July 9, 2023

Seeing for Yourself

Learning to see for yourself? Who else would I see for?
Well for many years I did not see for myself. I saw through the lens of Ansel Adams, through the lens of my mentors, through the lens of rules. I saw things how I was told that I should see them, by many well meaning people who wanted to help me create better photographs.
And sometimes, when I did see for myself, I was gently reminded that I shouldn’t do certain things like “center the subject“ or “block up my shadows.”
And so to win approval, likes and praise… I learned to conform and to see like other people. All of my early experiences taught me that the more approval an image received, the better the image was.
And even though I went along willingly, there was always a part of me that was unsettled. Something about this just didn’t feel right.
Often the images I loved the most, performed poorly in the eyes of popularity. And the images that were mundane to me, performed the best. But I was learning to get more “likes” and that’s what was important, I told myself.
But going down this path did not make me happy. In fact, the more I did it, the less happy I became. I was “winning“ but I felt dishonest. I was creating what it took to win, but I wasn’t creating what I loved. I was selling out.
And so I paused to take stock of what I was doing…and WHY I was doing it.
I was seeking success, but had never stopped to ask myself: what did success mean to me? I had just assumed it meant being recognized as a great photographer, getting in a big name gallery, selling my work for big dollars, and having a book published.
But as I started to achieve some of that, I found that it wasn’t bringing satisfaction.
And so I decided to define what success meant for me. Here’s what I came up with:
To be able to create what I want, when I want, and to create work that I love.
My new definition had nothing to do with likes, sales, being published or receiving accolades.
The result was that I was much happier and created better work (in my opinion, which is the only one that matters).
And sometimes when I created work that I loved, I was fortunate and others appreciated it also.
That external appreciation is what I call the cherry on top. The cherry is not the prize, but rather that little extra treat on top of the real prize: creating work that I love.
Now it’s easy to say: I’m going to stop caring what other’s think of my work and see for myself.
But how do you do that?
For me, it came about after realizing that accolades are like drugs, they only bring a temporary high, which needs to be followed by another fix and another and another. And as I focused on on accolades, I came to realize that this approach didn’t put me in control of my happiness, because it was dependent upon the approval of others.
Being dependent upon others for my happiness, just didn’t seem like real happiness.
  • I wanted to be in control.
  • I wanted to see for myself.
  • I wanted to create images that I loved.
  • I wanted to judge my work by my standards.
  • I wanted to be independent, not dependent.
There were two men who helped me make these mental shifts, one real and one fictitious: Edward Weston and Howard Roark.
I love Edward Weston’s work, but what I admire most about him was his thinking. Here’s what Ansel Adams wrote upon meeting him for the first time at a mutual friend’s home:
“After dinner, Albert asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered. 
Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”
This is classic Weston: he followed his Vision, was comfortable with his work and did not seek, nor need the approval of others.
Here are some of my favorite Weston quotes:
“Photography is a poor man’s art and anyone who wants an
original print should be able to own one.”
“The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.”
“I should be able to look down at my feet and see something to photograph.”
“Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.”
“When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.”
“Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your Vision?”
“Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic.”
Each year I peek into the mind of Edward Weston by reading his “Day Books,” which is his two-volume diary from his time in Mexico. It inspires me to think for myself, to see for myself, and to create for myself.
Howard Roark is a fictitious character from Ayn Rand’s novel: The Fountainhead. Roark is an architect who has a strong Vision of what he wants to create, but it flies in the face of what is popular, what is taught, and what the critics like. (the character is thought to be loosely based upon Frank Lloyd Wright, another hero of mine)
But Howard is true to his Vision, at great personal cost. He believes in unwavering integrity in his personal life and in his creations. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Howard Roark:
“He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great by others.”
“Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone.”
“I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist.”
“Self respect is something that can’t be killed. The worst thing is to kill a man’s pretense at it'”
