Art Is Not A Competition

2007 3 15 Waiting Final 7 7 2011 750 Art Is Not A Competition

I recently taught a workshop on Vision and was discussing my practice of Photographic Celibacy. I explained that the reason I do not look at other photographer’s work is that I don’t want my Vision to be tainted by the vision and images of others. And while that is completely true, there is another reason that I am embarrassed to admit: when I look at other people’s work, I doubt my abilities and get discouraged.

When I see all the many wonderful images out there, I feel mine are inferior by comparison. When I see the great images from locations that I have photographed, I am disappointed that I did not see them. I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of great photographers out there and think: there’s no room left for me. I feel inadequate when I see so many original ideas…that I did not think of. 

And so I get depressed at the thought of competing with all of these great images and photographers.  

But therein lies my mistake: creating art is not a competition and I should not compare my work to others. I am not trying to be better than someone else, I am trying to better myself.  

Everyone has the ability to be great at something, but I cannot be great at all things.  I cannot be a a great portrait photographer, a great landscape photographer, a great street photographer, a great floral photographer and a great still life photographer. But there is something I can be great at, and I cannot achieve that greatness by focusing on what I’m not good at.  I must recognize my talents and be appreciative for those.

I need to remember that art is not a competition.  When I create from my vision there are no losers, only winners.

Cole

P.S. I used to think I was alone in having these feelings, but as I have shared these thoughts with others (including some big name photographers) I’ve learned that many feel the same way. We are all human and share the same frailties, foibles and insecurities. No matter who we are, it seems to be human nature to compare ourselves to others and to sometimes feel inadequate.


39 Responses to “Art Is Not A Competition”

  • Stephen Cairns Says:

    “Every artist who feels he has a style is a little wary automatically of strong work in view. I suppose we are all a little insecure. I don’t like to look at too much of Atget’s work because I am too close to that in style myself. I didn’t discover him until I had been going for quite a while; and when I did, I was quite electrified and alarmed…It’s a little residue of insecurity and fear of such magnificent strength and style there. If it happens to border on yours, it makes you wonder how original you are.”

    Walker Evans

    I often come back to that quote by Evans. If he felt it, its safe to say we all feel it. The question then becomes how to get on with the creative process in an environment of uncertainty and doubt. You’ve found your way. I wonder what others do.

    Well-written, honest, and straight to the point Cole. That’s what makes your blog so refreshing. Thanks for sharing that.

    Stephen Cairns

  • Katie Says:

    Beautiful post – I can so relate…it was your photography that made me pick up a camera several years ago. So you compare to them, I compare to you, and so on… I will never be you, and you will never be them – but I will always admire yours and you will admire theirs and perhaps one day someone will admire mine, and if they don’t – it really doesn’t matter as long as I admire mine in the end -yes? Isn’t that keeping it simple?

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Stephan, that’s a great quote and an interesting question you pose: what do others do?

    I’m not sure.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Katie, you got it sooooo very right!

  • Karin Says:

    I absolutely relate to this, Cole. I think as most artists are sensitive we are also sensitive to self doubt and low self worth. It is far better not to cultivate those sides but focus on the joy of recreating.

    I also feel very intimidated reading lists of other people’s accomplishments but remind myself that we all presenting a story, preferably one of success – that, plus I now only read those lists if I need inspiration for submission.

  • Donald Withers Says:

    Great post Cole. We have had several discussions around this the topic of photographic celibacy and ii have seen a couple of photographers using that same language lately. You are right that there are so many talented photographers out there that it can be intimidating and discouraging if you start to compete with others. You have really helped me look at things differently and although I still peek at others work for inspiration, I have stopped trying to compare my work to,others and entering photography contests. I have to say that I feel much better having done so. Thank you for your wisdom, beautiful photography and insightful blog, all,of which I find inspiring.

  • Juliet Harrison Says:

    As always, Cole, you say it so well for the rest of us. Thanks! – Juliet

  • Tony sweet Says:

    Ok, a few thoughts here, Cole, but first, a question….how in hell did you get inside my head?? You can ask my Susi how often I wondered why so many people who blow me away want to attend our workshops? My self doubt was tangible, profound, and persistent. Then, the lovely Sue reminded me that those dark thoughts are only within me.

    Rule 1: Don’t always believe what you think.

