April 6, 2023

Vision: How Badly Do You Want It?

I talk a great deal about Vision, because it changed my photography. It helped me make the transition from “taking pictures” to “creating images.”
And the lessons I learned about following my Vision, helped me to change my life. You see, following your Vision is not really about photography, it is about life.
Here’s where my Vision story begins:
Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where I was hoping to be discovered. Over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field.
During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said:
“It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.” 
I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life forever:
“Ansel’s already did Ansel and you’re not
going to do him any better. What can you
create that shows your unique vision?”
Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher ambition than that?
I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but there was a huge problem: what exactly was Vision?
Is Vision a look, a technique, a style? Is it something that you learn, is it something that some people have and others do not?
It turns out that it’s none of those things.
Vision is simply the sum-total of your life
experiences, that allows you to see the
world in a unique way.
Imagine if you could take everything that you’ve experienced in life, everything you’ve been taught, and everything you’ve learned…and melt that down so you could cast lenses, that you saw the world through.
And what you see through those life-lenses, is your Vision.
It’s simply how YOU see.
When I stand before a scene, I can see what that final image will look like.
How I imagine that final image is based in part on my tastes (b&w), my likes (centered images), and preferences (high contrast)…which are all a part of my Vision.
But there are other voices in my head that sometimes distract me.
How would Ansel see this scene?
Or perhaps I’m hearing the voice of my camera club judge who told me that my images were too dark, and that I needed to open up my shadows.
Or I’m following the advice of my mentor who keeps telling me not to center my subject.
And what about the rules?
Maybe I should change how I’m seeing to conform to them?
Here’s the problem: Vision cannot coexist with those other voices!
You must either choose to follow the rules, the judges, mentors, experts and social media “likes”…or follow your Vision. The two choices are diametrically opposed to one another.
But to follow your Vision, you must first find it, and from my experience, that’s not very easy. Unlike our cameras that come with a manual, or PhotoShop with its thousands of YouTube instructional videos, Vision has no manual or guides.
And because I had no idea on how to proceed, I simply came up with ten ideas that I thought would help me find my Vision.
1. Sort Your Portfolio
I took 100 of my best images, printed them out and then divided them into two groups: the ones I REALLY loved…and all the rest. I decided that the ones that went in the “loved” pile had to be images that “I” loved, and not just ones that I was attached to because they had received a lot praise, won awards or sold the best.
And if I loved an image that no one else did, I still picked it. 
Then I analyzed each of those images in the small stack and asked myself: What do I love about this image? I did not ask myself: what do these images have in common, because that didn’t matter to me.
And it was then I had a small peek into my Vision; I love dark images, contrasty images, centered and symmetrical images, I love simple images, unusual images, and I love photographing wildly varied subjects.
At the time I didn’t understand how important these little discoveries were, but now looking back, this was a very important first step.
2. Make the Commitment
I committed that from that point on, I would only pursue those kinds of images, the ones that I really loved. Too often I had been sidetracked when I chose to pursue images simply because others liked them.
It was through this step, that I began to recognize the corrupting influence of praise. Criticism could sting for a bit, but praise could turn my head.
3. Practice Photographic Celibacy
I started practicing Photographic Celibacy and stopped looking at other photographer’s work. I reasoned that to find my Vision, I had to stop immersing myself in the Vision and images of others.
I used to spend hours and hours looking at other photographer’s work and would then find myself copying their style or even their specific images. I knew that I couldn’t wipe the blackboard of my mind clean of those images, but I could certainly stop focusing on their Vision and instead focus on mine.
When I looked at a scene I didn’t want to see it through another photographer’s eyes, I wanted to see it through mine!
Initially I thought I’d only practice Photographic Celibacy for a short time, while finding my Vision. But here I am now, some 15 years later, and still find the practice useful.
4. Simplify Your Processes
I embarked on a mission to simplify my photography. In the past I had focused on the technical and now I was going to focus on the creative. I disposed of everything that was not necessary: extra equipment, gadgets, plug-ins, programs, processes and all of those toys we technophiles love. I went back to the basics which simplified my photography, and gave me more time for focus on the creative.
I was very surprised at how effective this step was. Yes, simplification did give me more time to focus on the creative, but more importantly it changed where my focus was.
5. Ignore Other’s Advice
I ignored the advice that well intentioned friends and experts gave me. So much of this advice had never felt right for me and I was torn between following their recommendations or my own intuition. In the end I decided that only by pleasing myself could I create my best work, and that no matter how expert someone was, they were not an expert about my Vision or what I wanted.
Here’s some of the expert advice that I had been given:
  • Follow the rules of composition
  • Lighten your images
  • Open up your shadows
  • Don’t center the subject
  • Focus on one genre and become known for that
This advice never felt right to me, but I followed it because it came from the “experts.”
6. Change Your Mindset
I worked to change my mindset from photographer to artist. I had always thought of myself as a photographer who documented, but I could see that this role was limiting and the truth was that I wanted to be an artist that created. 
To help me make this mental shift, I started calling myself an artist (I felt like such a fraud at first) figuring that I must play the part to become the part. I also stopped using certain words and phrases, for example instead of saying “take a picture” I would say “create an image.” 
That may seem like small and inconsequential things, but it helped to continually remind me that I wanted to be an artist who created, and not a photographer who documented.
