March 24, 2013

Never Ask Others About Your Work

Ancient Stones No. 12


“Ancient Stones” is a portfolio that I started last year when I visited Joshua Tree for the first time in 20 years. This trip  brought back many great memories because it was the site of one of my earliest dates with my wife Dyan. We camped amongst the boulders, sunned ourselves on the rocks and listened non-stop to U2’s “Joshua Tree” album. What wonderful times those were!

Ancient Stones No. 12 above is the latest image in the series and I love it! But why do I love it? Is it because it evokes wonderful memories or do I love it because it’s a good image? Evaluating your own work is very difficult, especially when it’s tied to to things like memories, praise and the opinions of others.

Recently I’ve been corresponding with several photographers on the topic of finding your own vision. I explain that one of the first steps I took was to divide my work into two piles; work that I REALLY loved and everything else. By isolating the work that I really loved, I would then try to understand what those images had in common and pursue that “vision.”

It sounds like a simple exercise, but it wasn’t for me. I actually had difficulty in separating what I thought about my work from what others thought. I noticed that if a lot of people liked one of my images, it started to affect how I felt about that image also. If one of my images won a competition, I took that as evidence that it must be a good image and that affected my opinion of it. I became so addicted to “positive feedback” that I began seeking it by producing work that I thought others would like, and in time I lost sight of what I loved.  

Upon realizing this, I committed that I would never again produce images simply because others liked them and I adopted a new policy: Never Ask Others About Your Work.

To isolate myself from other’s opinions I stopped asking my friends if they liked my work. I stopped asking my mentor what what she thought of my images. I no longer approached the experts to ask their opinions and I no longer attended portfolio reviews for input. I purposely removed the clutter of other voices and focused only on what I thought.

So what happened? I once again began to understand what I loved and focused only on that, which turned out to be a key ingredient to finding my vision. I became more confident in my work and I was certainly more satisfied. Now the measure of my work and success was internal rather than external.  

There was another important reason why I stopped asking others about my work; no one knows more about my vision than I do. Their advice, though generally good and well intentioned, was not coming from my point of view or vision. Increasingly I found that my vision and their advice was in conflict, and I realized that I had grown to the point where I was ready to decide for myself what my work needed.

Those of you who are familiar with my practice of “Photographic Celibacy” might recognize a reoccurring theme in my decision to “Never Ask Others About Your Work.” In both cases I am attempting to understand myself and my vision, and to pursue it without being influenced by others. In both cases I am isolating myself from the thoughts, opinions and images of others.  

This idea of never asking others about your work, was echoed and reinforced by one of my favorite books, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The main character is Howard Roark, an architect who is an uncompromising individualist, who defines success by being true to self and creating work that he loves. His designs are unique and he rejects the traditional designs and opinions of the experts.

However his friend and fellow architect, Peter Keating, has an opposite view of  success: he seeks the approval and admiration of others.  In one of my favorite scenes, Peter asks Roark what he thinks of his latest design and this is Roark’s response:

“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me, by asking anyone. Never ask people, not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

There is strength and power in knowing what you want. Finding your vision and pursuing it is a wonderful feeling that gives conviction to your work. Like Photographic Celibacy, “Never Ask Others About Your Work” may seem to run contrary to common wisdom, but I have found it to be instrumental in helping me to know what I really love and keeping me focused on my vision.




24 thoughts on “Never Ask Others About Your Work

  1. Cole, as someone who has always struggled a bit with “finding my own vision”, I must say I like the concept of the 2 piles. I plan to conduct a similar review of my portfolio, to focus on what I really like – and then figure out why. Thanks for sharing your thoughts & insights.

    Regards, Geoff

  2. Love it Cole. I feel the same way as you now, but I too had to struggle to find my vision. It was always there, but the outside world wanted me to produce something that they liked…and I did that for a while, but now I shoot for me only. If others like it and want to buy them, then that’s cool too. Thanks for the article. Cheers, Brent

  3. I like this. Well done.

    “I no longer approached the experts to ask their opinions and I no longer attended portfolio reviews for input.”

  4. Great article and perspective. I’ve recently come to a similar decision, but have not been able to articulate my reasoning the way you have here. I don’t want to submit my photos on camera club judging night, I don’t want to enter my photos in the fair or other competitions. I never like the results and they never understand all that goes into the image I’ve created.

    So I’ve started focusing on what I like and why I like, studying my photos and others for common themes that attract my eye and make me think.

    Thank you for your wonderfully clear perspective.

  5. I’m not sure about photo celibacy, but I agree about foreign opinions. I hate the “wow amazing”, I think they are really destructive, even more than a really hard opinion because it drives you to conformism and to replay again and again. And I think it is true not only for photography but for any other fine art.
    Good post, Cole.

  6. Cole,

    You’re a wise man. I totally agree with you and its great to hear it from someone who’s photography has such a peaceful and personal feel to it. I too have found that the photos that I like the most are ones that have personal meaning or purpose to me, regardless of what others say or do not say. I enjoy your work and insight and appreciate you sharing it with others. Its always helpful and grounding at the same time.

  7. True to form, another insightful post Cole. I try to take people’s opinion of my work for what it is. ONE person’s opinion… nothing more and nothing less. I simply take it as a compliment that they had an opinion.

