It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since I first started practicing Photographic Celibacy. It’s hard to believe because I never thought that I would do this for so long. I figured that it would last for 3-4 years and then be done with it.
So what is Photographic Celibacy, why did I start this practice, why am I still doing it and what are my thoughts some ten years later?
First, the story on how Photographic Celibacy came to be.
The Wake-Up Call
A few years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where 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:
“Ansel’s already done 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 aspirations than that?
I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but there was a huge problem: what exactly was Vision and how did I develop it?
What is Vision?
I found little help when searching the internet: I found several definitions of Vision, but none of them made any sense to me. Was it something you were born with? Was it something you could learn? Was it a style or look? Was it a talent that you developed? Could you go to photography or art school and gain it?
I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but the possibility of finding out was scary. What if I found out that I didn’t have one…what did that mean for my photographic aspirations and future? Part of me didn’t want to find out (I figured it would be better to be mediocre and have hope rather than mediocre and have no hope). But after I got over the initial fear, I knew that I had to find the answer.
So I devised a plan to find my Vision. I created a list of ten things that made sense to me, including:
I separated my work into two piles: work that I really loved and everything else. And then I tried to understand what it was about those images that made me love them.
I then committed to never again create images like those in the second pile. That included images that others loved, images that sold well and images that had won contests. It also meant that I wouldcontinue to create images even if no one else liked them, they didn’t win contests and didn’t sell…as long as I loved them.
I stopped listening to other people’s advice about my images. I figured if I was going to find MY Vision, I needed to stop listening to others no matter who they were, how accomplished they were or how successful they were. Their advice came from their experiences and point of view and not mine.
I needed to stop paying attention to what others thought about my work and so I stopped posting images on social media and entering contests. I was doing all of that for the validation, because I lacked confidence in my work. Each time I got a like or won a contest, I saw that as evidence that my work must be good.
And I did one other thing, perhaps the most controversial and certainly the most significant: I stopped looking at the work of other photographers.
Because I felt that if I continued to immerse myself in the images of others, I would continue to create work that looked like theirs or was a derivative of theirs.
I wanted to create my own work, from my Vision. I wanted to see through my eyes and not through the eyes of those photographers whose work I spent hours and hours looking at.
Did It Work?
Did it work…did I find my Vision?
As I stopped looking at other people’s images and focused on what I was creating and what I thought of my work, my Vision began to emerge. The work I am creating now is my work, not an imitation of someone else’s. Now that doesn’t guarantee that my work will be liked by others, will sell or win awards…but it does guarantee that I’ll love my work and have the satisfaction that comes from creating honest work.
Ten Years Later
Ten years later and I’m still practicing Photographic Celibacy because I find it a useful practice for two reasons: first I’m still inclined to copy other’s work
An example: a couple of years ago I had an image featured in the book “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr. When I looked through the book to find mine, I saw this wonderful image entitled “Three Crosses” by Brian Kosoff (above). I fell in love with the image, contacted Brian to purchase a print and hung it in my office to look at while I worked.
But then something began to happen, for the next several weeks I found myself driving around, looking at telephone poles so that I could create such an image. But then I remembered:
Ansel’s already done Ansel and Brian’s already done Brian.
And the other reason I still find Photographic Celibacy useful: it keep me focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. When I look at the work of others I find myself comparing their images and successes to mine. Sometimes I get discouraged at the large number of great photographers out there and all of the great images being created. All of this is an unnecessary distraction that keeps me from my purpose: creating images from my Vision.
Staying focused is hard and even harder when you are looking and comparing yourself to others. As my mother used to say: what others are doing is none of your business!
Here is what have I learned in these ten years regarding Photographic Celibacy:
Photographic Celibacy may not be for everyone. When I first shared my views on Photographic Celibacy, they were not well received. About 75% of the people thought it was just a stupid idea (and many said so), about 20% understood but said it wasn’t for them and about 5% understood and pursued the practice. One thing I see more clearly now is that while this practice works for me, it may not be right for everyone. Perhaps others are not as influenced by other photographer’s work as I am, or perhaps they are but feel that Photographic Promiscuity is the best creative path for them.