7. Question Your Motives
I questioned my motives and honestly answered some hard question such as: Why am I creating? Who am I trying to please? What do I want from my photography? How do I define success?
It seemed to me that Vision was something honest and that if I were going to find my Vision, I had to be honest about the reasons I was pursuing it.
8. Stop Comparing
I stopped comparing my work to other photographers. I noticed that when I compared, it led to doubts about my abilities and it left me deflated. All I could see were their strengths and my weaknesses, which was an unfair comparison. 
I decided that if my goal was to produce the best work that I could, then it did not matter what others were doing. I had to remind myself that this was not a race or a contest, I was not competing against others…I was trying to be my best self.
9. Stop Caring What Others Think
I made a conscious decision to stop caring what others thought of my work. I recognized that in trying to please others, I was left feeling insecure and empty.
At the end of the day, it was just me, my work and what I thought of it. As long as I cared what others thought, I was a slave and could never be free.
10. Get Inspired
I re-read Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” which I had first read at age 17. It has been one of the most influential books of my life because it gave me hope that I could become truly independent, that I could think for myself and define my own future. I know this book can cause strong reactions in people, both for good and ill, but it was a tremendous help in finding my Vision. 
I also re-read Edward Weston’s Day Books, and re-read them annually. I just really connected with how Weston thought, and this also inspired me to become independent and to follow my own Vision.
I’d love to report that in a very short time, I found my Vision, became wildly successful, and lived happily ever after…but that just ain’t so!
For two years I worked really hard on finding my Vision, and nothing happened.
I still didn’t understand what Vision was, and I still had no idea if I had one. At times I became so discouraged with my seeming lack of progress, that I considered giving up my search. I thought that without Vision, I could at least continue on as a technically proficient photographer.
I believe the reason I couldn’t understand Vision, was because I was searching for a complicated answer.
When really, Vision is so very, very, very, very simple.
Vision is simply how I see, when I push all the other voices out of my head.
So how and when I did I “discover” my Vision? I had been working hard for two years, to push out all of those other voices, to create for the right reasons, to ignore what other’s were doing and to not care what other’s thought of my work.
And then one day, in a simple and quiet moment of understanding, it occurred to me that I was now creating from my Vision! I had “let go” of all of that other stuff, and I was creating what I loved and how I loved it.
And once I had found my Vision, it all seemed so obvious and simple.
I hear this often: I’ve tried, but I just can’t find my Vision.
One of the most important truths I learned about Vision, is that we all have one. You cannot, not have one, because it is simply your point of view, or how you see. So please do not think that you’re the one person who doesn’t have one.
You do.
But let me ask three hard questions:
How badly do you want it?
I wanted to know if I had a Vision more than anything else. It consumed me and I thought about it almost every day for those two years. And I was willing to work hard for it, and sacrifice for it.
A story: I was giving a live presentation in New Jersey, and I explained how I practiced Photographic Celibacy as a way to help me find my Vision, when man in the audience stood up and said (incredulously):
“You do what? Why on earth would
you deprive yourself of the pleasure
of looking at beautiful photographs?”
I responded:
“Because I wanted to find my Vision, even
more than I wanted to look at
beautiful photographs.“
How badly do you want it?
What have you tried? Simply wishing that you had a Vision is not enough, you must work hard to find it.
I didn’t have any idea of how to proceed, but you have the advantage of my ten steps. And while I cannot guarantee that these will work for you, I do sincerely believe that they will help.
If you were to divide up the time you spend on your photography, how much is spent on the technical verses dedicated to finding your Vision?
I spent two years, working daily to analyze my motives, to learn what I loved, and to train myself not to care what others thought of my work. It was hard, soul searching work, with lots of self-analysis (all done while I was working a full time job and raising a family).
How much time are you willing to spend to find your Vision?
Finding your Vision is a solitary journey, and it takes time…
This is The Angel Gabriel, and this was the first image that that I consciously created from my Vision. As I stood there, I could see the final image in my head.
And from that point on, that’s how I created my images.
It’s what I call Cole’s Rule of Thirds:
A great image consists of three parts:
1/3 Vision
1/3 The Shot
1/3 Processing
But it’s the Vision that comes first, and what drives the shot and the post-processing.
Without Vision, I would take the shot and then just play with it in Photoshop, hoping to stumble upon a great image. And once in a while, I got lucky and would find one.
Finding my Vision allowed me to evolve from “taking pictures” to “creating images.” For me, creating an image goes far beyond what your eyes see.
I love what Edward Weston said about this:
“Why limit yourself to what your eyes see
when you have such an opportunity
to extend your Vision?”
What my eyes see, is just the beginning of the process. My eyes can inspire me, but it’s my Vision that allows me to “see.”
Here is my favorite quote on Vision, ironically from a blind woman:
If you are serious about improving your photography, consider focusing on your Vision, with at least as much time and energy as you spend on developing your technical skills.
Vision will improve your work to a much greater degree than any technical improvements that you can make to your photography.

3 thoughts on “Vision: How Badly Do You Want It?

  1. Won’t spend time with long, (seemingly) unrelated story how I found your website. More importantly, it was the photo and story (simultaneous – hard to explain) of Angel Gabriel that kept me here. That and Eyes Shut made me wish I knew you. This blog on vision is serendipitous (all of it is!). Thank you.

  2. I have read every word of this blog post and it is permeating my brain. I love what you wrote about not being Ansel…as I was channeling Ansel on my last trip lol. My husband and I listened to you on F stop and listen podcast and I immediately had to look you up. Thank you for these words, words I will take to heart as it means everything to find my own vision.

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