More on Photo Celibacy


Recently I featured a terrific post written by my tour partner Dan Sniffin about his ideas with regard to photo celibacy which Cole Thompson tries to live by.  Dan’s article was written before we spent the week with Cole and the group.  The tour started with a wonderful lecture by Cole titled “Why B&W.”  In it he spoke not only about B&W but also more about his ideas on photo celibacy.  But what happened after the talk was quite powerful. I asked the group to respond to Cole’s ideas specifically about celibacy. What did they think? It was one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve been part of.  Some agreed, others challenged Cole with good honest questions. Some spoke about the need for a basic understanding of technique. We spoke about technique versus vision.  We spoke about the value of others opinions.  We spoke about rules and guidelines and much more. It was a stimulating hour of discussion!  I’m not sure we resolved anything but we carried the spirit of the discussion with us throughout the week. In fact, I am still pondering on the matter and would like to continue the discussion here.  

I am reading a book suggested by Chuck Kimmerle titled “Why People Photograph” by Robert Adams.  These quotes resonated in lieu of our discussion.

“I really didn’t have much to teach. I didn’t even believe in it. I felt so strongly that everybody had to find their own way. And nobody can teach you your own way…. in terms of art, the only real answer that I know of is to do it.  If you don’t’ do it you don’t know what might happen”  Harry Callahan,1991

“Can photography be taught?  If this mean the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can….. If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in Wililam Stafford’s phrase, “a wilderness with a map.”  We can give beginners directions about how to use a compass, we can tell them stories about our exploration of different but possibly analogous geographies, and we can bless them with our caring, but we cannot know the unknown and thus make sure a path to real discovery.” Robert Adams
“Even now I don’t like to discuss work that isn’t finished, because until it is revised over the span of a year or several years there are crucial parts that are present only in my minds eye, pieces intended but not yet realized……  “Art is made by the alone for the alone.”” Robert Adams with inserted quote by Luis Barragan.
“I knew I didn’t want to study at length contemporaries’ pictures, fearing that their work might come close to mine and blur my vision.”  Robert Adams
What do you think?  Are vision and technique connected?  Can you achieve your vision without some guidelines about good composition?  Can vision be taught?  Does looking at others work influence yours?  

With regard to the blog image from the Alabama Hills. Yes, the recent tour was focused on B&W and my folder of images is 99% B&W, however, that did not stop me from processing this one in color!  Why color versus B&W?  I wish I had a good answer, sometimes color just makes more sense and I run with my gut feeling.  In the dunes, I can’t imagine anything but B&W yet I’ve seen some wonderful images that are color.  So color or B&W becomes a creative choice, there is no right or wrong.  

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This entry was posted in Chuck Kimmerle, Cole Thompson, Color, Creative, Inspiration and tagged , , , , .


  1. Gary Faulkner February 24, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    I’ve learned all I can about the tools, creatively is a life long education!


    • JB February 24, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

      And in that lifetime will you look to others for inspiration or will you shelter yourself? Will you pursue your vision without influence? Or can you do that?

  2. Mark Stevens February 24, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    I love this debate. Rather than photography, I actually think its more about another “P” word, psychology.
    Are you, as an artist, comfortable enough with who you are to be satisfied with what you do ? Whether you are influenced by another artist or not, should not matter (IMHO). If it does, you should ask yourself why. If it’s so important to produce totally different work or work uninfluenced by others, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure.
    Personally, I love looking at others work. I feel as though I’m always learning. I’ll never subscribe to photographic celibacy.
    I just returned from a week in Death Valley myself. My images are mine. They are what I saw and what I felt. They may resemble John’s or Chuck’s or Dan’s, but I’m comfortable with whatever my vision is on any particular day.

    BTW John, your image would be just as stunning in B+W.

    • JB February 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

      An interesting point of view Mark. I too think we need to be okay with what wea are doing. Ultimately Cole is saying he does not care about what others think about his work. All that matters is, does he like it. I say it is human to want some level of approval for what we do.

      As for being influenced, I think it’s hard not to be. We received a bit more “truth” from Cole in his lecture. Looking at others work is oft times intimidates him. He is left feeling inadequate and wondering (especially if images are from a location he has photographed) why didn’t I see that? And this leads to self doubt. This is certainly a feeling I have had! But again your thoughts on psychology apply here. We need to get to a point where we are not adversely affected. Easier said than done

  3. Frank February 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    There’s a lot going on here and we could discuss forever. To share some thought on your specific questions: Are vision and technique connected? I would use the terms art and craft, but same thing. To me, without craft there is not art. One must know how to mix paint and work a brush in order to paint. One must know how to play an instrument before writing and playing a song. Same thing with photography. But, that also begs the follow up question of who is to judge whether someone accomplishes their vision? If a person satisfies herself, then that is one standard; if they are to be judged by a larger circle, then that is all together another thing. Regarding influence, I take the stand no man is an island. Is the Rolling Stone song Paint It Black less of an achievement because George Harrison used a sitar for Norwegian Wood first, and then taught Brian Jones to play the instrument? In the end, I think it comes down to what works for the individual. If Cole works better without seeing the work of others, then cool; if someone prefers seeing and appreciating the work of others, then that is great, too. You raised the question, can vision be taught? I think vision comes from within. But, to reach that point, one has to first study craft and the work of others. Then begins the journey of discovery.

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

      Solid points Frank. I give Cole BIG PROPS for his choice and I really do understand where he is coming from. And Cole is the first to admit that most disagree with him. That said, I can see more clearly now how his attempt to shield himself from others work would help him to find his voice easier. It works for him and again that is all that matters! His work is tremendous.

