September 5, 2014

Which Would You Choose?

2008-9-14 Lone Man No 7 - Oregon - Final 11-30-2009 750 Lone Man No. 7


What if you had two choices as a photographer:

To imitate the style of others, have it sell well and achieve notoriety


Produce original work that you love, but it results in few sales and does not receive critical praise

Which would you choose…and why?

I think that how we answer this question reveals something about why we create. For a very long time I created to please others, to gain recognition and notoriety.

Because I was trying to please everyone, my work was all over the place. It seemed that every month I was pursuing some new technique, process or fad that I had seen in a photography magazine. And if an image received praise, then I was off in that direction until another compliment took me in another direction.

I was like the wheat in the field, blown to and fro by every wind. In a very real sense my work was not my own, it was imitative, and creatively…well it wasn’t.

Here’s another question that was once posed to me:

If you could choose between having your work sell for thousands of dollars


Having your work in thousands of homes

Which would you choose?

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but knowing what you want is essential to defining success for yourself.

For many years I never questioned what success meant to me, I just assumed that it was selling my work for high prices, exhibiting, being represented in big name galleries and publishing books.

It wasn’t until I started achieving some of that success that I realized that it wasn’t very fulfilling. It was a transitory pleasure that felt great in the moment but afterwards left me feeling empty. It was like an addiction; I needed more and more of the spotlight to maintain that feeling and yet it was becoming less and less satisfying. 

Eventually I realized this formula wasn’t working for me and I finally stopped to ask myself “what do I want?” and “what will bring me lasting satisfaction” and “what do I consider success?” 

Answering those questions has changed everything that I do, it was a life changer that affected much more than my photography. 

I wish I would have asked myself these questions earlier in life, but I’m just grateful that I did eventually ask them.


P.S. I’m really enjoying the different thoughts and viewpoints expressed in the comments.  They bring to mind four points I’d like to emphasize:

1. My conclusions may not be your conclusions. We all think differently, learn differently and have different approaches to life. 

2. We are all at different places on the path and so what may be right for me for where I’m at, may not be right for you for where you’re at.

3. We all have different goals. If you’re earning a living from your art, then to some degree you must please the buyer. I do not earn my living from my art and so I have the luxury to please only myself. But I really do hope that those of you earning a living from your art do pursue personal work that is reserved only for pleasing self!

 4. There is nothing wrong with exhibiting, selling, publishing or gallery representation.  I do all of those things, but the difference for me now is that this is not my goal but rather a byproduct of following my goal, which is to seek and follow my Vision.  


22 thoughts on “Which Would You Choose?

  1. Wonderful post of self reflection and insight that every artist at one time or another ponders. In the beginning of my photographic journey it was all about improving the basics of photography and finding a style that best suited me. Than the reality of realizing that we live in the golden age of photography-in my opinion. In that everybody has a camera w/ phone coupled with inexpensive DSLR’s and the ability to easily edit, promote, and educate ourselves vie the internet making everyone a photographer.
    This is great! However, with so many people dabbling in this art form you naturally get a massive influx of images that we all have seen before HDR, sunsets, barns, and flowers to name a few. So it didn’t take long to realize that my imagery needed my own style that segregated itself from the mainstream. In doing so I had to come to terms that my photos are not going to win any popularity contests. This was an adjustment period of losing confidence and then regaining it! Now I fully embrace my unique perspectives and greatly identify with your latest post-again thanks for sharing Cole.

    Ron Quick

  2. Another inspiring post Cole. I love the way you think and getting to know you better through our conversations has made a difference in my photography and more importantly in my life. Stay on your path, it’s a great one…..

  3. Glad you pointed out there is no right or wrong answer! Also, I’m not certain it is an either/or proposition. I’ve sold some work, won a few awards, but get the most enjoyment out of seeing others enjoy my work. Fortunately, I’m not trying to make a living out of photography!!

  4. I was taken so much by your questions I took a day to think about them before answering. I think the answer is a big part of the photographer / artist mind set. It is far easier to focus on personal projects and projects when the bills have been paid and you have a little money in the bank. But before that happens your mind and creativity is stifled by the realities of paying the mortgage and putting food on the table.

    Also, success breeds success. The more successful a person is the easier it is to maintain that success. I think Andy Warhol would be a good example. He could scribble anything on a piece of canvas and it would be an instant success. Because of this notoriety and fame he could easily focus on the artistic direction and creativity he wanted. And the result would again be more success.

    I think we as artist move in multiple directions. Taking paths that are accepted and experimenting in paths to see what works.

    So the answer is not to choose but the answer is both. A balance is needed between the two.

    In conclusion, I find you works very inspirational and enlightening. Your style and creativity is something that is influencing my own creative path.

    Thank you.

  5. Joseph Campbell would call that “the hero’s journey”. Follow your bliss, he said, and you will always have your bliss, money or not. If you follow the money, and it goes away, then you are left with nothing.

