A Guest Post from Dan Sniffin – Why Photo Celibacy?

Winter Sunset, El Capitan 1024X

Why Photo Celibacy?

Dan Sniffin 

A growing number of photographers are practicing what is known as “photo celibacy,” where one does not use the images of another as a guide to his/her own work. Cole Thompson, among others, practices this. Most photographers commonly view the work of others to gain insight and inspiration. I’m kind of in-between. My initial reaction is that one has to start somewhere — a technical/visual foundation if you will. 

I think this works for Cole, but I submit that it was a slow process for him to get to this point.  In other words, what he does today didn’t “just happen” by picking up a camera and going out to capture his “vision.” He takes it for granted now, but trust me he has looked and studied a lot of work before this celibacy stage of his photographic journey. I clearly agree with him that at some point one should distance his work from others if he wants it to stand out as uniquely his.   

I get inspiration from others’ work, and therefore continue to learn from it rather than copying it.  To make my point, put a group of photographers together in the same place and see how many different images/interpretations/visions come forth.  For me, it’s not the location or copying of someone else’s vision.  It’s about what you “see” while you’re in or near that same location.  That is what vision is to me.  

Years ago, I wanted to capture an image of Galen Rowell’s Horsetail Fall in Yosemite NP.  I researched the time of year, time of day, direction of light, and lens choice(s) among other technical information.  Even weather variations were checked to increase my percentage of success.  I ended up with an image similar to Rowell’s. When I look at it now all I see HIS image — not mine.  This puts an exclamation point on Thompson’s theory and practice.  It’s a bad idea to study other photographer’s landscapes for the sole purpose of duplicating it.  There is something that just doesn’t feel right by doing so. 

However, I don’t consider looking at the work of other photographers as “contaminating” either.  I see them as building blocks, thereby layering my knowledge and technique.  We would not be human if we didn’t feel the angst when we see superb photographs.  So much so that often we feel insecure and/or inadequate.  This is NORMAL — and common!  Another reason I agree to some extent with Cole Thompson’s philosophy.   

So taking famous landmarks is fine in the beginning (as you build your foundation), but working to find alternatives and originality — your vision — remains the ultimate objective of an artist. To illustrate my point here (below) is an alternative image of the classic shot of the alpenglow on El Capitan in winter light (above). 

I’m including a story I wrote about the making of this image (below) as I believe it helps convey my thoughts.

Alpenglow Reflection & Ice

A Reflection of Yosemite

Many of Yosemite National Park’s landmarks—Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point—I have photographed on many occasions.  But on this cold December afternoon in 1988 I wanted to capture the stillness of this renowned national park.  I found it when I stopped at Valley View in Yosemite Valley’s west end, a tourist favorite.  I was very fortunate to have the place to myself. 

By then the Merced River was cloaked in its familiar deep-blue shade leaving two of Yosemite’s most identifiable landmarks, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, glowing in magnificent light.  From experience I knew this type of light is fleeting and rare.  I also knew instinctively how little time remained before this light would vanish and immediately searched for compositions that symbolized what I felt. 

Scanning the river through my camera’s viewfinder I noticed a colorful spot of reflected light.  Isolating an area no larger than a common sheet of binder paper I found a granite boulder jutting upwards through the surface of the river surrounded by plates of ice.  A leaf nestled gently into a shallow notch in the protruding rock, seemingly frozen there in time.  The combinations of light reflected from the precipice of El Capitan and the cobalt-blue sky bathed the now-silent Merced River in breathtaking contrasts of warm and cool colors.   

This memorable moment of solitude ended abruptly when a car appeared in the parking area behind me.  A couple got out to admire the view that lay before them marveling at the golden glow atop El Capitan as it crept slowly up its enormous rock face.    

As I worked in the shade they became aware of my presence near the river’s edge.  In an attempt to avoid an intrusion on my privacy I heard him quietly ask her, “What’s he taking a picture of?” 

I glanced back and noticed the woman standing behind me on her tiptoes looking over my shoulder from a short distance away, apparently puzzled by what I saw that she might have missed.  Her curiosity drew her in even closer as she stood silently behind me in the bitter cold winter shade.          

When the sun set and the sky turned its inevitable gloomy gray the couple walked back to the warmth of their car.  Once again he asked her, “What was that guy taking a picture of anyway?” 

“Nothing really.” she said.  “It was only a reflection.”   

 © Dan Sniffin –  June 6, 2001

Dan Sniffin my dear friend and tour partner. To see more of his stunning photography, please visit his newly redesigned website. www.dansniffinphoto.com  

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  1. Karl January 28, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    John and Dan,
    This is one of the many concepts that I have picked up in your workshops. I learn from others but strive to find my own perspective and vision. Thanks for the reinforcement!

    • john8276 January 28, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

      And you are doing very well Karl!

  2. Stephen McCullough January 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    A very interesting post.

    I especially enjoyed the image story.

    As for the celibacy thing… well, I’ve never been convinced that celibacy of any kind is a healthy thing. I do think though that we have to think through our choice of partners, and be prepared to take the consequences.

    I don’t spend much time at all on online photo sites (Flickr, 500px). There is good stuff there to be sure. But frankly I find most of it repetitive, and 500px in particular a showcase for photoshop skills along with the current trend of ‘make extreme adjustments because you can, not because it helps you shape the photograph to reflect what you felt’.

