January 6, 2010

Photographic Celibacy – Not Studying Other Photographer’s Work

Some of you are familiar with my admittedly odd practice of not studying other photographer’s work.  It’s something I’ve been doing for about 2 years now and it’s always been met with curiosity, dismay and sometimes even a little hostility.   I mentioned it again in the last blog and it was suggested by my friend and fantastic b&w photographer, Lance Keimig, that this might be a good discussion topic.  I agreed and so here we are.

Let me explain why I began this unconventional practice and then I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  However, this might be a very one-sided discussion as I’ve not met many people who agree or appreciate what I’m doing.   So if I’m the lone man on this issue, some of you might need to side with me just so we can have a two-way discussion!

To start with I’d like to point out that I’ve never suggested that others should adopt this practice, I’ve just described what I was doing.  However I recognize that when one writes publicly, your words can come across as advice.

Several years ago I came to the hard realization that I was not creating with my own vision, but rather I was copying the style and even the images of my revered childhood hero’s.  The full impact of this hit home when I was attending a Portfolio Review at the Center in Santa Fe.  One of the reviewers said that it appeared I was trying to copy Ansel Adams and Edward Weston’s style.  When I responded that I was, because I loved their work, he very bluntly pointed out that Ansel already did Ansel and that no one was going to it better than Ansel.  At the time those were very hard words to hear, but over the next year I came to agree with him and it started me on the quest to create with my own vision.

As I analyzed how I was working, I came to the conclusion that when I studied another photographer’s work, I was imprinting their style onto my conscious and subconscious mind.  And then when I photographed a scene, I found myself imitating their style rather than seeing it through my own vision.  To overcome this tendency I decided to stop looking at the work of other photographer’s, as much as was practically possible.

So for the last two years I’ve tried it; I’ve not read my B&W Magazines, poured over my LensWork or sought out great photography on the web.  It’s been hard, and at times I’ve felt like a celibate monk working at a nude beach!

Has it worked?  Yes, it has had a positive affect on my art and I feel that my images are increasingly “me” and not just copies of someone else’s work.  I’m making progress and when I think of my projects such as The Ghosts of Auschwitz, The Lone Man and the Harbinger series (new image above) I’m pleased with my “direction.”

I don’t expect to continue this practice forever.  Once I’ve  better developed my vision and have become more disciplined, I’ll return to enjoying black and white photography which has been my first love since the age of 14.

But for me, at this time, and for where I’m at creatively; photographic celibacy is helping!


P.S.  I’ve just had an experience that reinforces my position on this issue.  One of my images will be in a new book entitled “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr.  Last night we were given a link to review the images chosen and as I looked for mine I came across an image by Brian Kosoff that just stopped me dead in my tracks.  It’s entitled “Three Crosses” and it’s the first image on his home page.  Do you want to guess where my mind has been all day today as I drove around town?  I’ve been looking for telephone poles in patterns so that I can imitate his work!

Bad, bad Cole.

56 thoughts on “Photographic Celibacy – Not Studying Other Photographer’s Work

  1. Here are my 2 cents, take them as you will. I personally enjoy looking at others work. For me it gets my creative juices flowing. I see things that others have done and it gives me new ideas of my own. Not copying there work but developing my own. By looking at the works of other photographers I am able to better refine my own style. If that doesn’t work for you, and you need to be in a vacuum with only your images and works than that’s what you have to do. To each is there own. But, and there is always a but, if more people adopted your stance on studying others work than not to many people would be seeing Cole Thompson photographs. At least the stuff that you are submitting to photography magazines and books. Not too many people would be visiting your blog and encouraging you along in your artistic journey as a photographer.


  2. Well Cole, some of us need to be inspired by looking at others work and some can truely create their own.

    I don’t really think it matters either way. Its not that someone else is right or wrong just because they disagree with you, it just is what it is.