    20yrs back I was fortunate to become friends with a highly accomplished photographer from Australia. She had a different and more amusing take on this subject.

    She emphatically stated that she hadn’t become famous until she “…stopped giving a flying f…k” about what other people thought about her work.

    Her statement still resonates with me. It helped me to realize that what people think about what your doing, is far less important… than just doing.

  8. So Cole, have you taken a look at my new Death Valley work? What do you think?

    Oh come on, that was VERY FUNNY!!!

    Great thought provoking post as always Mr. Thompson. Bravo. Now, leave me alone, I need to go take a look at what Kimmerle just posted….

  9. While I think I understand your purpose and your rational, I’m skeptical. You must admit this stance on “influence” is fairly far out on one end of the bell shape curve. Uncommon for sure. Yes there are many who dwell in the middle and on the other end and are overly influenced by others opinions or art. No doubt. And the social web, including blog comments is nearly out of control.

    I’d like to suggest that it’s literally impossible not have contact with the opinions of others. Directly there are still the print sales, web comments, and web traffic stats. Indirectly society and media in particular are replete with all kinds of style, content, purposes, and influence (intentional or not). You mention the effect that U2 had on you experience for instance. I have yet to meet the human who is not affected by this either positively or negatively, consciously or subconsciously.
    And too if this philosophy is followed by less mature artists it could cut off some very real avenues of potential growth. I’m always skeptical of the words like “never”. That sounds like dogma to me.

  10. John, let me make two comments in response because I think it’s important that everyone hear my answers.

    First, by the simple act of blogging these ideas, it gives the appearance that I’m advocating this is what I think others should do.

    I am not. I don’t believe you should follow anyone too closely, and that includes myself or manure trucks. Following either too closely is dangerous and could lead to unpleasant results.

    Second, what I wanted to convey but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, is that through this practice I was trying to eliminate my “need” for the opinions of others. That neediness was not healthy and got in the way of my understanding my own likes and vision.

    Of course people are going to give their opinions of my work, and that’s fine and appreciated, but I don’t want to “need” that input to feel good about my work or to help me find my vision.

    That’s why I “never ask others about my work.” My opinion is all that I “need.”

  11. This is why I love your blog. Such a refreshing opinion! While I believe that peer critiques can be very helpful especially in the beginning. The discovery a personal style, for me, didn’t happen till I got out of the classroom – yes it was influenced by a teacher’s remark that my minimalist work was my strongest, but it was more helping me see what was already in front of my face.

    I really like the idea of not needing the validation of others!

  12. The whole idea of approval is a slippery slope- like Antonio said above I’d rather live in a world of much harsher critique than of pats on the back and high-fives (being careful what I wish for…) which is partly my motivation for being less motivated to participate in the social media these days. Although I feel guilty for not catching up with some of my photo friends online sometimes- I’d rather focus on what I’m doing with my photography then do the compliment exchange these days. And the photo celibacy can not be under valued. John Mather pointed out above that it’s up to the individual how to take this advice and the level that the artist is at, but as usual I’m finding these kinds of posts from you, and the subsequent comments, hitting the proverbial home run Mr Cole. By the way I sent a student your way the other day without asking you- I told him to read your posts and perhaps reach out to you, I hope that isn’t a source of annoyance or anything!

  13. Hi, Cole!
    I really enjoyed your latest post on getting others approval of images. I thought you might enjoy hearing about two changes I’ve made that have been very helpful to me regarding this subject.
    1. I stopped using photographic “critique” forums.
    2. I stopped trying so hard to be a “great” photographer.
    Number one brought a surprising and wonderful sense of relief. I realized I had been enjoying myself less and less because I felt I had to continually feed these forums with images that I thought would gain me the most positive comments. I can tell you that after several years of doing this, not posting to these forums has been the single best thing I could have done for myself.
    Number 2. I had been concentrating so hard on trying to be a great photographer that I was losing my love of nature. Once I started going to my favorite locations and letting myself truly enjoy the place as I used to, I have enjoyed myself much, much more and it is showing in my work.
    It’s truly embarassing how much time and effort I have put into trying to gain other’s approval. These two things have helped me become more grounded, relaxed and really put the fun back into photography for me.
    Keep up the great work, Cole. Your blog articles are always inspiring and thoughtful and much appreciated.


  14. What an amazing post, being honest with your own work definitely makes you stronger when taking decisions about composition while taking photographs. Personally, being able to be a harsh self-critic is the most effective way to get better doing your work.

  15. Hi Cole:

    What a fine balance one must strike here! I think it’s natural to want to seek exposure for your work. What are the avenues to do this? Things like participating in social media, gallery exhibits, and the like, I suppose. The danger, of course, precisely is getting caught up in the rat race of compliment exchanges, meeting the expectations of others, and so forth. It seems to me the challenge is to use these things as tools to communicate your work, while staying detached enough to keep your perspective and remain true to your own vision. It’s a surprisingly tough balancing act!

  16. Wonderful post, Cole. I agree completely and adopted this philosophy a while ago. I find it helps keep the fun in photography for me as well – and that’s what it’s all about.

  17. If you ask for judgement of your work, then I am all with you. If you ask for their spontaneous reaction, that provides you with a wonderful source for self reflection. Which might bring you closer to what you migh wanted to know but never learned, when you asked someone to judge your work.

    Wonderful post again, Cole.


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