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.