    Its an interesting post. I’m still looking for that photography rule book, I’ve been looking a long time, but can’t seem to locate it. If you ever find it can you let me know 😉

  3. I can certainly see your point Cole, and if it’s working for you, then by all means continue. I’m sure that sooner or later you’ll get over that hump, and stop denying yourself guilty pleasures.

    I’ve been personally dismayed in recent years by the huge number of Michael Kenna impersonators that has sort of evolved into a genre all of it’s own: “The square black and white long exposure at the water’s edge, frequently using ND filters photographer.” Certainly the first of these photographer’s were inspired by Kenna, or maybe David Fokos, but now there are so many of these guys out there that it’s hard to distinguish between any of the photographers doing this work. Fortunately, I think it’s peaked and is waning. Fortunately- Kenna has moved on and is creating new and different work.

    Speaking of MK, he’s another monk on a nude beach. I don’t know if he avoids looking at other’s work, but he certainly works in a self-imposed vacuum, and is one of the most creative and prolific photographers of our time.

    He has always been an inspiration to me, and while we both photograph at night, I don’t think my work would ever be confused with his. I’ll never stop looking at his prints- viewing them brings out a strong emotional response the same way that music can for me.

  4. Cole, so far it looks like 3 to 1, but it’s not a most-points-win contest! Whatever works for the artist should be the criteria, If it’s a copy, most folsk will see it, and discard the copy.

  5. There are no universally right answers to any question regarding how one chooses to create art. The right answer is what works for you. Clearly you have found what works now for you, and you are keeping an open mind regarding others and yourself in the future. To me that is the perfect approach; find your own way but recognize that it is not ‘the’ way. Viewing others work is critical to my development as an artist for the joy, inspiration and instruction it provides. While I strive to create images that express a unique vision, if I connect with one of my images that is similar in style to another artist, so be it. The connection is everything to me. That said, I would hesitate to present such images publicly. In closing, you cannot know if your vision is unique without being aware of what others are doing; you cannot possibly know what everyone else is doing. So do what works for you!

  6. I agree with you.

    I sometimes find myself doing exactly as you describe, and it sometimes seems to me that other photographers with whom I am acquainted occasionally do the same, too.

    Sometimes it is good to stand apart from the crowd, to break the rules, and in doing so, to develop a new way of seeing and of capturing what you see.

  7. I totally relate to your perspective about viewing other’s work. I worry that I can become “caught” by the influence of their work… especially when it impresses me. But in reality I have been unable to force myself away from viewing that work anyway. I instead have tried to accept the influence that inevitably seems to arise and try to find ways to reconfigure my outcome into something more unique. Can’t really tell whether I succeed with this approach of “growing” from the influence or just don’t see the mimicry in the end.

  8. Some good thoughts my friends. I had to laugh at Matt’s point; what if everyone did this, no one would be looking at my art! I’ve had other’s point this out also.

    Lance brought up a good point, how once a certain style or subject becomes famous, there are soon many people copying that style. We all have seen the “Kenna Kopying” (I’ve been guilty of that) and he’s just one example. A friend, Camille Seaman, broke onto the scene a few years back with her fantastic images of icebergs. Now there are about 10 iceberg photographers out there.

    However, now not everyone who produces similar images are copying, sometimes parallel work is in development at the same time. Lance pointed out to me another photographer who has images very similar to my “Lone Man” series entitled “The Man and the Sea.” Marcin Stawiarz and I have communicated about this and neither of us were aware of the other’s work. Marcin said to me:

    “…so it happens, even if the concepts are similar I think we got two completely different ways to show that.”

    Brooks Jensen wrote an article last year entitled “Fellow Travellers” about this very subject after both Larry Blackwood and I submitted a very similar portfolio on Grain Silos. Sometimes similar work just develops independently.

    Bill brought up the subject of uniqueness, and how you cannot know if your work is unique if you are not looking to see what others are doing. I know I’ve used the word “unique” before, but to be more precise, I am seeking to produce work that is true to my vision even more than I seek it to be unique. To me it’s clear that you can be true to your vision and yet your work is not “unique.”