Not everyone is seeking their Vision. I have come to recognize that not everyone wants to create from their Vision. For some, photography is simply a hobby that they enjoy, others are interested in documenting while others still are focused on the technical aspects of photography. If you’re not seeking your Vision, you should keep enjoying the work of others!
Celibacy may be appropriate at a certain point in a person’s creative development. I am more open to the idea that Photographic Celibacy may be a practice that is best applied at a certain point in a photographer’s creative development.
For me, this point came during a creative crisis: I desperately wanted to do more than imitate…I wanted to create images that were mine! I wanted this so badly that any sacrifice was worth this prize, even not looking at other photographer’s images.
Photographic Celibacy still serves a purpose, even ten years later. I always thought that once I had answered the question: do I have a Vision? that I would be able to go back to looking at images. But I discovered that the same forces that kept me from my Vision are still at work ten years later. And so, I believe that practicing Photographic Celibacy is as important for me today, as it was ten years ago.
So here I am ten years later, more committed than ever to Photographic Celibacy. Why? Because it works for me.
Will it work for you? Only you can answer that.
It has been one of the key ingredients of my success, which I define as creating images that are honestly mine and that I love.
Will I practice Photographic Celibacy forever? I don’t know, but I will for as long as it serves a useful purpose.
In the many conversations I have with myself, I frequently refer to the concept of creating “honest work.” So what does “honest work” mean to me?
• It is work that I have created from my Vision • It is work in which the idea originated from within. • It is work that was created for myself with no thought of pleasing others. • It is work that I love regardless of how others feel about it.
“Honest work” has become my most important standard. It is a test that I apply to myself and to my work to ensure that I am staying true to the principles that allow me to follow my Vision.
When I create work where the ideas and Vision are mine, then I have confidence in my creations. But when I am creating to win awards, gather likes and to please others… then the satisfaction is shallow and fleeting. Each “like” must be followed by another and another and another in order for me to believe that my work is good.
Creating honest work is the only way that I choose to work because it guarantees internal satisfaction. My work may not be liked by others, it may not win awards and it may not sell…but when I look at it I am proud of what I’ve created.
But for all the benefits that come from creating honest work, there are some things that it cannot guarantee. It cannot guarantee that my work will be unique or that it will be liked.
I’ve created two projects that I considered to be honest work only to find out later that were very similar to other people’s work.
The first was my Grain Silo series which was the first portfolio that I submitted to LensWork. Brooks Jensen responded that they had just published a very similar body of work by a photographer named Larry Blackwood. Ironically Larry and I knew each other and we were both working on our projects at the same time, unbeknownst to one other. (1)
I had created honest work, but it was not unique work.
The second example occurred just recently. For the last several years I have been working on a portfolio entitled “The Dunes of Nude.” The idea was honestly conceived and executed, but when I submitted it to LensWork it was rejected and I was told that they frequently see work just like this. (2)
Creating honest work did not guarantee that my work was unique.
Was I disappointed when I discovered that my work wasn’t unique? I was disappointed that it didn’t make it into LensWork, but I was not disappointed with the work itself because in a way the work really was unique…not unique to LensWork or the photo world, but it was unique to me.
Unique to me…what does that mean?
It means that I came about the idea on my own, I was not influenced by another photographer’s work and I created the images through my Vision. It was an honest creation, it was unique to me.
But shouldn’t my goal be to create work that is unique and different from everyone else’s? Unique is good, but only if it’s a by-product of an honest creation.
There’s something else honest work cannot guarantee: even if you follow your Vision, create for yourself and produce unique work…there is no guarantee that people will like it!
For a long time I believed that if I was sincere, worked hard and created passionate work from my Vision…that I would have a shot at becoming the next Ansel Adams!
