How I Found My Vision

2006 5 20 The Angel Gabriel Final 10 15 2007 750 How I Found My VisionThe Angel Gabriel

 

Why do I focus on Vision so much? It’s because I believe that Vision is what makes an image great. It’s what makes the difference between a technically perfect image and one with feeling. It’s what makes your images unique.

Great images do not come about because of equipment and processes, but rather from Vision that drives these tools to do wonderful things. What good are great technical skills if you don’t have an idea worthy of them?  

If I had to choose between the best equipment in the world and no Vision or having a Kodak Brownie and my Vision…

Brownie How I Found My Vision

I’d take the Brownie.

A lot of people ask: “How do I go about finding my Vision?” I’m not sure I can answer that for everyone, but here is how I discovered mine:

 

The Wake-Up Call

Several 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. 

Review Santa Fe How I Found My Vision

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 your 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 over the next two years 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 Vision1 How I Found My Vision

I researched Vision but I couldn’t relate to the definitions and explanations that I found. Was it a look, a style or a technique? Was it something you were born with or something you developed?

And then there was the nagging doubt: what if I didn’t have a Vision? I feared that it was something you either “had” or you “didn’t have”  and perhaps I did not?

And how was I to go about finding my Vision?

With so many unanswered questions and with no idea on how to proceed, I simply forged ahead with what made sense to me.  Here is what I did:

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 and nobody else did, I still picked it. 

Make the Committment

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.

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 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!

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, gave me more time and it reminded me that I wanted to put more focus on my creative abilities.

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.

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 thing, but it helped to continually remind me that I wanted to be an artist who created, and not a photographer who documented.

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.

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 competing with myself.

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.

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 really was proceeding blindly, but I believed that if I listened to my own desires, pursued what I loved and eliminated all other voices, I would learn something about my Vision.

I did this for two years and there were many times that I became discouraged and didn’t feel like I was making any progress. I didn’t really know what I expected to happen, perhaps I thought I’d have a revelatory experience where my Vision would suddenly appear in a moment of inspiration!

But that didn’t happen.

And then one day it just occurred to me: I understood…I understood what my Vision was. 

It came in an anticlimatical and quiet moment of understanding, and after all of that worrying and angst…it now seemed so incredibly simple. Vision was not something I needed to acquire or develop, it had been there all along and all that I needed to do was to “discover” it.

Vision was simply the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way. When I looked at a scene and imagined it a certain way…that was my vision.

2008 5 10 Auschwitz No 14 Final 2 1 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

My Vision had always been there but over the years it had been buried by layers of “junk.” Each layer obscured my my vision until it was lost and I doubted my creative abilities.  Some of those layers were valuing other’s opinions over my own, fear of failing, imitating others and creating for recognition.

Each time I created for external rewards, each time I put accolades before personal satisfaction, each time I cared what others would think…I buried my natural creativity under another layer until it was buried and forgotten.

Interestingly I came to conclude that Vision had little to do with photography or art and had more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent human being. Once I had the confidence to pursue my art on my terms, and define success for myself, I was free to pursue my Vision without fear of rejection or need for acceptance.

Something else I learned about Vision: it is not a look or a style. It is not focusing on one subject or genre and following your Vision will not make your work look all the same. Vision gives you the freedom to pursue any subject, create in any style and do anything that you want.


2007 7 24 Swimming Towards the Light Final 6 30 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

But finding my Vision was not the end of the journey, because now I had to follow it which was equally as hard. I am still tempted to create for recognition, to care what others think and to want to be acknowledged. It takes constant discipline to stay centered, to remember why I’m creating and to follow my definition of success.

If you could have known me before I found my Vision, you would have found a technician that doubted his creative abilities, a photographer who felt that it was wrong to “manipulate” the image, a person who sought the generally accepted definition of success: money, fame and accolades, and you would have found an insecure person who needed others to like his images in order to feel good about his work.

Thankfully, that person is gone.

While my initial search was for my Vision, what I really found was myself which allowed my natural Vision to flourish once again.  

Cole

 

 


59 Responses to “How I Found My Vision”

  • Mark Olwick Says:

    Outstanding post, Cole. I wish more photographers would follow such a path.

  • Dan Sniffin Says:

    Cole, Well thought out post! Clear and concise. Even I can understand it. :) All of us can learn from the lessons you’ve learned throughout your life’s journey.

  • jon boring Says:

    Cole, thanks for being so open and sharing your feelings and experiences.

  • Mark Says:

    Great post Cole. Lots to think about.