    But of all the comments, I completely agree with Will, who completely agrees with me! (smile)


  9. Gotcha Cole, yes you can be unique to your vision and yet look similar to others…the point is…it is what you define as yours that makes it yours. Sometimes I love this blog! Always love your work.

  10. I know so little about the “art” of photography, but as far as “studying” another’s style, it seems we did that in History in high school. There was nothing wrong with it then, and I don’t see a problem with it now. How else does one develop one’s own particular style in any type of art? You cannot cut yourself off from the privilege of enjoying the art of others, and if it impresses you in a positive way, I do not see the dilemma. It would seem to me to be the highest form of compliment. Knowing what I know of you, Cole, I believe in YOU, and what comes from your eye through the lens is something altogether unique. Don’t be rattled by such silly notions of whether or not to study the photographic art of others. After all, what is a mentor anyway?


  11. In my past life, I was a professional jazz drummer (over 25 years) and there was always a few musicians who made it a point to not study other, even famous, musicians. I could sort of understand it in those days, but personally felt the need to try to glean the essence of what made great players great. But, ultimately fell prey to sounding like them (as much as possible), and not having my own voice. However, in later years, I did get more of a personal sound when I played “me.” Not as easy as it sounds.

    I’m finding that with the mind numbing amount of great photographers and the software knowledge needed to bring digital images to realization, I’m getting a bit overwhelmed. I found that I began chasing other photographers whom I felt had more together than I, jumping from one photographer to another, and not focusing on my own work. The parallel between this aspect of photographic insecurity and musical insecurity are identical and manifest themselves in the same way.

    A friend forwarded your article to me and it was like all the stress melted away as I was reading it. I agree with you completely and have decided to pursue my own vision, undistracted by others. Occasional impressions from others work can certainly inspire us to get out there and make images, but as in the end of your article, we wind up looking to replicate the image that inspired us.

    Bottom line, there would be more originality and artistic integrity in the world if we all myopically pursued our own vision, largely unaffected by others. And I returned to this journey as of yesterday.

  12. Hi Cole:
    Tony is right on. Having been a musician myself, he his bring out exactly the two factors. Learning your instrument or tool of the trade, then learning your own sound or self expression.
    It is not about being Professional trained (schooled), it is learning how to express yourself through your Instrument. You need to step away from the pack and develop your own sound or way of expression. And it takes time. I personal commend you for make such a step forward.


  13. Lucky for me, I guess, but I love looking at the work of others (yours included) but have absolutely no interest in copying, imitating, or being influenced by others to do something similar. I’ve never been much of a lemming and have always disliked “bandwagoning” (what Lance mentions about all the Kenna knock-off’s). This has left me with no choice but to purse the way *I* see the world.

    Interesting post, Cole!

  14. Interesting topic which has clearly led to some thoughtful commentary.

    For me, the key point in your explanation is that this is intended to be a temporary exile. I do think there are periods in our artistic development when it is beneficial to look at the work of others and times when it is not. Even though we may intend not to be influenced by what we see, it is almost impossible not to be, so we open ourselves to that when we look at others.

    Certainly upon finding yourself overly influenced by others, your solution of not looking seems reasonable. Once you feel more solid in doing what is uniquely yours, it is good to return from this celibacy. I suspect over one’s entire career there can be periods of back and forth like this as one soaks up inspiration and ideas from others and then processes it, perhaps in total isolation, into a unique vision. Then it’s back up for air and the cycle repeats.

  15. Hi Cole. A voice from the past. I agree with you and also there is no right or wrong here at all. However, now that there are other names within the emails I have to go and look up those folks.

    I have such a bad memory that I can look at another’s work and be stunned by it, but I may or may not be adopting their style. Maybe by osmosis? And, how can I stop looking at your work? I am not a BW photographer at this point, because all I see is color and it zings me. Great discussion.


