Photographic Celibacy – Not Studying Other Photographer’s Work

Some of you are familiar with my admittedly odd practice of not studying other photographer’s work.  It’s something I’ve been doing for about 2 years now and it’s always been met with curiosity, dismay and sometimes even a little hostility.   I mentioned it again in the last blog and it was suggested by my friend and fantastic b&w photographer, Lance Keimig, that this might be a good discussion topic.  I agreed and so here we are.

Let me explain why I began this unconventional practice and then I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  However, this might be a very one-sided discussion as I’ve not met many people who agree or appreciate what I’m doing.   So if I’m the lone man on this issue, some of you might need to side with me just so we can have a two-way discussion!

To start with I’d like to point out that I’ve never suggested that others should adopt this practice, I’ve just described what I was doing.  However I recognize that when one writes publicly, your words can come across as advice.

Several years ago I came to the hard realization that I was not creating with my own vision, but rather I was copying the style and even the images of my revered childhood hero’s.  The full impact of this hit home when I was attending a Portfolio Review at the Center in Santa Fe.  One of the reviewers said that it appeared I was trying to copy Ansel Adams and Edward Weston’s style.  When I responded that I was, because I loved their work, he very bluntly pointed out that Ansel already did Ansel and that no one was going to it better than Ansel.  At the time those were very hard words to hear, but over the next year I came to agree with him and it started me on the quest to create with my own vision.

As I analyzed how I was working, I came to the conclusion that when I studied another photographer’s work, I was imprinting their style onto my conscious and subconscious mind.  And then when I photographed a scene, I found myself imitating their style rather than seeing it through my own vision.  To overcome this tendency I decided to stop looking at the work of other photographer’s, as much as was practically possible.

So for the last two years I’ve tried it; I’ve not read my B&W Magazines, poured over my LensWork or sought out great photography on the web.  It’s been hard, and at times I’ve felt like a celibate monk working at a nude beach!

Has it worked?  Yes, it has had a positive affect on my art and I feel that my images are increasingly “me” and not just copies of someone else’s work.  I’m making progress and when I think of my projects such as The Ghosts of Auschwitz, The Lone Man and the Harbinger series (new image above) I’m pleased with my “direction.”

I don’t expect to continue this practice forever.  Once I’ve  better developed my vision and have become more disciplined, I’ll return to enjoying black and white photography which has been my first love since the age of 14.

But for me, at this time, and for where I’m at creatively; photographic celibacy is helping!


P.S.  I’ve just had an experience that reinforces my position on this issue.  One of my images will be in a new book entitled “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr.  Last night we were given a link to review the images chosen and as I looked for mine I came across an image by Brian Kosoff that just stopped me dead in my tracks.  It’s entitled “Three Crosses” and it’s the first image on his home page.  Do you want to guess where my mind has been all day today as I drove around town?  I’ve been looking for telephone poles in patterns so that I can imitate his work!

Bad, bad Cole.

55 Responses to “Photographic Celibacy – Not Studying Other Photographer’s Work”

  • Laird Says:

    Cole what an excellent discussion, you must be pleased with the quality of responses it has received. Perhaps this may have you feeling less sinful.

    Throughout history there are numerous examples of man developing almost identical ideas & ideals at the same point in time… while being completely unaware of any others’ similar achievements… Isolated by continents and the forms of communication that existed at the time, plagiarism was an impossibility.

    Makes you wonder about the capability of “original” thought.

  • Jack Larson Says:

    I think that beginning photographers can benefit greatly from looking at the work of master photographers. However, I agree with you that at some point, we need find ways to discover our own vision. I do think that art in general can be quite inspirational. Jay Maisel says that he goes to MOMA for inspiration.

  • Nekole Says:

    I love it! Thanks Cole 🙂

  • Developing a Photographic Vision - The Photographer Within Says:

    […] years ago, I came across a blog post by Cole Thompson, which described his reasoning for practicing “Photographic Celibacy”. Photographic celibacy […]

  • Feeling inspired | in focus Says:

    […] But there’s another side to this argument. Fine art photographer Cole Thompson found that by studying another photographer’s work, he was imprinting their style onto his conscious and subconscious mind, “then when I photographed a scene, I found myself imitating their style rather than seeing it through my own vision”. There’s something to be said for this. Thompson response was to practice what he termed ‘photography celibacy’, avoiding other photographers’ work as far as was practically possible, until he felt he’d better developed his own vision. (You can read Cole Thompson’s article here: […]

Leave a Reply