  • RYN CLARKE Says:

    Your courage and perseverance is so admirable. I seem to struggle with these issues every day, as I am sue many do. Thanks for sharing your personal insights, Cole.

  • Angie Says:

    This is so wonderful Cole! These are exactly the things I’ve come to realize in the last two years myself.

  • Alan Rossiter Says:

    Thanks for writing this. More often than not your reason for creating images is for appreciation of your ability by others. Sometimes it takes someone, and something like this to kick you back to your own path.
    Thank you.

  • Misha Says:

    Very nice post! I like the part about not competing with others, just competing with yourself. My twist is that I do look at the work of others freely and liberally. To me, this helps me understand my own vision more clearly. Maybe I’m too close to my own stuff. When I look at the work of others, it’s like holding up a mirror, reflecting back to me qualities and aspects about my own work that I see in what I’m looking at. Then I can think more critically about my own stuff.

  • Linda Grashoff Says:

    Thank you, Cole. This post hits me at a time when I really need to hear it. It’s a constant struggle for me to judge whether I like one of my images purely because I like it or because I think other people will like it. Just the other day I decided to become more strict in my choosing. What you posted today will help me stick to that decision.

  • Ron Quick Says:

    Wonderful article that hit’s close to home. So well written and informative a must read for anyone struggling to find their photographic style!

  • Sean Says:

    Thanks for sharing your info Cole,..fantastic!..now..I have some work to do!

  • Mark Wade Says:

    Well done Cole…although when you say ” I was proceeding blindly”, I must disagree. Stepping out of our comfort zones requires the very vision you thought you weer seeking. Eyes wide open, as fearful as it may be

  • Lawrence Says:

    Great article – thanks for sharing your experiences !

  • John Barclay Says:

    Now that was a GREAT post Cole. Thanks for revealing your soft underbelly and being so honest. Amen!

  • David Glasco Says:

    Hello Cole,

    It’s been a while since I have written to you. But, I just had to drop you a brief note of thanks for this wonderful article. I am going to try your methodology and see if I can also find my vision. I suspect that this is no easy path to take but, I am willing to give it a go.

    Just a warning…you may be getting several emails from me along the way.

    David

  • Terry Olsen Says:

    What an excellent post, Cole! I recognize myself in many of your points. Particularly in that, lately, I like seeing other photographer’s work more than my own. Thank you for sharing your own struggles and the journey you have been (and still are) on. You are an inspiration.

  • Lisa Gordon Says:

    What a wonderful post this is, Cole.
    Thank you!

  • Aamir Shahzad Says:

    Hello Cole Thompson
    I am a great fan of not only your photography but also you intellectual and artistic vision.
    I have been reading your views for quite some time and want to discuss one point
    You have adopted a photographic celibacy and think it helps to purify your pursuit of a personal vision
    Would you recommend the same approach to any one still in the process of artistic maturation?
    I feel if some one adopts this approach at an early stage, it would seriously limit his exposure creating a tunnel vision.
    After all you took this step when you had years of experience and must have studied thousands of pictures from hundreds of masters of art.
    There are some more points which I would like to discuss but for the time being this would suffice

  • Brian Tremblay Says:

    Cole, this is a game changer for me.

  • John Barclay Says:

    Aamir, I would tend to agree that Photo Celibacy works better AFTER some learning… I know Cole does not agree but I’m in your camp on that particular point.

  • Aamir Shahzad Says:

    John barclay
    I had initially put this question to Cole on g+.
    He suggested that the question to be posted on this blog for discussion and participation of all the members
    I think he intends to generate an intellectual discussion on this issues.
    Let us see what others have to say about this issue

  • Zelda Wynn Says:

    An awesome post Cole, great that you share your passion.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Dear Aamir, thanks a lot for throwing a grenade into the discussion! (not really, I asked him to post this)

    First, the only thing I can be certain of is what I did and what effect it had on me. Photographic Celibacy has been a HUGE factor in both finding and following my Vision.

    I know that about 85% of the people who hear about Photographic Celibacy disagree with me, and I’m okay with that. I am not telling people what they should do, but simply sharing my experience.

    I try not to give other’s advice, but what would I say to a photographer who pressed me if he should try Photographic Celibacy and when?

    I do think I would encourage anyone who was at a certain stage of their photographic journey to try it. When would I suggest they try it?

    When they are hungering, as I was, for the answer to the question: Do I have a Vision?

    When they feel that they are not creating original work, but instead just copying others.

    When they are dissatisfied and want more, but don’t know what to do.

    That’s when I would suggest that they try it.