  16. Great topic…

    I like your presentation, thoughts and sharing about your submitting your work for Portfolio Review and having one reviewer respond “… there has already been an Ansel…” and questioning in a blunt bigger-picture kind of way, “Where’s Cole Thompson’s work? Who is Cole Thompson?”

    In writing, if we duplicate someone else’s work we are warned of plagiarism. Yet, in the foundations of learning, we learn by duplicating, by example and then we ultimately take flight. There is so much in between, but the length of the process and journey are different for each person. Some fly and soar immediately. Others crash and burn. Some, take a little more time, smell the roses and appreciate every step of the way.

    I like your approach and thought process to find what ultimately pleases and works best for you. I believe that we are influenced by so many things and have to deal with so many variables, emotions, interests, environment, distractions, life and so on … that in any given profession, it is difficult to have individuality or be known, especially as a photographer or artist.

    Being inspired from others works can be distracting, but is dependent upon how you are influenced by it. Do you see something that you want to duplicate? Or, do you see something that is a lost piece to a puzzle that you have been trying to finish? As like a race horse, do you require a blinder so that you are not distracted from finishing the race? Or, are you able to finish the race without blinders?

    Discipline, focus and ability to perform to the levels that we seek … it is all a process. Who is the ultimate judge of you? Who do we answer to? Is it a client? Or, a reviewer in Santa Fe? Is it for the money? Is it for praise? Is it for a job? The Q’s & A’s can go on and on.

    In many ways, I personally find myself going through what you are going through … and also … keep my eye open for discovering something new.

  17. Glad to find your blog.

    I think copying a style is good for the learning process. I tried to recreated many images from my favorite masters (and not only “photography” masters, few of my works were inspired by painters as well, such as Hopper)
    At some point, you stop following their root and try to find your own words.

  18. Imitation really works to develop technical skills. By copying a variety of artists you learn to not only identify, but accomplish different techniques and skills. However once these skills are mastered or at least understood personal direction and style needs to be found. Kudos Cole.

  19. If one has ever looked at any other photographic work, those images and styles will stay in the mind for many, many years. I can still find myself being influenced (guided) by images I saw while studying photography in community college, 22 years ago. I think the key to making great images in a personal context is to be consistent with a style and approach. And make it clear to the audience that “this is who I am and this is how I see the world.”

  20. I think you are doing a good thing Cole. I believe the best way to achieve an inner vision is to have a clear mind. It is impossible to totally clear your head of images and concepts, but not looking at other people’s images for a while should help. Whatever helps you get to where you want to go is the best way to proceed.

  21. I think you’re doing the right thing by not copying and by limiting what work you see. For some photographers, seeing a lot of work brings them inspiration and that’s great but, on the flip side, there’s also a lot of copy work out there.

    Where I live, in Austin, it’s very competitive, there are a lot of photographers. There are some photographers who do little more than copy work-they lack imagination and can’t bring anything original to the medium. After a few years of doing this, they learn to churn out work and sort of “kid themselves” into thinking it’s great (original) work. I’d hate to be in that position. It’s much, much better (IMHO) to be an original of yourself than a sort of “poor man’s copy” of somebody else. Sure, there are some photographers who can incorporate elements of what they see, or maybe be inspired rather than copy, but, if you don’t fall into that group, it’s probably better to force yourself to be original, rather than risk producing work that’s not completely honest. Yes, you’ll miss out (maybe) on seeing some great work by hiding from it, but, in the end, you’re work will be more honest and personal. IMHO, if it isn’t personal, it isn’t worth doing.

