Quiet Adventures

This article was adapted from a piece I wrote for PHOTOGRAPH Magazine in 2015.


Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease. ~Naguib Mahfouz

After three days in the canyon I finally settled into the rhythm of the place. Around 5am each day, just before first light, the birds would wake and start chirping. I pinpointed a rock pinnacle on the opposite canyon rim that caught the first of the sunlight each morning and aligned my sleeping pad so I could see it while still in my sleeping bag, sipping my morning coffee, which I brewed on a small stove I set up the night before within easy reach. I determined the optimal spot to read and write during the mid-day hours, between short meanders along the nearby creek. I identified the location of an owl’s nest in a small opening in the cliff across from the alcove that was my temporary home. Scattered rock flakes and an unusual concentration of scrub oak on a large sandbar a short walk away suggested the former presence of ancient people, later affirmed by the discovery of pottery shards bearing the unmistakable black and white patterns characteristic of ancestral puebloan culture (what some refer to as Anasazi). On my short walks I noted every plant and insect and bird and lizard, committing to memory those I could not recognize so I could look them up later. Each afternoon, light reflecting off the steep red walls ignited the narrow sandstone corridors in a magnificent orange glow, and a slight breeze helped dissipate the heat of the day and fill the air with the scents of water and early flowers and riparian vegetation. Each evening, in the last light, I watched sphinx moths hover around the scarlet blooms of a large mound of a nearby claret cup cactus. At night, I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and watched as the celestial neighborhood traversed a sky free of light pollution, and thought deeply about things and people and ideas, making notes of things I wanted to write about. On this third day, just before the afternoon calm fell over the desert, I finished reading a book I brought with me. My legs no longer sore from the long hike in, I loaded the camera, a jacket and some snacks into a small day pack and headed into the narrow passages beyond, finally feeling ready to make photographs.

This has been my primary mode of practicing photography for some years now. When describing it to a photographer friend, his first reaction was that it did not seem like a very productive way to work, to which my instinctive response was this: you expect me to give up this just to have a few more files in my archives?

I refer to such excursions as my quiet adventures. I live in this desert and have learned its ways, which is not to say it doesn’t have the capacity to surprise me on occasion. My yearning for it in years when I lived in other places left me with little doubt about its powers to evoke in me emotions and images like nowhere else. So powerful was its draw that it became inevitable that I needed to live here, to be able to head out into the sandstone labyrinths and the high plateaus on a whim, without having to plan, without long hours on freeways, in airports or cramped planes, without a checklist of photogenic locations already photographed by others, and other barriers to the raw experiences of wildness and the creativity they inspire. With the deepening of familiarity also came a deepening of experience, of emotion and of life. Whether in solitude, or in the company of like-minded friends, I owe some of my most fond and profound memories to these places and to my quiet adventures in them.

Many who visit the desert I call home likely know that it is an easy place to love, and I make no claim of being unique in that. For me, however, even if given the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world, there is no other place I would rather visit or even photograph.

I hesitate to proclaim unequivocally that I am not a travel photographer, because travel is an ambiguous word. On a given outing I may drive and hike much farther than most do even on extended overseas trips. What I am not, however, is a tourist—an outsider—in the places I work. I am not particularly interested in travel for the sake of gaining glimpses into stories in which I am not an active character, where my mind may be distracted by the logistics of travel; by being an exception to the local culture and language; or by feeling restricted in where I can go, when and for how long. Instead, I seek to leave the human-made world behind altogether, and to work in the welcoming peace of anonymous places, many of which I discovered on my own wanderings and got to know in solitude, over time.

Although primarily an attitude toward place and experience, my reluctance to photograph in locations that I am not a part of ensues also out of my attitude toward photography in general. In images, I seek more than just visual appeal: pleasing configurations of visual elements; portrayals of landmarks or people that are inherently interesting or visually appealing without the photographer making them so; or repeating compositions already photographed by others, no matter how beautiful. Rather, I look for a deeper connection—to understand and to experience my subject matter in a sensory and visceral way, and to express the subjective sensations inspired by it; to become intimately familiar with it; to contemplate it. What I am after is not primarily “good” images, but the inner experience out of which such images may arise. To me, having such experiences is the highest privilege of the photographic artist, and the most rewarding reason to engage in making images. Conversely, an image I may make that did not ensue out of a memorable, intimate, experience does not excite me as much. If such images, even if magnificent in every other respect, were the sole reward for travel, I likely would have become bored with photography, and with travel, long ago.

Certainly there is pleasure and a sense of accomplishment in finding some pleasing visual order independent of one’s personal connection with a place or subject. To me, however, such accomplishments still fall short of those sensations of wildness—the sense of freedom and perfect solitude; the kinship with life and place; being acutely aware of the sensory and emotional joys of living at their most intense; and the sense of profound gratitude, not only for witnessing an occasional feat of beauty, but also for the experience in all its dimensions, and even if the camera never gets put to any use at all.

Having these places available and familiar to me, without the discomforts and limitations of international travel, means that I have the time to be mindful of all their little nuances; to study and explore and experiment; to come home empty-handed on occasion, knowing I can return in more favorable times and conditions; and to develop a complex relationship with a place, rather than having to settle for its superficial impressions. To my way of working and living, these quiet adventures are more appealing and rewarding than anything I may find in more exotic locales, where I am constrained to short-lived glimpses into stories that are not my own.

Out for a Walk by Guy Tal

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6 thoughts on “Quiet Adventures

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  1. in recent years I have started suggesting to friends that I photography because I wander… and I wander because I photograph… although not quite in the wild places that you visit…

  2. I liked the Mahfouz quote too. I’d never heard of him so I glanced at his Wikipedia page and found a humorous quotation about his writing that seems the antithesis of the natural milieu of wilderness: “Mr. Mahfouz embodied the essence of what makes the bruising, raucous, chaotic human anthill of Cairo possible.” —The Economist

    For this time-poor weekend warrior, I also appreciate having someplace close at hand that’s interesting to me, a place I can get to know in all seasons and over many years.

    Love the image of the redrock creek canyon. I feel slightly uncomfortable (but in a good way) looking at it, taking solace in its beauty while also imagining a flood barreling through.

  3. Guy, I am jealous! Your canyon and words are beautiful. I meanwhile continue to amble about aimlessly and as a result find little or nothing to take home with me!

  4. Your words brought tears to my eyes….the sense of connection to the wild places and the love of all that lives there……and that flowing through to photography…..yes!!

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