However, that just ain’t so folks.
I have come to accept that the work that I create appeals to a very niche audience. And as long as I am true to my Vision and create honest work, my audience will remain small. But that’s okay because it’s more important that I love my work than to have a larger audience.
Would I like to have both? Absolutely! But I cannot control both sides of that equation, I can only control what I do…and I choose to create images that I love.
On my journey to find my Vision, I listed ten things that I was going to do that would assist me on this journey (http://www.ColeThompsonPhotography.com/2014/05/09/finding-Vision/) One of those items was to create only for myself regardless of the consequences. I recognized that in order to create from my Vision, I had to exclude all opinions except my own. I had to have what I refer to as “pure motives” in order to create “honest work.”
Creating honest work allows me to create from my Vision and creating from my Vision allows me to create honest work. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works for me and while it does not guarantee external success, it does guarantee internal satisfaction.
(1) Brooks led a round table discussion on this topic in volume 76 and began the discussion with the story of Larry and I creating parallel work, calling it “Fellow Travelers”
(2) Some would argue that this is one of the many disadvantages of practicing Photographic Celibacy; you don’t know what work is being created by others. I don’t see this as a disadvantage however. Even if I knew what others were doing, how would that help me to create better or more unique work? My best strategy is to not worry what others are doing and try to create my best work from my Vision.
I’ve been home from the Faroe Island for several months now and I am still working on my new images. I was there for a month and took 1600 images. So far, on my first pass through the images, I have about 80 keepers. Once I go through those a second time, I expect to lose about two thirds of those. If I end up with 25 solid images, I will be very happy.
The last time I demonstrated the processing of an image, I duct-taped my iphone to a tripod and simply recorded my computer screen. Well, I’ve gotten a little more sophisticated and have now purchased a screen recording program. It was easy to use and the quality is good.
For this demonstration I’ve chosen a fairly simple image, No. 71 above with a before and after.
As always, I follow my “Photoshop and Six Tools” processing format. You can read about this approach here: Photoshop and Six Tools (it’s a very short read and it will help the video demonstration make more sense).
Each time someone watches me process, it becomes quickly apparent that I am not Photoshop expert. Invariably people will tell me either what I’m doing wrong or how I could do it differently.
I know that I am not an expert and the thing is, I don’t want to be! I have found a very simple method of post-processing that allows me to translate my Vision into an image. That’s all I care about, and the simpler the better.
Are you familiar with LensWork? I suspect that most of you are, but if you are not…
I consider LensWork to be the world’s finest photography publication. Why? Because of the quality of the artists they publish and because of the quality of the printing, it is spectacular! The quality is better than most of the photo books I’ve seen and I think ofttimes better than the original images.
I’m not a print expert, but I do have a pretty extensive and varied print background: I worked in my own darkroom since 1968, learned digital printing in 2004 and I was an offset print buyer in the 1980’s and worked extensively with Gardner-Fulmer Lithograph (where I would run into Ansel Adams doing press checks).
My point is that I know good printing and LensWork has amazing printing. Ask anyone who has ever seen a copy.
You can subscribe or you can pick up a copy in selected bookstores. However I should warn you that because LensWork is physically shorter than the other publications, it often gets lost in the crowd. So if you’re in a Barnes and Noble and you don’t see it, check behind the other Photo Magazines.
And if you do decide to subscribe, might I suggest that you do it before the October 2017 issue comes out? Consider this an omen of things to come…
P.S. Sometime I’d like to tell a couple of Ansel Adams stories, including how I came to have a print of “Aspens” hanging in my home.
I am happy to announce that I will be participating in the 2018 Moab Photo Symposium. I am one of eight photographers who will be presenting and conducting workshops.
This event will take place on May 3-6, 2018 in Moab.
If you’ve not been to Moab before, that alone should motivate you to attend. But this Symposium is about so much more than location. It’s about learning and pursuing your Vision with a group of like minded artists.