    As a professional jazz artist, self doubt and insecurity, as well as a little bit of bone chilling stage fright on the side, seemed to be part of the job description. However, epiphanies occur when least expected, this time during an episode of Law and Order. To be brief, a poor kid was being pressured to tell the truth, implicating a rich kid. He refused. He was told what lies the rich kid was telling. The poor kid said, “I don’t care what he does. I do what I do.” When I heard that, in the most unlikely of places, light bulbs went off and I felt a tangible an immediate sense of a burden being lightened……creative liberation. Although, insecurity is baked into the cake in any creative pursuit, I’ve been able to navigate the field of endlessly great photography being guided by Rule 2:

    I don’t care what anyone else does, I do what I do.

    This frees me up to enjoy all of the great work out there, enjoying what others are doing, without fueling my hard wired insecurities.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post, Cole.

  • Angie McMonigal Says:

    Excellent post Cole! I can completely relate to this and as you mentioned, I think all photographers do. Sometimes viewing other photographers work is inspiring, other times it leads to one huge pity party…but in the end the point is to keep improving on myself and to simply keep that in mind, though hard to do at times. It’s always nice to hear someone at your caliber has these doubts too…provides a little piece of encouragement for me.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Karin, regarding those lists of accomplishments… That is part of the reason I removed them from my resume.

    Does a person really need to be convinced that that they should like my work because others like it? Shouldn’t my work stand on its own?

    Shouldn’t their opinion of whether they like my work be all that they need?

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Donald, you raise a great point about photography contests. I think it’s worth considering.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Tony, thank you for making this point. One of my favorite quotes is:

    “What others think of you, is none of your business.”

    And my photographic version of it:

    “What others think of your work, is none of your business.”

  • Paula Says:

    Exactly. Absolutely. 100%.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Thanks Angie, I’m actually waiting to hear from someone who says that they don’t feel this way! I spent so much of my life thinking that my feelings were unique, and that others would laugh if I were honest with how I felt. But I’m learning that everyone (or almost everyone) feels exactly the same way. This gives me the courage to be honest about voicing my insecurities.

  • John Barclay Says:

    Cole, seems we have been thinking about the same things… Not sure you saw this post recently. http://johnbarclayphotography.com/2013/12/03/on-trust-being-idle-and-the-creative-process/ Followed by this post… http://johnbarclayphotography.com/2013/12/05/more-on-being-idle-and-creativity/ Some great comments from my readers worthy of looking at as well. Good topic. One near and dear to my heart.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    John, I just read your two blog entries and agree completely!

    And regarding your second blog entry, there is a color long exposure at the bottom of the page: I absolutely love it!

  • Sam Blair Says:

    An insightful post, Cole, as usual, with some great comments.

    I have a little different take on the insecurity and self doubt issue for creatives. I think our self doubts and insecurities actually drive creativity. I think self doubt is a good thing, dammit. Our insecurities will either fuel our creativity, or paralyze us. Those who are paralyzed will stop trying, quit, or wallow in self pity.

    On the other hand, if you walk around thinking you’re the best damn photographer there ever was, chances are you’re a boring copycat. Picasso said “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal”

    I think that for true creatives, insecurity is part of the package. A Yin Yang thing, can’t have one without the other. It’s up to us to feed off that, to use comparisons and the inevitable self doubt as fuel for finding our own voice. It’s the price we pay to actually be creative. I’d say EMBRACE the insecurities, for without those little demons pushing us, we would never find ourselves.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Sam, thanks for a very different perspective. I need to chew on that one for a while!

  • Michael Bury Says:

    Hi Cole! At first my reaction to this article was strong agreement, to the point that I wanted to share it with my camera buddies and make a New Years resolution to avoid looking at other photographers work. But part of my passion for photography is looking at pictures, and I can’t give that up. I think celibacy in this area would actually be avoidance, and building the strength to NOT compare yourself to others is part of the growing process. I will resolve in the New Year to more actively cultivate wonder at others work and actively avoid negative comparison. Best of both worlds!

  • Cole Says:

    Michael, I really didn’t want this blog post to be about photographic celibacy, but about feelings of inadequacy when comparing ourselves to others. I only mention photographic celibacy to put my feelings in context.

    I think these are two separate issues and not necessarily connected. I think that you can work on the one (comparing yourself to others) and still choose look at other peoples work.

    I recognize that my concept of photographic celibacy is not a popular one and not likely to be adopted by any significant portion of the photographer population!

    But I think everyone can relate to, and work on, the tendency to compare and judge ourselves against others.

    Thanks for raising this point, I really didn’t mean to link the two concepts together.

