A winter sunset over the Mentasta Mountains, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.
“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
“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.
* = excerpts from ‘The Unforeseen Wilderness”, by Wendell Berry.