  6. Another excellent post, Cole and the questions are certainly worth contemplation. I think if an artist is trying to earn a living and has no following then their motivation would have to be around selling their art. I agree with Mr. Adkins that success breeds freedom to do your own original art. Speaking for myself, I only have myself to please. While I enjoy what other photographers are doing, I try to stay true to what moves me. At least I’m satisfied with what I do.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your views and ideas with the rest of us!

  7. Perhaps it depends on one’s stage of growth as a photographer (artist, if you please). I’ve certainly found that I’ve had seasons of following the style of others, as I seek to learn their techniques, in the hope of improving my own. In doing so, it is easy to become ensnared in the idea that theirs is the “right” way to make an image. When I realized that I could never be satisfied if I was only trying to be a copy of someone else, I stepped out and tried to use the various techniques to achieve my own ends.

    Very timely and thought-provoking post!

  8. Cole,
    We all learn photography by copying others. But once mastered we should be free to pursue our personal style that comes from a deep passion within us, and not to copy the style of someone else. In my early years with photography I would study the works of great photographers that touched me deeply. Edward Weston’s “Pepper # 30″ was the first image I saw that made me want to be a photographer. I still am fascinated how such a simple subject can be transformed into beautiful image. Dorothea Lange picture of the migrant mother and children captured the human condition during a difficult time in the country. Ansel Adams landscapes created a desire in me to travel to remote locations and to fall in love with the wilderness. Edward Weston died poor, Dorothea Lange had one exhibit in her lifetime, and Ansel Adams through years of hard work brought photography to the art world. There are numerous other great photographers who’s work has inspired me to pursue photography. What I noticed with these great photographers was their drive to to pursue their passion first and reap any recognition if it came later. They blazed a trail for the rest of us. As Brett Weston said ” hell it has all been done before, but that shouldn’t keep you from photographing”. I have a lot of my photographs on my walls and few on other people’s . I have sold a number of prints but have spent more on materials and equipment. I still make trips out to photograph and come home empty handed. I was asked a question by a young college student at one of my exhibits a number of years ago. It was back in my darkroom day. She asked ” what does your work represent?” My reply was, thousands of hours standing alone in the dark. If you have a deep passion to create you will follow your own path. Your work is always enjoyable Cole. Thanks for sharing. John Doddato

  9. I really like everyone’s very thought out comments. I wanted to follow up again as I continue to think about this question. Some say they create photographic art for themselves and care more about that than selling the art or having appreciation of their art. That is not what is important to them. I say I totally get that. I took a year and quit selling and entering my works in competitions. The feedback was not important to me during this time. It was a time of self evaluation and learning. I spent time being very critical of my own work and how I could take my photography to a higher level. A level that I was personally proud of. It was a great time of discovery for me and a time of exceptional growth. I started looking at photography and art totally different. I starting looking for what I loved about the work of art and why my work did not reach the same level.

    But I realize there is great satisfaction that comes from someone paying out their hard earned cash for a piece of my art. To think that a piece of me will be hanging on there walls and not my walls. That they loved my art or it communicated something to them that impacted them in such a profound way they picked my photo over the millions of other choices today. And that the money can be used for me to afford to now purchase better equipment, take a photographic journey, pay for workshops and grow my skills. This along with the ability to say to myself that I am now able to pay the bills, keep my website on line, my email and cell phone paid, my insurance and taxes paid etc.

    If you are one of the lucky artist that do not depend on your art to produce any income and you can freely support your passion without the need for income, then I tip my hat to you. The reality is most artist have to produce a product to continue to pursue their passion. I am lucky that I fall in the middle. I have sufficient income from my books, my art, my photography, and my retirement to spend time focusing on my craft as a passion. But that was not always true. I spent 30+ years working to reach this point. Photography is a passion and a journey. You can paddle a little harder but in reality you are the mercy of the flow of the stream.

  10. The greatest photographer that pursued photography as a passion only and never wanted recognition or compensation was Vivian Maier. Some would think it was sad that she was discovered right after her death. But from reading about her she would have wanted it that way. She is the purest of any photographer I have ever read about and her works continue to amaze the world.

  11. P.S. I’m really enjoying the different thoughts and viewpoints expressed in the comments. They bring to mind four points I’d like to emphasize:

    1. My conclusions may not be your conclusions. We all think differently, learn differently and have different approaches to life.

    2. We are all at different places on the path and so what may be right for me for where I’m at, may not be right for you for where you’re at.

    3. We all have different goals. If you’re earning a living from your art, then to some degree you must please the buyer. I do not earn my living from my art and so I have the luxury to please only myself. But I really do hope that those of you earning a living from your art do pursue personal work that is reserved only for pleasing self!

    4. There is nothing wrong with exhibiting, selling, publishing or gallery representation. I do all of those things, but the difference for me now is that this is not my goal but rather a byproduct of following my goal, which is to seek and follow my Vision.