  • Dan Sniffin Says:

    Cole,

    Most of the time I prefer to send my comments from blog posts in a private email so that I won’t be influenced by others’ posts! Kind of a “blog celibacy” I guess. :-)

    Your comments ring true for most of us out there doing our very best to produce unique imagery. In one of John’s and my photo tours of the eastern Sierra we had a new enthusiastic participant was hell bent on taking everyone else’s composition as well as doing his own. He was a maniac, shooting nearly 5,000 images in 4 1/2 days. We talked at length toward the end of the tour, and John and I told him then that this was NOT a competition — just relax and shoot what you like, what you are drawn to. He has become a close personal friend since and when we go on a shoot together we get out of the truck and go our separate ways. The results have been amazing.

    Here are a few quotes from an large collection I’ve saved over the years. The first one is the one I think of when I think of our tour next month:

    “When the pupil is ready to learn, a teacher will appear.”

    Zen

    “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

    Joseph Campbell

    “Out of clutter, find simplicity.”

    Albert Einstein

    “What matters most is how you see yourself.”

    Unknown

    “Don’t bother trying to be better than your contemporaries, or your predecessors,

    Try to be better than yourself.”

    William Faulkner

    “The artist has only to trust his eyes.”

    Auguste Rodin

    The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

    ~Henry David Thoreau~

    “You can’t depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

    Mark Twain

  • Anne Rusk Says:

    Hey, Cole!
    This is part of the reason I have been more drawn to macro photography instead of landscape work. I couldn’t stop comparing (and belittling) myself to others. I felt I couldn’t get to the same amazing places at the “right” time to produce (not create) those amazing landscapes I found online. With macro I wasn’t tasked with finding a new subject; I was free to use those subjects closest to me and interpret them artistically in my own way. I still take landscapes, but my true joy and creative release lies in my macro world. Excellent thought-provoking post as always!

  • Mo Khovaylo Says:

    Hi Cole. Whenever I start having thoughts like what your post was, I think of what someone once told me: Who was the better artist? Van Gogh or Monet? Does it matter?

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Mo, no it doesn’t matter.

    But if you would have asked: Who was the better artist? Ansel Adams or Edward Weston….then we would have had a discussion!

    Just kidding of course.

    Thanks for expressing that: there is no better, just different.

  • John Doddato Says:

    Cole,
    You are only expressing what all serious photographers and artist feel. If you didn’t sometimes feel this way you would have put down the camera years ago. I remember in my early days with photography I would get discouraged if I went out photographing and came back with nothing to show for my days efforts. Other times I would be in the darkroom and dump fresh chemicals out of frastration of not being able to make the print I had hope for. After forty years of doing photography I still have many of these discouraging thoughts and feelings, but somewhere within me there is an urge to overcome and create a new and meaningful image. You are very normal with your thoughts. We all have them. I am glad you brought it up in your post.

  • Jeffrey Logesky Says:

    You’re absolutely correct in feeling this way. Most of us feel like our work doesn’t measure up, when looking at other peoples work. Too often I see “copies” of others work, all over the internet. These photo’s are often falsely praised for how great the photo is. There is no mention of originality or acknowledgement of originality.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, It’s much better to have your own vision and develop your own style. The Greatest compliment that you can get is to have your own style, meaning that in the end, Your Photography and Art will always be your own. No one can take that away from you.

    Jeffrey Logesky

  • Cole Says:

    Jeffrey, I so very much agree. I would rather be an original failure than a successful imitator.

  • Gary Larsen Says:

    Hi Cole… If I were to avoid looking at others’ work, I would be unable to enjoy your work… can’t miss out on your work or words… very simple!

    I try to produce photos I like… only. When I show them and someone else likes them, I am a little surprised and very pleased. If nobody likes them… I still do… that’s enough for me.

    I just posted a photo on Facebook that my son had questioned a day ago, “Why are you working on that one… it’s boring!” I posted it today because I like it. And I like to find and look at peoples’ work I like… like yours Cole! My only goal is to be different and satisfied with what I do.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Gary, a very healthy approach.

    And if you get to the point of wanting to pursue Photographic Celibacy, then I’ll support you in that, even if it means you’ll no longer look at my work.

  • Mark Says:

    Well Cole, like Tony mentioned, I got this creeped out feeling while reading this thinking that thought dictation technology had finally arrived. You honed in on this one like a laser beam. It is the primary reason why I stopped going to a local camera club where the focus of most meetings was competition. Each image was assigned a number, and that number could give you tremendous feelings of inadequacy, as well as act as coercion towards the types of images that scored the highest.
    Still, even though this aspect of myself is recognized, I still find it hard to surpress it through acknowlegement or avoidance. It is always there nibbling away at my psyche.