  22. Cole: I have enjoyed going thru (not done) your photos, blog and website.. I have found myself in recent years on the digital and equipment bandwagon if I may say that. Too wrapped up in the machine and not enough in the journey and finish product. Always wanting some latest thing of this or that, thinking it would make me better. I was an avid Ansel Adams follower back in the day and have enjoyed a good photo book along the way. I just want you to know that this blog and particularly this thread has given me a new beginning and started me in a new direction for using what little talents I have in photography. I have appreciated all the comments here and I feel refreshed and invigorated. Many thanks to you and your responders if I may say so…… best regards, Pete

  23. It is difficult indeed not to cross the line between inspiration and copy I guess, especially as you pointed out the unconscious process of it. But quid of the pleasure of looking at others’ magnificient work? of learning? sharing? experiencing? understanding? I know that sometimes when I take pictures I feel like I am doing something that has already been done and that I don’t add anything to it much but I still take a lot of pleasure composing these photos and capturing a special moment in time! I guess that one of the good thing is that no pictures can be done twice 🙂 and eventually one will find his/her own style (or not 🙂 …

  24. Thank you Cole I was sent your site by a fellow enthusiast from our photo club,nice work but your point about not looking at others work for awhile hit a cord.I’m a relative new comer on the amateur photography scene and enjoyed some large success too quickly now I find myself in a creative slump.Thinking to find that creative spark in viewing others work I have spent many hours on the web.Your commentary has led me back to myself..no sense in re inventing the wheel when the seeds are within ourselves.Thank you and aloha chris

  25. I would suggest that if your work begins to show the clear influence of one photographer or the other, then the solution is not to stop looking at the works of others, but instead to look at more of them. Not more of the same artist(s), but rather, more from other artists.

    Rather than cutting yourself off, instead, open your horizons that much wider, until your influences are so numerous and diverse that it’s not clear where one ends and the next begins.

    btw: Beautiful photos.

  26. Matt, thanks for your thoughts on this, I think it’s the most original response I’ve heard! And this has been the most controversial idea I’ve shared so far. More to come.

  27. This is my first post on this blog and all i can say is thank you for all these useful information! If you permit, I would want to use few of your content. I write articles for article directories as my second job. I am willing to refernce your site in these articles.
    Kindly get back to me via email ASAP.
    Honeywell Air Filters

  28. That’s a really interesting viewpoint, and one that I would never have thought of on my own. I do have the same problem with which you were suffering. However, I don’t know that my artistic vision is strong enough to survive celibacy, so I may not follow your path. I really respect anyone who is strong enough to do so, though.

  29. When I first began to be very serious about photography I decided to not look at the works of other photographers to prevent their undo influence on the creation of my own style and vision. I did that for several years and once I became comfortable with my own work I started looking at the works of others, more as a comparison or weak validation process. In the past couple years I’ve been spending more time looking at other’s work and I’m leaning toward returning to the “photographic recluse” approach because I would rather have my head filled with images of my own than those of others, very nice as they might be. I teach photography, also, and have run into this debate several times, with most people wondering how a person can be a photographer without knowing what else has been done. I respond that it’s very simple, photograph what you see and what you feel, photograph for yourself and no one else, and you’ll do just fine.

  30. Mike, well said! I feel no need to know what others have done to be able to create my own work. However there are many times that I “want” to look at others work for my own enjoyment.


  31. Cole, That’s the hard part because I also like to look at other photography for the pure enjoyment of looking at great work. I don’t think looking at other work is unwarranted, perhaps only during the time when a person’s individual vision is developing and that influence could overcome the low confidence of a beginner to become a “false vision”. After confidence is gained, looking at other work (in moderation) can be very inspiring as well as enjoyable.

  32. I have to ask if you feel your studying of others work in your early days contributed to your own vision as it now stands. I am at the very beginning so what you are suggesting in a way is counter intuitive to me..experiment and see what works or take the basic principles of composition from others work.

  33. David, I think you’ve asked the right and pivotal question. I can argue it both ways:

    Yes, looking at others work early on helped me to see what is possible and gave me new ideas to build upon. Imitating helped me develop skills that I later used with my own vision.