  12. All of what has been said has merit depending on who you are and where you are in your artistic or photographic journey. For me personally, if a by product of my creativity is that I sell work and have commercial success, so be it. If I had to actually live off my photography (without doing weddings etc!!!) and work hard to commercialise and brand it, then that would dramatically reduce the enjoyment and freedom that I experience through the medium. Sometimes I’m tempted to do a Robert Adams – throw in the day job and go full time on the photography, but this would have serious financial repercussions for my family. To add, one must be careful that the artistic endeavour doesn’t become all absorbing, and begin to exclude a balanced family/personal life. A solution for me has been to relegate success in my career and business (i.e. work less hours) and spend more time photographing! Cheers, John (

  13. I do choose to be original. even when shooting with a group, I try to see what others do not. but I also have no problem with doing some imitating when you are first starting out. every style requires certain technical, physical and visual skills. by imitating, you practice and learn the different demands, skills and rewards of each shooting style. then, at least for me, by process of elimination, my style has been honed down by the styles I have eliminated as not satisfying- even if the style is what makes money. it is a way to learn to ‘see’. it is part of the progression.

  14. What if someone handed you your first camera as a gift and you decided to take no lessons, look at no one else’s work, read no “how to” books, etc. and simply went off on your own and shot to your hearts content, of whatever and however you wanted to. Might you not more quickly find your own “vision” or style and it would truly be your own? Perhaps when you imagined something but did not have the technical expertise to pull off the “something”, you would seek the technical but not the creative solution. No answer, of course, but I wonder. As a young person I did start this way but when I returned to photography as an adult 10 years ago I read and read and looked and looked and studied and studied. I now wonder if this was the correct approach because I do spend a lot of time trying to re-open my imagination. Since I do not need to make any money from my photography it has become almost purely a self-enjoyment journey. Great set of responses above – “There is more than one road to Rome” (Harold Feinstein).

    1. Roger, of course we cannot know the answer to such questions, but I have also asked myself that one too. I have also asked myself this one: “what if a person were raised on an isolated island and had no access to the world’s great art, could they create beautiful and amazing art without that background?” Or what if you lived your life blind from birth and then a new surgery suddenly gave you sight and you took up photogrpahy, would you see things differently than the rest of us?

      And while I don’t know the answer to this question, I can guess what it is: Did Vivian Maier spend her time scouring through photo books and magazines studying the photograrphy of others? I suspect not.

      While imitation is one way to learn, I do not believe it is the only way to learn. And I have long wondered if imitation is a less effective method because the more we imitate, the more we bury our own Vision under the Vision of others.

      I ponder about this often, but of course have no way to prove my theory.

  15. The whole art in isolation concept is a little lost on me to be honest. As artists our work is so very much influenced by what is going on around us. I became passionate about photography as an 8 year old who was ill at home for a year. I wandered around my parents 5 acre garden taking photos with my Mothers 35mm Kodak Retina. For years I took photos with little knowledge of other photographers and was never involved in a camera club. My photographic style didn’t develop much early on, perhaps because I was not aware of what was actually possible with the medium in terms of self expression – technically, ascetically and artistically.

    As an adult I became interested in other photographers (Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston, Robert Adams, John Sexton, Galen Rowell)and read a lot about their work. This helped me to see what was actually possible with the medium (technically, ascetically and artistically – like learning to paint I guess. It did involve some emulation initially, but that helped to further refine and identify my own style. If you read any art history (and you should) you will see that most of the great painters, for example, were involved in emulating those before them, to greater or lessor degrees, as they developed their own ideas and style.

    In more recent years I have been more inclined to read the non-technical writings of photographers (such as this blog!), since the question of “How to take a photograph” has been superseded by a more critical question: “Why do I photograph!” Every photographer should visit that question. I believe the answer to that question will allow artistic self-expression to thrive.

    I leave you with a quote by Robert Adams:

    “There is always a subjective aspect in landscape art, something in the picture that tells us as much about who is behind the camera as about what is in front of it.”


  16. I would like my work to be my idea rather than copy others and i would be proud to know that others would have my work on there walls of many homes. I do agree that we learn from others but to be able to put our style on it, this in its self is an art. I think its amazing for people to view photos it gives us a glimpse of seeing the world through someone else,s mind well for me anyway. Dont get me wrong money is great as well. I do think as an amateur this is where i go wrong and get confused as i take ideas from others but dont really like my outcome of them and then i take a photo that makes me happy but others dont get it. So for me i dont really know whats right or wrong, i hope some of this makes sense.

  17. Brian:
    “…as i take ideas from others but dont really like my outcome of them and then i take a photo that makes me happy but others don’t get it.”

    Yep, I can totally relate to that statement! I’m guessing the work of most artists is misunderstood, especially by their friends, but perhaps less by their artistic peers.


Leave a Reply

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