  • Linda Grashoff Says:

    Cole, thank you for this post. It helps. Another thought that helps when I get caught up in “their work is like mine only better” is this: “So? Am I going to stop making photographs because someone is better at it than I am? No! I’ll keep on because making photographs is fun and meaningful to me.”

  • Jim Robertson Says:

    Sorry I’ve waited so long to respond to this post but just wanted to say that I felt like I was reading about myself. Thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone. Now I’ve got to get back to preparing to move to Cole Road. Seriously.

    Have a great Christmas, Cole and a fantastic new year! Look forward to seeing more from you in 2014!

  • GregJ Says:

    Thanks Cole, for sharing something that was at the root of an almost ten year hiatus from photography. You and a few other photogaphers have encourged me to find my voice; to speak from within, to be me. I am much more comfortable with what I produce, and I am much happier now. I too, am in awe of the vastness of great images from around the world.

  • Laird Says:

    An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.
    Charles Horton Cooley(quote)

  • Cole Says:

    An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.
    Charles Horton Cooley

    Exactly right!

  • Dean Says:

    Another interesting post Cole. I have in the past read books or looked at works by photographers who I look up to and they are Don McPhee Jeff Carter and John Gay. I think that whenever I go out now with my camera I will come back with something that I am pleased with. I have no real idea of what others think maybe that doesn’t matter but I feel that I can give my heroes a good run for their money.

    It saddens me that some photographers are coveted only when they have passed away that New York Nanny Vivian Maier is a prime example her work undiscovered or ignored whilst she was alive. Here negatives were discovered in a storage / yard sale or something? Which leads me in to my next thought. How many great works will be uncovered in future years because someone saw an old Hard Drive at a flea market and if they bought it what chance that they have the hardware to power it up? Museums of the future take note otherwise great photography will never be discovered. Maybe there is a good opening for a soon to be expired photographers online archival website call it the Dead Snappers Society.

    Sorry where was I? Oh yes thanks Cole for the great post.

  • Laird Says:

    Dean… I reply with some hesitation, yet I feel the issue you’ve brought up is important and something that many of us consider.

    If you would allow me to be so bold, I will attempt to draw a conclusion from you’ve said. You seem to question the validity of one’s individual efforts… if, in fact, it takes our own deaths to make those efforts known.

    I cannot argue… often this does seem to be the case. Ms. Maier’s is an example, albeit extreme. However her work does serve as an example of very notable work that went unnoticed.

    As will… become the fate of the majority of work that I, you and thousands of other photographers will endure. I would say, our solace is in the doing. Knowing that we did something we felt passionate about. That we needed to do, simply that and for no other reason.

    Which may seem somewhat trivial when we’re alive… but, I think I would be satisfied if this was part of the epitaph on my gravestone.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Dean, this is an interesting thought. So after I die and all of my junk is sitting on the curbside waiting to be picked up by the garbage truck, there may be a hard drive in there that contains my entire portfolio of work! Yes, the world has changed from the days of glass plates and negatives.

    It is a shame that people are not appreciated until after they die. And of course that doesn’t just apply to photography. I suspect many of us do not appreciate our health, our situation or our loved ones until it is gone.

    Speaking to Laird’s point: one must define success for themselves. If success is being famous, then most of us will never achieve that in our lifetime and some will achieve it after they die.

    I don’t like definitions of success that required others to think our work is good before we think we are successful. I like the internal definitions that only require me to love my work and to be proud of it, regardless what others think.

  • BILL Says:

    Cole,
    A friend referred me to your site and I’ll forever be grateful. I’m 60 and decided to get serious about photography and stop using the “auto” setting on my camera. This post just touched my soul. I printed the following quote and taped it to the underside of my camera.

    “But therein lies my mistake: creating art is not a competition and I should not compare my work to others. I am not trying to be better than someone else, I am trying to better myself.”

    I’ve been so intimidated looking at the photographs of others and reading forums on the web. I used to look at my photographs and be disappointed because they weren’t “good enough”…but by whose standard? Mine, others? Eventually through frustration I just stopped doing that and started enjoying the photographs I was making. I’m proud of how I’ve progressed and will strive to become even better. Not because I seek the approval of others, rather for the satisfaction I get in the process and the results.

    P.S. I so want to explore B&W photography after reviewing your work.

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