This is Roark’s response when told by the College Dean that no one would let him design buildings that followed his unique Vision:
“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”
A newspaper’s architectural critic, who had been savagely critical of Roark’s designs, runs into Roark and asks:
“Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”
Roark: “But I don’t think of you.”
Yes, Roark is a fictitious character, and he can be being anything the author wants him to be; independent, brave and defiant. But the philosophies espoused by the author, have inspired me to see more independently.
Thinking and seeing independently is incredibly hard, because it’s in our DNA to conform, to go along with the crowd, and to fit in. And sometimes in life that’s a good thing, but in art…it’s deadly.
Art is a selfish pursuit, it’s about expressing what’s in you, even if it’s ugly, doesn’t conform or is unpopular. And when you conform and seek to please others, then your ability to see for yourself is squashed, and it will eventually shrivel and die.
How do you become independent, to think and see for yourself? Here’s some of the things that I do:
Ask: why am I creating?
This is an important first step. The “why” you are creating will determine everything else that you do. If your desire is to “win and gain likes,” then you will go one way. If your desire is to express something that’s inside of you, then you’ll go another.
This step requires that you be completely honest with yourself, something that’s not easy to do.
Define success for yourself:
For some, the classic definition of success will be their goal: fame, fortune, gallery representation and a book.
But for me, success is freedom: the freedom to create what I love, without the desire to follow the crowds/experts/rules, and without worrying if others will like my work.
What is your definition of success? Write it down and read it often.
Stop Competing:
Art is not a competition, I shouldn’t be trying to be better than someone else, but working to express something that’s inside of me. Competition in art, brings out qualities that are incompatible with personal expression.
Competing also reinforces the mistaken belief that a winning image is a great image, and that one that doesn’t win, isn’t good.
Stop Comparing:
“Comparison is the thief of joy“ said Theodore Roosevelt.
I used to spend hours looking at other’s images, comparing their work to my own…and feeling bad. Why hadn’t I created that image, or thought of that idea?
Comparing serves no useful purpose, and is harmful because it puts the focus on what “they” are doing instead of what “you“ are doing.
And as my mother used to say to me: you stop worrying what others are doing, and just worry about Cole. Good advice mom.
Consider Photographic Celibacy:
Consider taking a break from looking at other people’s images, and focus on your Vision. I’ve been doing it for over 15 years now, and still find the practice incredibly useful. I recognize that most people are skeptical about the idea, but how about a 3 or 6 month trial?
You might be surprised at what you learn.
Skip the critiques:
Stop asking others for input on your work, because “their opinion” is based on their likes, dislikes and Vision. Following other‘s advice is the exact opposite of seeing for yourself.
Instead learn to critique your own work by asking yourself these questions:
  • What do I think of my image?
  • Did it turn out the way I envisioned?
  • If not, how so?
  • What do I love about this image?
  • How can I enhance those things that I love?
  • What don’t I like about this image?
  • How can I deemphasize or eliminate those things?
  • Do I love what I’ve created?
Learning to self-critique is a much better way to see, than by following another’s advice or following rules. Asking other’s opinion is the easier path, but not the better one.
Believe in Your Creative Abilities:
This was a tough one for me, because I didn’t believe that I had any creative ability. And as I have talked with other photographers, I‘ve discovered that I was not unique in my self-doubts. I think many of us were drawn to photography because we thought it was the perfect medium for we non-creative types.
But I’ve learned this important truth: we all have the ability to be creative, everyone single one of us. For some, that creativity lies close to the surface, and for the rest of us, we need to work a little harder to find it. But it’s there, I promise!
Find your Vision:
This is the most important step, because your Vision is simply how you see once you’ve pushed all of the other voices out of your head. Vision is the key to being successful, if your goal is to create images that you love.
And once you’ve found your Vision, you will gain a confidence that allows you to ignore what others are doing, not care what other’s think of your work, shake off criticism and love the work that you create.
None of this is easy, and it’s not a one time exercise. I am constantly fighting the desire to conform, to see how others have seen and to create for likes. It’s an addiction that never goes away, and one that I must constantly work to resist.
But it’s worth it! Because at the end of the day, you will have created honest work that you love, and you will be in control of your happiness.

