapes.
What was it about Porter’s color images that prompted an institution such as The Met to feature, for the first time ever, color photography among its vast collection of art, some as old as humanity itself? What made them so moving and powerful that, decades later, Porter’s work continues to inspire new generations of photographers? The answer lies in the title: intimacy. Much landscape photography sets out to document grand scenes and vast expanses, prominent land features, big skies, distant horizons, and dazzling displays of natural light at the borders of day and night. Such images draw their force from the sheer magnitude of the elements portrayed and the attention-commanding brilliance of magnificent color. Yet, such images also reduce the photographer and the viewer to passive bystanders – observers of the unfolding drama but not active participants. Intimacy, on the other hand, implies a degree of involvement, closeness, and familiarity that transcend anonymity. It implies a personal, emotional interpretation of the things being photographed and the unique qualities they possess which drew the photographer’s eye.
Among the more cynical, a common quip is that “everything had been done before,” and that there’s little opportunity left for original work in nature photography. The notion of intimacy with the landscapes flies in the face of such statements. Certainly mountains, canyons, sand dunes, and beaches, have all been photographed many times before and, with the wide lens on, even the best of us would find it difficult to distinguish their work from any number of other renditions of these same subjects. Yet, go up in focal length, and begin exploring a subject deliberately, up close, in earnest, with no preconception, and you will find an endless array of graceful lines, patterns, subtle variations of color and tone, and any number of unique traits. Intimate landscapes thus readily lend themselves to original creative work, and to the much-desired development of the artist’s personal style. The success of an intimate landscape depends primarily on the subjective sensibilities of the artist, rather than an objective representation of a place.
Many photographers are also under the mistaken assumption that “it’s all about the light,” or that great landscape images must be made within the narrow span of the “magic hours”. Not so. Light takes on many shades and colors, at every hour and on every scale. In the middle of the day, one can find a golden glow in the small crevices of a rock or among the petals of flowers. On overcast days, the land reflects in faint pastels. Even in near-darkness, long exposures can capture fleeting light for surreal effect. In the case of intimate landscape photography, it is the artist’s attention to detail that allows them to expand their repertoire and find nuggets of beauty in practically any situation, with almost any subject and any light.
Lastly, going back to Eliot Porter’s legacy, one cannot ignore the subject of photography’s role in conservation and in raising awareness to unseen beauty. In particular, some of Porter’s most important images were made in Glen Canyon, remembered by some as the heart of the Colorado Plateau, prior to it being drowned under current-day Lake Powell. By the time Porter’s images of the place became known, it was too late to prevent the loss of what was a natural treasure on the magnitude of the Grand Canyon and other crown jewels of the American West. David Brower, legendary former director of the Sierra Club, later lamented its loss as the greatest one of his career. To date, the story of Glen Canyon galvanizes the American conservation movement as a loss that should not be repeated, and Porter’s images of what he later called “The Place No One Knew” are among the most powerful testaments to what’s at stake. They illustrate not a generic “pretty place” but rather moving portraits of a place that had a name and a character: rock patterns composed such that one can almost feel their grit under their fingertips, crystalline pools reflecting golden light with such clarity that you can almost feel their warmth on your face, and riparian vegetation vibrant and detailed that you can almost breathe its aromatic scent. Such is the power of intimate landscapes.
Guy I love this article. Hard to tell what is more powerful, your words or photographs!
I love your pictures, and Mr. Porters too. Thanks for reminding me of such a great photographer and body of work. I wish I could have seen Glen Canyon before it was filled in.
Thanks for your work, and I look forward to seeing your gallery!
Nice article Guy!
Your images are wonderful.
Your writing so well thought and eloquent.
Great article, Guy, and on a topic near and dear to my heart! I live in Wisconsin, a region without many grand vistas, and have come to appreciate and enjoy intimate landscapes. I’m a big fan of your work and Porter’s, too.
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The many textures of life. Thank you for taking the time and giving such a wonderful visual gift.
A wonderful article that greatly exemplifies how important intimacy with our lands are. Photography such as Eliot’s can have such a positive impact in bringing awareness to such an important issue effecting all.
A beautifully written, powerful and moving essay, Guy. Thank you for featuring him, Art!
Your work and message are a great testament to the on-going conservation movement. Please keep inspiring us!
Guy, thank you for this wonderful reflection on Eliot Porter and the debt we all owe to him and his work in so many ways.
There is much to comment on in your excellent and thoughtful piece. I’ll just pick one line: “Many photographers are also under the mistaken assumption that ‘it’s all about the light…'”
Thank you for speaking a truth that needs speaking. I don’t deny the draw of beautiful light – in fact, I seek it. However, to limit oneself to only the times of “beautiful light” is an unfortunate choice. Unless you only go into the world during the first and last hours of the day, you know that there are many compelling subjects to see at any time of day – and if they are compelling, it is worthwhile to find ways to photograph them.
Your work continues to be an inspiration. Though we’ve known each other for just a few years it is impressive to see how your images keep getting better & better.
[…] that’s been on my mind every since. Provided on Art Wolfe’s blog, guest columnist Guy Tal writes “In Praise The Intimate Landscape“. There are so many articles I have read from Guy that are to the point and stated with words […]
Great article accompanied by some great photos. Good reminders for me…important not to get stuck in ruts (e.g. photographing only in “magic light”). Good reminder to remember what drew me out into nature in the first place, and that was being connected to the land.
Guy Tal’s superb writing and images not only make a telling tribute to Eliot Porter, but also give us much to consider, particularly about light and in light of the discussions lately on a number of blogs about the development of a unique vision and whether photographing landmark scenery fits or not. Guy Tal is clearly doing something unusual as did Eliot Porter in his time. My father, Philip Hyde, felt fortunate to participate in projects with the older photographer and to spend time on the river with him. Dad also admired Eliot Porter because of his loyalty to David Brower and the Sierra Club publishing program that popularized the photography of nature, brought color to landscape photography and helped put the fledgling environmental movement on the map. All in the same year of 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, Eliot Porter’s “In Wildness Is The Preservation of The World” and Philip Hyde’s “Island In Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula”, changed the way we saw the world. Philip Hyde’s book was primarily a rushed documentary project to help establish the National Seashore. It was half color and half black and white. Eliot Porter’s book was a planned masterpiece of fine art color photography. It helped bring the cause of conservation into the limelight as it outsold all of the other Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series titles including Ansel Adam’s “This Is The American Earth.” Guy Tal is the perfect artist to offer a tribute to Eliot Porter, as many photographers today admire them both. Art Wolfe is also to be commended for featuring this article.
[…] on Art Wolfe’s website, in the article In Praise of the Intimate Landscape, Guy Tal elaborates as […]