I know this event seems very far off and you might be tempted to decide later if you would like to attend, but please be aware that registration opened last Saturday and all sign-up records were broken. This is not marketing hype designed to get you to act, I just don’t want to see anyone miss their chance to attend one of my workshops because they waited to long.
My presentation and workshop will be focused on Vision, which is my favorite topic, and because as I like to say: nothing else matters.
A huge thanks to Singh-Ray who heard that I had smashed my MOR-SLO 15-stop ND filter while in the Faroe Islands and then very kindly rushed me a replacement. Their generosity and thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated.
I am a big fan of Singh-Ray products. I use their polarizer, their Vari-ND and their MOR-SLO 5, 10, 15 and 20 stop ND filters. My primary filter is their 15-stop ND filter, it’s used in about 75% of my images!
Why do I use their products? Just one reason: the quality. I have used many different brands, and some of them are very good, but in my opinion Singh-Ray filters are the best.
I first learned of Singh-Ray when I heard about and purchased their Vari-ND variable ND filter. I was carrying that filter with me when I was visiting Auschwitz and the idea of photographing ghosts struck me. I could not have produced The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau project with a fixed ND filter, the Vari-ND made it possible.
Their 15-stop ND filter is the perfect number of stops for my work. With 15 stops I can shoot up to two minutes in bright sunlight and much longer in places like the overcast Faroe Islands. What happens when I need to go longer than two minutes? In the past I was forced to stack two filters which resulted in vignetting issues, but those days are gone with the Singh-Ray MOR-SLO 20-stop filter.
I love Singh-Ray ND filters!
P.S. I want to disclose that Singh-Ray has given me 2-3 filters over the years, including this replacement.
Well, only for a month…I am headed to the Faroe Islands.
I am really excited about this trip, not because I know what I’ll find there, but because I have no idea what I’ll find.
I do no planning or research when I am planning my trips. I do not look at other people’s images from that area. I do not consult the travel guides for the “must see” sites. My only preparation for this trip consists of renting an apartment and car.
Because I want to go with a blank slate, with no preconceived ideas or expectations. I do not want to know how others have seen the Faeroes or photograph the same sites that everyone else has.
That’s my goal anyway. My hope is that I’ll see something there that inspires my imagination and which will result in a new portfolio.
I’ll not be posting much while I’m away, but I will post some iPhone snapshots each day on my Google+ and Facebook accounts:
Photographer travels the world to capture black-and-white images
Cole Thompson work on display at Lincoln Gallery in June By Kenneth Jessen For the Reporter-Herald POSTED: 06/14/2017 10:04:18 AM MDT
Photographer Cole Thompson enjoys the creative process. His “Moai Sitting for Portraits,” shot on Easter Island, will be on display for the month of June at the Lincoln Gallery. (KENNETH JESSEN / Loveland Reporter-Herald)
This is a “before and after” of the Jim Bridger Power Plant that I created recently.
The before does not differ a great deal from the after, but there are a few differences. Can you spot them?
Hint: the first change is abbreviated b&w.
I like to use the word “create” rather than “capture” when talking about my images.
Because a “capture” implies that the image is an accurate representation of reality, as the scene appeared to the camera and eye.
I like “create” because it suggests that the image is not accurate, but rather it has been created through my Vision into something new and different.
And when did the “Vision” for this image occur?
When I first saw this power plant from I-80 from several miles away. As soon as I saw it, the Vision of the final image appeared in my head and guided how I shot it, how I exposed it and how I processed it.
Vision was the driving force.
Why am I always mentioning Vision? Because it breaks my heart to see people chasing equipment, technique and gadgets…thinking that these things are key to creating a great image. Those things can certainly be “elements” of a great image, but not key and not even always necessary.
So please, focus on your Vision! I spent most of my photographic life pursuing the wrong things and was lucky to have a mentor who was even more bull-headed than I am, and argued that I did not need document, but rather I could create.