January 1, 2013

Destined to be a Photographer

Egg in Glass – Age 14

 What do you want to be when you grow up?  What child has not been asked that question a hundred times, and who over the years hasn’t had a variety of answers?  Fireman, policeman, teacher, nurse…  Those answers were not prophecies or predictions, but merely answers that were reflective of this month’s favorite TV show or parental expectations.  What we would actually become in life was more often due to luck or chance, rather than careful career planning.

I was fourteen years old and living in Rochester, NY.  One day I was hiking in the woods when I came upon a crumbling and deserted home that my friend told me had once belonged to George Eastman.  I knew George Eastman was connected to Kodak and this piqued my interest enough that I checked out his biography from the school library.

I started reading and could not put the book down.  I was captivated by the wonder of photography and before I had finished the book, before I had taken a picture or before I had ever seen a print develop in the darkroom, I knew that I was destined to be a photographer.  I know that using the word “destined” is a bit presumptuous and grandiose, especially for a 14 year old, but that is what I was meant to be.

I had been infatuated with various things before, just a year earlier I had fallen in love with architecture and I wanted to become an architect.  But never before or since have I felt “destined” to become anything; it wasn’t just something that I wanted to be, it was something that I felt destined to be.

Why a photographer?  I don’t know, but it was almost a Déjà vu moment, like I had been there before and had now come home.  Ever since that moment almost 45 years ago, I have never doubted that this is who I am.

And so for the next 10 years I learned everything I could about photography.  I am self taught and have never taken a class or workshop in my life. I’ve learned through studying, experimenting and through the friendship of three great men.

I started off by reading every single book I could find on photography; I studied the history of photography as well as the science.  I studied about cameras, techniques, processes and about the different types of photography, from fine art to scientific.  Because I didn’t know what direction I would eventually go, I studied everything about everything.

I studied the images created by the great Masters of Photography.  I spent countless hours looking at every image I could find and tried to identify why certain images fascinated me and caused a shiver to go down my spine. These were a very particular type of image; dark and  contrasy images with bright subjects.  I found myself particularly drawn to images by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock and later I would find my work going in this direction.

I set up a darkroom, first commandeering the family bathroom with a Sears’s enlarging kit and then taking over the basement and purchasing an enlarger and proper darkroom equipment.  Everything was an experiment and an adventure, and those were some of the happiest days of my life; experimenting, failing, succeeding but always learning.

I had always been an impatient sort and learning this way, independently and hands on, allowed me to hyper-accelerate my learning and to go in any direction I felt inspired.  I think it was at this point in my life that I began to form the habit of learning by doing and avoiding structured and formal education.

Another way that I learned was from the assistance of three men who touched my life and taught me some life lessons.  Three great men, three great lessons.

The first was Mr. Casey who owned Casey’s Camera’s in Rochester, NY.  I was a boy of 14 with very few dollars to spend and an enormous thirst to learn.  Mr. Casey tolerated my many visits, the endless hours looking at his cameras and all the associated questions.  He always showed patience and tolerance and magically a used camera was always within my price range.  It was only recently, as I recounted those experiences, that I fully appreciated what he had done for me.  I contacted Richard Casey, now 82 years of age, and thanked him for his simple acts of patience and kindness.  His example has inspired me to return the same gift to others.

The second significant influence in my life was Joe Boyle, an old-school photographer who worked in Hollywood shooting stills for the studios.  Joe hired me to work in a department store’s camera department and he then became a friend and mentor.  Joe was king of the cheap and dirty solution; he could solve any problem with the most basic of materials and a lot of imagination.  He truly was a follower of Rube Goldberg and the King of Kluge.

He once taught me how to remove telephone lines from an image long before the days of digital and Photoshop.  We mounted a piece of glass about 12″ in front of the camera lens and then looking through the camera, drew over the telephone lines with Vaseline on the glass.  The glass was out of focus and the Vaseline blurred out the telephone lines, a simple solution with simple materials.  This was the great lesson I learned from Joe; to look for the simple solution and to improvise.

The third mentor in my life was John Holland, a photography teacher at Loara High School in Anaheim, CA.  I relocated to Anaheim in my Junior year and naturally gravitated to the photography department.  I had no interest in the basic photography classes that were offered and so John allowed me to have an open-study photography period, where I basically just wandered the campus and photographed.  Unlike so many other teachers and photographic approaches that I was aware of, John encouraged me to focus on the creative over the technical.  This was such a different approach than I had been pursuing, that I thrived creatively and started the early transition from photographer to artist.  This was the important life lesson John taught me, that the creative is more important than the technical and that I should find my creative vision.

Here are some of the images that I created during those early years:

Gull and Moon – Anaheim, CA

Wooden Indian – Anaheim, CA

Old Shoes – Anaheim, CA

Headlight – Anaheim, CA

Two Hippies – Anaheim, CA

High School was coming to an end and I needed to decide what I wanted to do for a living.  I had assumed that I would pursue photography at the Rochester Institute of Photography, which had always been my dream.  But as the time drew near to make such decisions, I started to have doubts, not of my love for photography or my destiny, but of other things.