    Where I do spend time is on the sites of photographers who make photographs that I enjoy, and which challenge me. I spend even more time in books of photographs, which I find much more gratifying and helpful than the screen. I let myself react to a photograph, and I consider the artistic and technical merits. I ask myself a bunch of questions. Above all, I just enjoy.

    These photographs influence me. I want them to influence me. When things move and challenge me this way I feel the love. Nope, celibacy is not for me.

    Again, great post.

  3. Doug D January 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Awesome post from Dan “the Man”. It’s good to see someone using their head for more than a hat rack !!!

    • john8276 January 28, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      That made me laugh Doug. 🙂

  4. Tom Singleton January 28, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    Really enjoyed Dan’s comments and agree with all of them. Was amused by the couple who observed the process of photographing “only a reflection”. Some of my best images are only reflections. Great post, thanks for sharing.

  5. mrsammy7 January 28, 2014 at 8:17 pm #


    • john8276 January 28, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

      A man of many words and we get …. inspirational? Thats it? 🙂

  6. marty golin January 28, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    I find it engaging to view others’ work, just to see what I see, just as I enjoy walking in the woods/on the beach just to see what I see. One can also include walking around the house/in the office (on good days) both doing things & occasionally seeing something interesting. To exclude any portion of the world, especially of kindred spirits, simply seems counter-productive.
    While one’s personal, individual vision should not be bound to or copy others, it does not have to be original. To make it original just for the sake of being different may be a positive to a professional trying to sell images. But for simple enthusiast souls, doing it for the simple love of it, the vision one has & develops over time may possibly resemble others. It is still theirs & I see no reason to believe that’s a bad thing.

    • john8276 January 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

      You know Marty, once again I agree with you!

  7. Barbara K January 28, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    Extraordinary images, Dano and thanks for posting, JB. Glad to see that ‘shooting from the heart’ is still in vogue! Love!

    • john8276 January 28, 2014 at 11:44 pm #

      The LOVELY Barbara K is in the house!! WHHOOOT!

  8. Sarah Marino January 29, 2014 at 4:26 am #

    Thanks for sharing Dan’s thoughts on this topic. I have always thought the idea of photographic celibacy as interesting one but know it could never work for me. I find inspiration for photography in all kinds of places and I could not eliminate all of those influences even if I tried. And, I really enjoy reading about other photographers and their experiences, not so I can copy their work but so I can understand what motivates other people and helps create an individual’s story. For most people, balance is probably the most realistic and practical as long as it is coupled with seeking out one’s own path.

    I can identify with the “it is just a reflection!” comment. Ron and I spend a lot of time on abstracts and intimate landscapes, often attracting that same kind of reaction (sometimes coupled with surprise that something that looks so plain to an onlooker can actually look pretty good on the LCD, just like Dan’s photo would have had he been using digital technology at the time).

    • john8276 January 29, 2014 at 11:57 am #

      Hello Sarah. Thanks for your thoughts. I love that feeling of showing a stranger what I’m doing in the viewfinder and they go, OH! 🙂

  9. Dennis January 29, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Hello John, You make fantastic images and support a stimulating blog. However, with all due respect to Dan and others, I find “Photo Celibacy” a kind of silly concept. We all create images framed by life experiences and visual stimulation along the way. From personal experience, early on I used to try to recreate an image, that I saw in publication, just for the learning process.
    The challenge is still to try to find that little gem of an image that excites and is a compilation of our experiences and personal preference. Seeing other people’s work and studying the images should not lead to any kind of “Celibacy.” We all follow our own path to creativity. Cheers.

    • john8276 January 29, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

      Appreciate your thoughts!

  10. Frank January 30, 2014 at 1:18 am #

    Thanks for posting Dan Sniffin’s article; I found it interesting. I don’t agree with the idea of photo celibacy, but I agree that at some point in the photographic journey one has to stop imitating as a way to learn, and start executing from within to be creative. Can one imagine that Steichen and Stieglitz didn’t look at each other’s photographs and learn from each other? Support each other? Authors read other writers’ books, song writers listen to music, photographers can better themselves by viewing the work of others. That said, one has to find one’s own artistic vision, to use a phrase. To be true to the art and craft of photography, we have to see with our own eyes, interpret and capture. The idea, to me, is to be inspired by, and to appreciate, the work of others, but not copy it. I think this can be done. One doesn’t have to live in a creative vacuum to be pull it off.

    • john8276 January 30, 2014 at 5:04 am #

      Thanks for your comments Frank. I think you, Dan and I pretty much agree!

  11. dick February 24, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    I would agree with Dan’s concept of Photo Celibacy. As a (much) younger man I often photographed with a group. One member of that group was a young woman to whom I was powerfully attracted. I always found my landscapes to be better on those days she missed. Huh? What? That isn’t what he…! Oh! “Never Mind!”

    R.I.P. Emily

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

      Oh Dick that was too funny!!!!

  12. Brenda Tharp March 9, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    Lovely post, Dan – thanks for having him on here, John! We don’t get to hear from Dan too much otherwise… 🙂

    Once, when Jed and I were teaching a workshop in Yellowstone, years ago, we were all standing in a burn zone photographing the long shadows and the contrast of the dark trees and fresh green grasses – and a truck screeched to a halt; the guy ran over quickly, and said “what is it? what do you see?” To that, Jed replied “oh, it’s the beautiful contrast of the trees and their shadows.” The guy looked at Jed as if he had lost his mind, and as he turned away, shaking his head, we could hear him say to his wife, “it’s just a bunch of dead trees, that’s all!”

    • john8276 March 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

      Exactly Brenda…. great story!

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