    What have you got to lose? If after a year it doesn’t benefit you, then reverse course.

    Just my thought Aamir.

  • Kim Says:

    Great post…thank you!

  • Wolfgang Says:

    I don’t know how many posts and articles about vision I have started to read during the last months because it is something I struggle with. Mostly I stopped after few lines as the content hasn’t touched my heart.
    But this post is very different.
    Word by word I had not the feeling that these are not just words as I thought so often, reading posts about this topic.
    For me this post contains heart and truth. And I have to admit my hope that some day I am able to go my way as you described your path.
    Thank you very much for this post!

  • Roger Says:

    Cole, I have read bits and pieces of this from you before but this is a masterful composite of many of your thoughts. It’s thorough, yet concise, a writing style sought after by many, achieved by few. Your response to Aamir rings very true to me. Like others who have indicated above that they struggle with this “vision” thing, you have helped us move forward. I have printed your words and will now reach for them whenever I need inspiration. For others, last year I went through the process Cole describes by looking at all my images (7 years worth of part-time shooting) and selected a small group that I really liked. It was an arduous and time-consuming process but well worth it – the final result did reveal some unexpected results. “While my initial search was for my Vision, what I really found was myself that I really liked…” – a wonderful sentiment and a great accompaniment to “every picture is a self-portrait”. Now, unlike you I wasn’t concise and thorough was I?!

  • Rex Says:

    Thanks for another thought inspiring post Cole. Photographing what you love and presenting the image how you love it is something we all should strive for.

  • Jan Beernaert Says:

    Exactly my point! Thank you so much for putting it into words!

  • Hannes Uys Says:

    All of this is so true. Cool post Cole.

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  • Jeffrey Logesky Says:

    A truly inspirational article, Cole. It’s true that you can only do your best work by pleasing yourself. I love looking at other peoples photo’s, But if I constantly compare my work to theirs, I find that my work will never be good enough for me!

  • Dianne Poinski Says:

    You have no idea how much I needed to read this today! I don’t believe I have ever read such clear ideas about vision. Thank you Cole!

  • Sam Blair Says:

    Excellent, Cole, as usual. I still think there’s a recipe book waiting to be written.

    Here’s my egghead take-away:

    Strive to eliminate the dualism between object and photographer, which is documentary. Examples: pictures of a flower, a dune, a pepper.

    Instead, take the outer world object, and cook it in the juices of one’s inner world, and out comes a flower by Georgia O’Keeffe, a dune by Cole Thompson, a pepper by Edward Weston.

    Ingredients for juice: Every love you’ve ever had, every heartbreak, every book you’ve ever read, every person you’ve known and experience you’ve ever had.

    Utensils: Whatever.

    Cooking time: as long as it takes.

    So simple, right? HaHaHaHaHa.

    Sam

  • Karen Messick Says:

    Bam! Love your ability to break it down for your journey and share!! Well written!

  • John Barclay Says:

    Aamir, Cole was a special guest instructor for a workshop I co-led in February. The discussion we had after his presentation “Why B&W” was one of the best discussions I’ve ever been part of. After he was done, I simply asked the group what they thought of Cole’s celibacy idea. It was a spirited discussion, many did not agree but all left the room thinking about the discussion for the rest of the week together.

    My personal feeling is that most need a foundation of some sort to get them started. Then they can choose to be celibate if they want. Being celibate is hard, really hard to be honest. And it is human to want feedback. What I totally agree with is, at some point one does need to let go of getting feedback and TRUST in or follow their vision. What I love about Cole’s thoughts in this post is how he has explained that that process was not easy either. In other words you don’t one day decide to be celibate and follow your vision…. that is just a starting point.

  • John Barclay Says:

    Sam I love your comment!

  • Susan Tiffen Says:

    Lots to think about here, and reassuring to me in many ways. I have a an art school background and a view in my latest photos that does not fit typical photographers subjects or compositions. I gave up camera clubs because of this. My concern these days is I can’t seem to get to where I want to be with a piece – maybe lack of skill (technique) since I do processing, and a need to spend more time on my artwork. Hope to read much more here.

  • Susan Tiffen Says:

    And thank you for sharing the struggles, the process.