    No, looking at others work and spending energy copying their work and style only delayed my own development. I could have saved years if I had only pursued my own vision and style back then.

    I don’t know which is true, but I tend to believe the latter and wished I hadn’t wasted all of those years.

    Great question David, thanks.


  34. A big problem is the zeitgeist… avoid.. buy old second hand books on photography. Browse unknown photographers on flickr. etc.

    I agree with Matt – diversify your exposure

    I can relate to the idea of hiding from influence but can’t relinquish the pleasure of seeing other peoples work

  35. Cole if I make add my youths, this is my first time stumbling upon your blog. I am currently trying to pursuit a dream I have always had taking picture, right now mainly portraiture. I have no formal training or education in the field just some online tutorials here and there. I have a small in home lighting kit and a 7d that I work with. I have been struggling with concept and ideas. It so happen that this morning I googled studying other photographers work and your blog was the first to pop up…I think from reading your post and others comments the direction for me will be studying other people work and trying to get or create inspiring ideas from that but like you said a lot of time we have stuff buried in our subconscious mind and we all know what the subconscious is capable of doing. Do you ever find yourself after doing a shoot with your own creativeness end up looking like it was still imitated. Also do you have any advise for me being new.

  36. Hi Sule, thanks for joining the discussion! Yes, even now I find myself sometimes imitating the work of others, but fortunately I am aware of it and so slap my face and yell “Stop!”

    And sometimes I do what I think is original work only to have someone say, your work looks just like so-and-so’s work! So even when I am not aware of other photographer’s work, I can still produce similar work.

    Brooks Jensen wrote an article called “fellow travelers” and it describes this phenomenon. Two photographers working independently, but producing similar work.

    Now back to you. I choose not to look at others work while some feel that you should start off this way, purposely copying others work and style to hone your technical skills. Some feel that creatively this is a good approach with their ideas combining with your ideas to create new ideas.

    I cannot argue with this approach as it seems to work so well for the majority of people!

    Good luck Sule, I hope to hear from you again.

  37. Hi Cole. I arrived here because Joel Tjintjelaar re-shared your Retrospective album on Google+. That took me to your profile, your website and then your blog. A lovely journey! And this article is fascinating, arriving in my consciousness as it does, just at a time when I am feeling regretful that (being completely self-taught), I know next to nothing about the great photographers. Having the read the article and thought about your central point, I think photographic celibacy may be for me too! Not for ever but just whilst I continue to develop my own preferred style. (It floats somewhere between minimal and abstract, and so i call it Ministract to save me the hassle of spending too much time on taxonomy!). That said, I wonder if we can ever actually achieve the state you’re after? Is it possible to avoid influences? And is it possible that those influences we do succumb to could actually be more influential then we appreciate? Talking about philosophers, Henry Louis Mencken said that their ideal state would be “celibacy tempered by polygamy”. Now there’s a thought!

  38. I agree with your perspective on photographic celibacy, but only at the age of 17 I find it rather difficult NOT to copy others’ styles. For some strange reason my photos come out best when i do them in “the spur of the moment”, taking pictures when not an animal, person, or plant has any idea that i’m taking a shot. (some advice as to what I should look into would be helpful)
    I’m rather curious however, now that you have your vision- what technical aspects do you use?

  39. Cole what an excellent discussion, you must be pleased with the quality of responses it has received. Perhaps this may have you feeling less sinful.

    Throughout history there are numerous examples of man developing almost identical ideas & ideals at the same point in time… while being completely unaware of any others’ similar achievements… Isolated by continents and the forms of communication that existed at the time, plagiarism was an impossibility.

    Makes you wonder about the capability of “original” thought.

  40. I think that beginning photographers can benefit greatly from looking at the work of master photographers. However, I agree with you that at some point, we need find ways to discover our own vision. I do think that art in general can be quite inspirational. Jay Maisel says that he goes to MOMA for inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *