February 16, 2017

Why Do I Create?

I’ve been posting an image a day on social media and have noticed that certain images are very popular and others are not. Often I find that my least favorite images are more popular than my favorite ones.

Let me give an example. There are two of images in my “less favorite” group that are very popular, they are Diminishing Cliffs (above) and Road to Nowhere (top). Don’t misunderstand, I do like these images, but I consider them two of my less creative and more mundane images. However they generate a lit of “likes.”

Here’s my dilemma: each time I post one of those images and get a flurry of “likes,” I am tempted to post more images like those. I am tempted to create more of the images that people want to see.

Why? Because I love the praise and the attention…I’ll admit it, I like the “likes!”

So what do I do? How do I respond to this conflict of interests?

I stop and ask myself: why do I create?

When I first started creating images, when I was a 14 year old boy, I created for the pure joy of creating. I created to please myself.

But over time other motives crept in. I found myself creating for positive feedback.

Then I started trying to win contests.

Then I argued that I needed to build a resume in order to be taken seriously as a photographer.

Then I was creating to be famous and to be respected as a photographer.

Then I was creating to make money from my photography.

And now, after some fifty years, I have come full circle and am once again creating for the pure joy of creating. What a long journey I have taken to learn the lesson that my 14 year old self knew!

The truth is that “likes” (or fame or fortune) are not bad, but I could never be happy producing work just to please others, no matter what the reward. The buzz from a “like” only lasts a moment, while loving my images produces an internal satisfaction that lasts a lifetime.

Life is much more simple when I try to please just one person…myself.


23 thoughts on “Why Do I Create?

  1. Hi Cole,
    I contend that you were always (also) pleasing yourself, otherwise you would not really have published the images… Perhaps the other motivations weighted more heavily, at a certain point, in the decision to publish. But I believe if they did NOT please you at some level, you would simply not have published them.
    So the message I get from you nicely written post is, “pleasing yourself must always come first”. We are (should be?) own harshest critics.
    I have also notice the phenomenon you describe – often images I post, that I consider ok but not special, get enormous positive feedback, whereas some that I really like get much less praise.
    One of the downsides of such interactions in social networks is that it is next to impossible to get any feedback other than praise… One must interpret the lack of reactions (if compared to other posts) as “people don’t like it as much”, but it is difficult to say why, or, most importantly, learn something from this feedback (other than “what people like”).

    That’s why I value you blog posts where you describe your creative process, it is always a learning experience, as I have to ask the same questions to myself – my answers may different than yours, but still valuable to me.

    Now here is a question to you – You say that what matters to you is your own vision, and hence, you don’t like to give your feedback on other people’s work. In the extreme, you don’t even look at other photographers images (if I understood you correctly). But, if we should all espouse the same disposition, we would not have any social network (of photographers), since nobody would look at other photographer’s images. Therefore, it would not make sense to even post to a social network… don’t you think?

    1. Daniel, you are correct, I do not look at other peoples work and call this practice “Photographic Celibacy.”

      You make an excellent point about the potential implications of this practice! However I think that only a small percentage of photographers are at a place where they should (in my opinion) stop looking at other peoples work in order to develop their Vision.

      The reality is that about 80% of the people who hear my theory of Photographic Celibacy think I’m crazy. Ten percent say they understand, but they disagree. And only 10% agree and try it.

      One friend of mine wrote and said that he is “Photographically Promiscuous!”

      So don’t worry, photo social networks are not in danger of imminent collapse due to Photographic Celibacy!

      Thanks for your thoughts Daniel!

  2. Cole,
    Another interesting point you raise and a journey most of us navigate in our career. I came across a brilliant quote by David Bowie that always rings true to me, it is part of a longer piece which is also very interesting where David talk about his view of art and creativity.

  3. Cole,
    In the midst of pleasing yourself, you are pleasing many of us too. Thanks for the benefit. One a related note – when I read your philosophy I can certainly appreciate not spending a lot of time looking at others work. (Sorry, I cannot be altogether celibate 🙂 My reasons are related to yours but a little different. I try not to do so as much because I will admit it infected me with equipment envy. I felt I had to get that lens, that camera, that type of flash, that filter, etc. because I knew it would help me take that penultimate image. Finally, (after way too many dollars), took a break and assessed. I did stop looking and started just working with what I have and focusing. I am still coming into my own but these days I feel a lot better about my work. Okay, I still look at your work ?. For inspiration, not equipment.

  4. Cole,
    it was I who used the term “Photographic Promiscuity” in earlier conversations we had…
    I’m not concerned so much with the threat of “extinction” of social networks (or of people ceasing to use it to share images).
    What I am trying understand is what is your position wrt to your own principles. If you don’t look at other photographer’s works, then, to be consistent, you should not post yours either, since by doing so you would be relying on other people taking precisely the attitude you are refraining from!
    Mind you, I would be *very sad* if I were to be deprived from appreciating your work if you ever decided to not post either!
    Perhaps the key idea is what you mentioned in your reply above – “they should (in my opinion) stop looking at other peoples work in order to develop their Vision”.
    I believe there are subtler gradations to the act of appreciating other photographer’s (and artists in general) work, modulated by several factors, such as
    1. Do I already have my Vision (which is, of course, constantly evolving)? In the affirmative case, it may not be so “harmful” to appreciate other people’s work, as my own Vision is already (mostly) established, in such influence would not significantly alter it. In this case, I think, it would be akin to the myriad of images anyone perceives throughout the day, many of which end up affecting (evolving) my Vision;
    2. Am I looking at an image of a subject I am trying to express through my own vision? In this case, I believe you are right, there is a bigger danger of “contamination” or “obfuscation” of my own Vision. At best, looking at other people’s Vision of that subject will likely delay me from using/imoproving my own. An analogy would be for me to wear someone else’s prescription glasses to try to see something better.
    – I don’t really have my own Vision, I’m still looking for it – then it’s likely that I will be in a similar situation as 2) above, and looking at other people’s Vision is probably not going to help me find mine. At the very beginning it may provide a starting point, but soon I will have to gradually refrain from doing so (especially in situation 2) ), until my Vision is developed enough (which is what I interpret your statements “small percentage of photographers are at a place where they should (in my opinion) stop looking at other peoples work in order to develop their Vision.”

    Let me end this long commentary with another dilemma. When I interact with you, because of your “Photographic Celibacy”, I can only discuss *your* images. In many cases, I make some images that would like to get your reaction, for exactly the same reasons you post your own images. But I don’t… since I don’t expect you to look at them. This may be fine by you, but I would argue it makes for less interesting interactions over time. I believe one should be able to appreciate other people’s work *without* affecting one’s vision, at least not anymore than everything else around us that, directly or indirectly, shapes us as human beings (as argued in 1) above).
    Thanks again for engaging!

  5. Perhaps there is another aspect that you need to give yourself credit for; Rather than looking at it that you post pictures they like to get kudos from folks, a motivation to post what folks like to see is that it provides them pleasure from looking at certain types of images you make. It’s about them as well as you, so of course you should post what you like best, but it’s simply a generous act to post what others like. It’s similar as to when you give a gift to a friend, of course you should feel good when they like it, but it’s usually better to give the gift of what they like best, rather than what you like best. Finding the right balance of doing what you like best and what other like best of what you do is the challenge. In this case, your gift to others is your photography.

  6. Well said Cole! The most important “like button” is the one in our soul. Positive attention is always good and social media is sort of the new public art gallery for that. But, we have to view that gallery in context. With the shear volume of content being posted, our images need to be able grab attention which means strong, simple compositions usually. Facebook just doesn’t have the attention span for complex art. Social media is far different from the experience of viewing a finely printed photograph matted and framed on a gallery wall.

  7. People just know that Cole is not dogmatic….I sent him a couple of images a few years ago..explaining that I took them years ago and it was only when my darkroom skills were sufficient that I created an image I was happy with…he took the time to look at and comment on them. Not that I am advocating sending him your images…in accordance with his wishes please do not. I would not do it again now that I know better how her feels. Just know he is not dogmatic and when kindness requires, he responds. Love his photography, love his sharing of how he works…but most of all love his character.

  8. Ok…forgot two points…I love looking at others images…they inspire and teach me…but I never think of trying to recreate them…just let them enter my mental / artistic milieu…just like all my other life experiences…all the people, artwork, travels, culture, etc. I have experienced…if you let yourself be free it does not control you…just enters you and in some way influences your vision and your images. The trick is…as Cole notes…never try to please anyone but yourself.

  9. Well said Cole! When I started in photography, I did it for myself. There are too many people obsessed with “likes” and “followers”. Create for yourself, and you will never let yourself down.


  10. Likes and favorites are meaningless to me. I joined Flickr to get and give feedback, to connect with others, and as a way to have a backup of my work. The feedback part only works when you cull the list of followers down to those who can comment beyond simple adjective exclamations. I especially like those who comment about a memory inspired by my work.

    Unless one specifically asks for critical feedback through personal contact, no one dares to explain the opportunities from their perspective.
    I simply can’t understand how anyone can follow hundreds of people and expect to give back more than a simple like or favorite. Pointless and meaningless. I’ll take a well-thought out comment any day over thousands of likes.

    An advertising professor from my days at ASU once said, “do what you love and the money will follow.” While I’ve been very hard at work on doing what I love lately, and a lot of it, the money hasn’t followed in the traditional sense. I hope to move more in that direction by showing and selling my work in the future; however, the money did follow in an unrelated way which allows me to pursue photography and digital art wholeheartedly. So, in a sense my professor was right.

    When you are trying to please just yourself, you will take more photos and create more work – each new piece inspired by all those prior shots.

  11. I would like to answer several people’s questions in a single post, because I am in Death Valley with very limited internet.

    First, thanks to everyone for being so honest and open in your questioning of my practice and motives. I will attempt to answer all of the questions along with a few that others have asked in the past. And while you may not agree with my answers, they are my honest answers.


    Well first, I hope that I have not been advocating that you practice Photographic Celibacy! What I intended to do is explain what I have done to help me find my Vision.


    There are 7 billion people in the world and I doubt there are more than 100 million photographers who might potentially practice photographic celibacy. That leaves about 6.9 billion people who are not photographers and who can enjoy and appreciate my work.

    But if you are at a place where practicing Photographically Celibacy will help you improve your vision…then please choose you Vision over looking look at my work!

    The truth is that about 80% of the people who hear about Photographic Celibacy think I’m nuts. Many believe that looking at other people’s work helps them improve their own. About 10% of the people say they understand what I’m trying to do, but disagree with how I’m doing it. And only about 10% agree and try to practice some form of Celibacy.

    Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not for everyone, or perhaps it’s only for people who are at a certain stage of their vision development.

    I have been practicing Photographic Celibacy for almost 10 years now, and I still find value in it. I find that I am still prone to being influenced by other’s work and I still find myself copying others.

    Photographic Celibacy works for me.


    We can still talk about cars and girls! I find that between those two subjects, most people have something in common. (Note: I would prefer to talk about girls, however my wife would prefer that I talk about cars)


    I completely understand, but it is something that I must do to be able to develop my Vision and create my best images.

    If it will help, please look at it this way: your images are soooo incredible that if I were to look at them, I would copy them!

    I understand that my views are unorthodox and out of the mainstream. But so what? If I’m an idiot, I am a happy one and no one is harmed by my foolishness.

    But I hope we all can agree on this point, that we should all be trying to improve our own Vision and not be copying others. Perhaps there are different paths to get there and perhaps Photographic Celibacy only works for me and a few others.

    One last thought: here is a very short video was shared by my friend Lee. In it David Bowie makes a wonderful point:


  12. Cole,
    thanks for engaging (these exchanges are worth 1M likes!), and for the pointer to David Bowie’s interview. He lived and died following that philosophy…
    While thinking about your points, I realized I sometimes have a thought/feeling, while out in the field making images, “hmmmm, I bet Cole would love this view”. But I don’t try to shoot it the way you would, which would also require me to pp the same way. Rather, I still go around until I find something that “clicks” with my own Vision. Sometimes its that same view, sometimes it’s not. And, by the time I get around to pp it, I’m already doing it through my own Vision.
    That moment in the field, which I also have wrt other artists I admire (not only photographers), is a moment of empathy, and a way to briefly realize how the world is perceived through the eyes of others, and relate it to my own.
    I really wish I could be in Death Valley right now… I look forward to practicing Photography Promiscuity looking at the images you come out with!
    Have a good time!

  13. Cole,

    I have found the same exact thing with my work. Sometimes I also experiment by posting a “typical” shot that I know other people will go crazy over and then one of my weird ones that I like. Same thing. Very few likes on an image that I feel is infinitely superior in all areas, symbolically, compositionally, etc., and yet the masses respond positively to, as you said, the mundane. It’s baffling. I do have some people who get it, like the WordPress editors, but like you, I do it for me. That’s why I continue taking the weird shots that amuse me. Because nothing pleases me more than to come home from being in Death Valley for two weeks to find some choice, odd images that make me smile 🙂

  14. BTW, I have also found that the reactions vary from WordPress to Instagram to Facebook. Those are the only social media sites I use and when I do use them, it’s always like a science experiment. I post what I like 90% of the time, however, the rest of the time I’ll post the regular, mass-loving shots just for fun and see how much approval I can garner. Then I smile and throw in something really weird that no one understands except for me… I will get more positive responses to the oddball image on Instagram.

  15. I’m 74 this week (2/24). My dad was in WWII US Army Signal Core. I’ve always had a camera in my hands. Love creating and posting for the exact reasons as you wrote above. The “Likes” are great … the occasional “Comments” can be very special.

  16. Social likes and the pursuit thereof are definitely a powerful thing. Two other things that preoccupy me are the amount of time consumed by social as well as companies getting making money off the content of artists. I suppose I might look at social as “commissioned” work. Artists have long done commissioned work to pay the bills and allow them to do the work they find valuable and sometime go so far as to show the two separately.

  17. It’s fascinating coming to know a little more about you and your work from your writing. I can appreciate your work and your vow of photo celibacy in this age of abundant over exposure. I create for myself, I share with the world and start each day wondering what I can or will do next. Working in studio painting my photography in light using handheld sources has opened me up to chance, mistake and opportunity. The discovery and creative process is all for me now. Thank you for celebrating your own work in such an open and caring manner.

Leave a Reply

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