  • Aamir Shahzad Says:

    Cole Thompson, Johan Barclay
    There are lots of points to ponder here.
    In my own training, western influence is dominant.(In form of books, on line courses and most of all through social networking). I have no connection with any local artist/photographer or camera club.
    Recently I went to flickr where Pakistani photographers have a strong presence. I looked at their work and found some interesting difference between my work and their approach.
    They use strong vibrant colors
    There were few BW pictures
    Almost all pictures were realistic with hardly any picture in abstract/impressionist style
    Mostly it was about cultural representation. Minimal share of still life/abstract etc
    There were some other points as well
    I compared and realized how a company influences in a very subtle way on our approach and thinking of art
    So in a way I tend to agree with Cole
    However I would like to submit that
    1. Decision of celibacy is a sign of maturity. It (should)comes at a point where one has already achieved a certain degree of command
    2. Even after that there is a risk of being monotonous!!
    I mean looking at thousands of pieces of art gives new fresh ideas. If one is living a secluded life oblivious of what new is going on in art circles, Isn’t there a danger that one would keep on reproducing same thing(style) while world would have moved on to some new horizon???
    I would like Cole to ask, how he keeps himself up to date with new trends in art and design?
    Does he still read books on art and art history?
    Does he go to art exhibitions (as a viewer or a judge)

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Susan Tiffen, I am having trouble responding to the email address you provided. Can you contact me at Cole@ColeThompsonPhotography.com

    Thanks!

  • Roberta McGowan Says:

    I loved your post. Sometimes “experts” make me chuckle. Before I read our post I was thinking about what is “in” now – how that is described as so creative and innovative. But so many of those “new” images look the same. Ultra high contrast, only one subject, wide angle, black and white. So this is basically what’s in vogue now. I never do portfolio reviews anymore because I don’t fit their mold. and I don’t care.

  • Marty Golin Says:

    Much of your blog resonates with my humble journey, though the word I use to summarize it is “intuitive,” which seems close to, but not quite the same, as your phrasing. We all have vision, but it is a vapor in a world of solids. We sense it rather than perceive it. In my case, just taking many, many pictures, & reacting to them honestly, over decades now, it has slowly found its way to the surface of some of my images.

    ps. You do post some of the most thought-provoking blogs.

  • Kathleen Clemons Says:

    “Vision was simply the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way. When I looked at a scene and imagined it a certain way…that was my vision.”

    Love this quote Cole! Another inspiring post, thanks for sharing your journey.

  • Maria Says:

    I love your clear and concise way of putting it out there in B&W (literally) What is Vision? How do I find it? This post is a a great reminder for those of us still trying to uncover it when it’s probably staring us in the face.

  • Steve L Says:

    This should be required reading for aspiring photographers! Before they buy their gear.

  • Patrick Mulligan Says:

    I have read this blog several times, each time I see something resonates with me.
    A couple points. in #6 I’m happy to say that i’ve been “creating images” instead of taking pictures and think of myself as an artist. But it was not apparent to me was how I was arriving at my final image.
    From #10 I find that my final vision is in the photograph and it is my skill that brings it out. Where your vision seems to be a quality within yourself, mine seems to be within each image. My joy is watching it emerge. I believe the final image reflects my life experiences.
    Please continue to share your photographic wisdom with us, Cole

  • Rich Flansburg Says:

    Finally got back to this post and I’m glad I saved it. I can’t agree more. In short: The truth is in the photo – No qualifications and No explanations.

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  • Lynne Ayers Says:

    Thank you for relating your journey – I found it inspiring and validating.

  • cristina Catarroja Says:

    Eye opener and truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Cristina Catarroja, I tried to contact you but your email bounced. Please email me at Cole@ColeThompsonPhotography.com

  • Jim Goldstein Says:

    Hands down the best blog post I’ve seen on the topic of vision. This encapsulates a lot personal philosophies of my own. Great to see a photographer finding themselves with confidence. More power to you!

  • QT Luong Says:

    I understand that worked for you, but I’m not sure about #3 (Photographic Celibacy) is useful. For example, one may want their work to engage with the traditions and history of the medium. It’s also more difficult to do something new if you don’t know what has been done before.

  • Michelle Says:

    Thank you! Thank you! I needed to read this today!

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  • Richard Eskin Says:

    I am working on this same issue for myself. I will probably take a somewhat different approach in working to capture the same emotions, delight, or concepts of poetry that speaks to me from Robinson Jeffers. We will see how it goes. Seth Godin is also often helpful as well.

    Wise and relevant words from Seth Godin on 6/10/14:

    “Shun the non-believers.

    Do your work, your best work, the work that matters to you. For some people, you can say, “hey, it’s not for you.” That’s okay. If you try to delight the undelightable, you’ve made yourself miserable for no reason.

    It’s sort of silly to make yourself miserable, but at least you ought to reserve it for times when you have a good reason.”

  • Karl Says:

    Wow! Even the comments are great.

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