38 thoughts on “Seeing for Yourself

  1. This perspective is just what I needed to hear / read / just when I started to think that rules were too limiting and not necessarily the best format for a capture / I think it will open more opportunities for expression / vision

  2. “Skip the critiques” I love this, Cole! I have been invited to monthly critiques by some of my photographer friends. This send me into a tizzy. I’ve heard so many times, that having someone critique your work is so important. I feel on one hand that I SHOULD attend these sessions and am flattered with the invite and on the other hand, I like my ‘weirdness’ and don’t want to be criticized for it. I like to break rules, I do not prefer to produce images like everyone else. I am not a follower and have never been one. I have so enjoyed “Seeing for Yourself”!

  3. Cole,
    So much truth. I wish I had confidence that I will hold these princples present in my mind for long enough. But, more likely I will read them over again. And again. And, with some practice, they will stay with me. Thanks for sharing your ideas.
    I find them very helpful.

    1. Reviewing the beliefs that you aspire to, moves you in that direction. Not all at once, but slowly over time.

      That’s why I’m thinking/speaking/writing about these subjects every day. I have moved the glacier an inch, and I don’t want to lose momentum.

  4. I love the animating spirit of this essay, but I really balked when you started praising the main character from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Are you aware that Ayn Rand is the patron saint of the anti-government libertarian radicals who are using Trump as the leading edge of their campaign to dismantle the New Deal and all of its social welfare programs? The desire to be “thought great by others” whatever the cost and to “not think of [others]” are the hallmarks of a monster, not the humane creative artist that I think you want to be. Please reconsider the social implications of Rand’s puerile free market philosophy embodied in Roark. It is truly not what you seek.

    I own a beautiful print of and love the photograph of your daughter “surfing.” I have a fairly substantial collection of photographs by many great photographers on my walls, and people are always moved by that image, precisely because (I believe) it is so loving, unselfish, and humane. It bespeaks an artist who wants (all) others to flourish fully for their own sake as realized human beings. That is the antithesis of Rand and her egoistic neoliberal monstrosity, Roark.

    Apologies — you struck a nerve. FWIW, I really enjoy your work, though I really prefer prints that don’t so ink up the blacks as to negate all the details in the shadows. And personally, I think you ought to leave a little more room in your philosophy for the thoughtful input of those you trust. Just my two cents.

    1. Ben, Rand is polarizing! People either love her or hate her. I don’t agree with everything she advocated, but I find a lot of truth that I admire in the character Howard Roark.

      And of course, this won’t change your mind, but I wanted to set straight that one quote: “he didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great by others.” This was Roark, referring another person. Roark was the complete opposite of this.

      Thanks for your thoughts, all points of view welcome! (Except John Barclay’s of course).

  5. You have been an influence ever since I heard you speak at a PSA Conference. I started my photography doing black and white and still find that much of what I do becomes b/w.

    A quote that I read in a book your photo buddy recommended was said by the mother of actress Kathryn Hepburn. “Always do something that you like thrn at least one person will enjoy it.” I feel that way about my photography.

  6. Thanks for the article. I found it very informative and well written. I try every day to follow my own vision but I too fall into the trap of craving approval instead of my own heart. I’m on vacation in California right now trying to photograph subject matter that makes me happy. I hope to find some. I enjoy your work and articles.
    David W. Fitzgerald

    1. Thanks David, and you know that we all have this innate desire to conform and to please.

      It’s human.

      And like Russ said, some more than others perhaps because of our upbringing.

      But we work on it, and we improve!

  7. I love this Cole! I wanted to read the Ayn Rand book but had a senior moment and picked up Atlas Shrugged by mistake. So off I go looking for the Fountainhead. I especially like… “Art is not a competition, I shouldn’t be trying to be better than someone else, but working to express something that’s inside of me”! Keep encouraging us, Cole. I just looked at the “About Me” on my website and realized I defined success by winning competitions etc. I gotta rethink that!!

  8. Some people are independent thinkers, others have to work at it. It can take a long time to become one if you have been trained by family and society to go along. Then, they may still not be as independent and creative as those who were not straightjacketed by these well intentioned lessons, taught by people who were not independent thinkers themselves.

    1. Yes, it’s hard to become independent!

      And sometimes our weaknesses becomes our strengths, because we are aware of them and work at them.