I began to question if a formal photographic education would stifle some of the qualities I had developed through self-instruction; my independence and a disregard for the rules.  Not a willful or belligerent disregard for the rules mind you, but more of an ignorance of the rules and a lack of peer pressure that had served me well.  Would a formal education constrain me and would I start to conform to herd mentality?  I also worried that if I earned a living through photography I would lose my passion for it.  Would I at the end of each day really have the time, enthusiasm and energy to pursue my personal work?

Ultimately I chose not to go to college for photography or to earn my living from it.  I decided that the best approach was to separate money from art, which I hoped would give me the best of both worlds.  I could choose a career that would provide me with the material things that I needed and my art could be pursued separately allowing me to retain my passion for it.  What I could not appreciate at age 17 was how much time and energy family and career would require.

I obtained a degree in business and for the next 30 years I ran a business and raised five children.  While I imagined that my photography would be pursued parallel to my career and family responsibilities, so little time remained that I didn’t pick up a camera during this period except to document family life.

But even though I had become a businessman and a family man and I never created a single piece of art with my camera, I still thought of myself as a photographer, I never once stopped believing that it was my destiny.

As the kids started leaving home and I had more time, I felt the time was right to pursue my destiny once again.  This time digital was just coming into its own and so I had the wonderful opportunity to learn all over again.  And even though the tools were completely different, the creative process was still the same.  It was good to succumb to the passion again and to feel the satisfaction of creating something.  Here are some of the first images I created upon my return:

Skeleton – Fort Collins, CO

Bent Grass – Sulfur Hot Springs, CO

Windmill in Moonlight – Rural, NE

Old Car Interior – Laporte, CO

Socks – Colorado Springs, CO

Flaming Dahlia – Fort Collins, CO

I quickly regained my technical skills and I found myself growing creatively.  I was winning competitions, exhibiting, publishing and increasingly selling my work.  There was an assumed path that a rising star should take which was: get into galleries, sell more work and sell it for more money.   Some of the same old questions that haunted me when I was 17 started to haunt me again; did I really want money to become the focal point of my art?  Was that the inevitable end?  Why was I creating?  Would this take the fun out of it?  Was there another way?

It turns out that there was another way.  I did not need to become a professional or take that path to be a photographer; in fact for me the opposite was true.  What I discovered was that the old world definition of an amateur was what I was looking for: one who is self taught, who creates out of love and who does not earn their living from their work.  That was what I wanted to be!

I did not want to create for money or for prizes or for recognition.  I wanted to create for myself and not care what anyone else thought.  After I made this discovery and changed my direction, I took down my traditional resume and replaced it with this one:

My art has appeared in many exhibitions, publications and has received numerous awards.  And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments, why?

In the past I’ve considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently.  My success is no longer measured by the length of my resume, but rather by how I feel about the art that I create.  While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art, this is an extra benefit of creating, but this is not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally. 


By seeking to please only myself, I am free to break the rules, flaunt convention and not care about achieving success on anyone’s terms but my own.  In the process I have pleased myself, grown creatively and ironically have become even more successful…but on my terms.

Through all of my experiences I have come to the conclusion that money and art do not mix well, too many compromises are required.  I am happy with the decision that I made at age 17 and I’ve become happier with my decision some 45 years later.

I always knew that I was destined to be a photographer and I now fully understand what that means.

Here are some of my favorite images:

The Angel Gabriel – Newport Beach, CA

Swimming Towards the Light – Kihei, HI

Auschwitz No. 14 – Auschwitz, Poland

Ceiling Lamp, Mourning Dove Ranch – Laporte, CO

Linnie No. 4 – Grand Junction, CO

Harbinger No. 1 – Utah Desert

Lone Man No. 7 – Oregon Coast

Time No. 2 – Death Valley, CA

Lone Man No. 20 – LaJolla, CA

Monolith No. 10 – Bandon, OR

black and white simplicity - Monolith No 27

Monolith No. 27 – Oregon Coast

Fountainhead No. 70 – Portland, OR

Stone Jetty No. 6 – Maalaea Bay, HI

Monolith No. 42 – Bandon, OR

Dunes of Nude No. 43 – Death Valley, CA

Eight Trees – Hilo, HI

Monolith No. 50 – San Francisco, CA



9 thoughts on “Destined to be a Photographer

  1. Hello from an amateur photographer (one who is self taught, who creates out of love and who does not earn their living from their work) from India.
    Thank you Cole Thomspon for this wonderful insight.
    This answers many questions I had in my mind.

  2. Hi Cole,
    Love the Vaseline story, brilliant…. Thanks for sharing this…..
    Many years from now, I shall mention you as one of the people who influenced me to take up photography as an art form…..

    Thank you for being there for me…


  3. Hi Cole, once more a great article from you! The vaseline story is awesome! I just shared it with my friends. I take the opportunity to wish you a very happy new year! All the Best!

  4. Hi Cole – Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. I think it is important for artists to share their inner selves and motivations as well as their technical skills. You are an inspiration.

  5. “I set up a darkroom, first commandeering the family bathroom with a Sears’s enlarging kit and then taking over the basement and purchasing an enlarger and proper darkroom equipment.”

    LOL. Reminded me of the Zappa lyrics “…is that a real poncho or a Sears poncho…”

    Thanks Cole, another great read!

  6. Hi Cole.

    I have just read this, and I found it simply beautiful. Thanks for sharing and congratulations for finding your way to express yourself. It is never late to let your heart speak.

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