  9. Really insightful Cole, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love your work and am often tempted to do as you do, this article jolts me back to the center and gives me the push to stay true to myself even if I might not know exactly what that truth is right now. It may be a never-ending circular pursuit.

  10. I learn from others, but I invent for myself.

    Two quotes I embrace are: “We do photography in order to ossify ephemeral moments.” And “It’s not the job of the artist to tell you what the world looks like. It’s the job of the artist to create something out of his or her imagination that’s new.”

    1. These are three great quotes for my collection!

      “I learn from others, but I invent for myself.“ Stephanie Banks

      “We do photography in order to ossify ephemeral moments.”

      “It’s not the job of the artist to tell you what the world looks like. It’s the job of the artist to create something out of his or her imagination that’s new.”

      Do you know who said the latter two?

  11. I always enjoy reading your views on vision and agree with the importance of being an artistic libertarian – indeed, I have always argued that to be creative is to be somewhat selfish and alone. I find this difficult since I am a great advocate for social and political participation, to be with people and to find good in the collective spirit. Finding the space to be creative has always been a challenge given that a long portion of my life was occupied with caregiving my disabled wife. Of course, when I was able to take time away from that I relished the opportunity “disappear” into my hobbies although for that time it was not possible to leave to photograph and so writing and model making was my passion – activities I could do at home (never been into still-life photography – although looking down at my feet has inspired many a shot!). Life has changed and I have for the last 10 years or so returned to photography and love it. But I am that person you mention who is uncertain about my own skills and struggle with even knowing if I am pleasing myself or trying to please others. You have said that you like it when others enjoy your images and I don’t think you don’t want that reaction. But I know that you are not driven by seeking that approval and this is what I hope to define more clearly for myself. I think that the list of questions you suggest we consider when looking at an image or while making an image are crucial since they focus on intentionality. I am starting to take notes about my process and I think that forces me to be more intentional. I find that using a tripod also slows the process and forces this mindful unfolding of the photographic journey of my mind. Alas, this happens too infrequently and this comes back to the selfishness of the process; too many distractions. Anyway, lots to ponder here and I always enjoy reading your thoughts. Oh, and I do find inspiration and pleasure in your images. I’m afraid to say that your vision, that has a minimalistic quality I liked before seeing any of your work, is in spirit, if not subject or technique, similar to what I want to communicate. I like images that speak to solitudes, outliers, tensions. I think your images speak to those themes that I share but am only touching on as I wrestle with forming my own voice. A wonderful journey that does include others that teach the mundane stuff like mastering the camera controls and post-processing techniques. I still need people in my selfish creative pursuit.

    1. Chris, God bless you for being that caregiver. Let’s hope we all have someone as dedicated as you when that day comes.

      You’ve said some really good things in you comments. Thank you.

      I particularly liked the phrase “artistic libertarian.” And your description of intentionality, I see as an important quality of Vision.

      Thanks for your thoughts Chris.

  12. Thanks Cole! This philosophy goes far beyond photography. You’ve been a teacher for me in so many ways. Thx for this new lesson!

    1. Jay, you’re so right! This not about photography, but life.

      Good to hear from you old friend.

      I mean young friend, whom I’ve known for a long time!

  13. I agree, and I fall into the category what I like no one likes and what I don’t like people like. I find myself that I seldom show old images on social media, it’s always my current shoot. As time goes by I may review the old and see it in a new version.
    I’ve done photography since 1968 and competitive club photography since 1994. I’m still an active camera club member but I have decided not to compete any longer due to the judging leaning to less masculine subjects.
    Thanks for your commentary .

  14. Cole your comments and insight are “bang on”
    Thank you I individuals should never underestimate the power of ones self

    1. Truth! We are generally our biggest limiting factor. If only we appreciated our abilities and potential, we could do so much more.

  15. Thanks Cole for once again explaining in the way only you can about vision. It makes me so happy to have the confidence to be free and make images for me, released from the shackles of conformity to explore creativity in a way that makes me be at one with action of vision to print.

  16. Cole, thanks again for introspective. It seems that your philosophy on photography, and life in general, is so simple, yet we all need to be reminded of what matters. I thank you.

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