      • Frank February 24, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

        Hey John … In follow up, your above reply to Mark added some new information. I think that influence can come in two ways. One, in the broader sense as one studies the art and craft of photography, its rich and varied history, one falls under the influence of previous photographers who have excelled in the field. It is hard not to be influenced by them and it is a good influence. Then there is the more specific influence, like you mentioned. I can see not wanting to view images shot in a location you are about to visit. It can be detrimental to you seeing the location with your own eyes and seeking a fresh personal point of view. So, from that perspective I see what Cole is saying and it makes a lot of sense. I would not want to look at all of your lovely Cuba images before making a trip there. (smile)

        • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

          Thanks Frank, so does this mean we will see you in Cuba? 🙂

  4. robyn February 24, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    A thought stimulating post John, accompanied by a gorgeous image. I believe that technique and compositional rules can be taught, however, vision, I believe is innate. We can certainly inspire others and be inspired by others to stimulate our vision or to perhaps move us in one direction or another, but I believe true vision comes from the soul – the artist within. I recently read Cole’s blog posts on vision vs. technique and his rule of thirds. I think he nailed the idea of vision coming from within individuals and how even after being taught technique and compositional rules, our vision can take those two things far beyond what we can be taught about them. Really great always! Have a fabulous week!

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Amen Robyn. I too believe that the vision portion of our work come from the soul or within. And to this extent, I do agree with Cole. Getting feedback about our images from someone else is imposing THEIR vision on our work. And this can be detrimental or cause you to shift your direction etc…. So for me, we need some direction as begin our journey. But then at some point, we need to pursue OUR VISION and that might better be accomplished without feedback from others.

      • robyn February 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

        Very true John! Art is subjective and if we listen too closely to others we risk loosing our own vision and intention…maybe even ourselves. Enjoy the day! 😉

  5. Barbara K February 24, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    I see developing vision and creativity as pretty much the same. Creativity/vision births out of freedom. People don’t feel freedom because they’ve often not been given permission. I’m in a non-photographic, non-secular school right now and my freedom to be me comes from knowing who I am and being given full freedom to walk in that. I’ve gotten inspiration from others, but my own expression comes from my stepping out and not caring what any person thinks. It’s called RISK. However, I’m in an environment for that, so I am free to take risks to express myself. Most people are not in this type of environment if they work in a ‘left-brained’ world. People want formulas, guidelines, recipes, and even have to be told where to place their tripod, what lens to use and what software in which to process. That’s great initially, but there comes a point where this world will need what each of us has to bring to it.

    In this ‘creativity-stifled’ world, let’s take every opportunity to bless and encourage creativity in others- every time we see it. Let’s start telling each other: “You have permission!” Now go and get some inspiration from someone else; just ask yourself ‘Now what is it that made me drawn to this work in the first place?’ When we can identify that, perhaps we are letting our hearts lead, and not our brains.

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      Wow Barbara! Awesome comment. Can we get another AMEN!?!?! I am giving myself permission RIGHT NOW to be creative and do what ever I want without any concern for the viewers response! If I like it, its good enough. 🙂

  6. Stan Silverman February 24, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Here we go again 🙂 I was part of that lively discussion you referred to and have continued to have that discussion with others since then. For me personally, I feel I have learned greatly from observing other’s work. Maybe my work has some characteristics of work I admire but I think that’s true of more than just photography. We take the things we like from what we see in life and try to incorporate into who we are. I understand the feeling of inadequacy you can get when you look at someone else’s work – particularly when you were at the same place and didn’t see the same thing. I think I’m more at peace with that now than I was a few years ago. I guess that comes with more self confidence. So for me, I’ll keep looking at others work and try to learn from it but at the same time, keep looking for my inner vision. I don’t think the 2 approaches are mutually exclusive.

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

      Hey Stan. Thanks for keeping the discussion going. I think it is very healthy. And by the way, I’m tired of seeing my pictures on YOUR site! 🙂

  7. Daniel Ruf February 24, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    This discussion on influence, while valid discussion material, I believe is way over hyped by intellectuals. I’ve taken workshops given by Ansel Adams, Phillip Hyde, and more recently, Tony Sweet and will assume that a dab of each has found their way into my work. I do know that I’m not a master photographer like you or any of those mentioned, but I’m not sorry for their influence, either on my style or approach or choice of equipment. I’m a firm believer that my work is a reflection of my life experience…from farming to art student in college to living in a small community. These experiences and others, I think, will be the things that distinguish my work from others, including photographers, like you, that I admire. I don’t feel bad about looking at photography magazines, reading photography articles and attending workshops. In fact, one of the most marvelous things about learning in a group of workshop participants is to see what the results of multiple artistic visions of the same area. If anything, participating in these events teach us to work harder, look harder, and evaluate our results harder.

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      Dan, first thank you for your kind comments! In our discussion during the tour, that was my stance in the end. I too have benefited from my workshops taken with Nancy, Tony, Freeman, etc. And just NOW I feel I have been able to start looking for MY vision. So of course its going to be colored by those mentioned! Thanks as always for your insightful comments and loyalty to following my blog.

  8. Larry Richardson February 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    I agree that our expression comes from an innermost place — a deeper self that for many of us is not easily reachable. It’s a place that is at the core of our being — our life experiences, our emotional experiences, our memory feelings, our attributes, our spiritual nature and our unconscious behaviors. It is the place of our authenticity. It is our soul. It is this place that perceives, evaluates, filters, and transforms our vision into the image that we construct. It is this synergy of subject matter and the creative energies deep within ourselves that contributes to producing aesthetically uplifting images. Isn’t photography about self-definition?

  9. marty golin February 24, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

    Ya’ sure know how to stir things up…
    As in any expressive medium, if one has even the inclination to try to go down its path, one has already taken the first step, consciously or not. I believe that just having the inclination indicates the beginning of vision; it is completely unformed, but it exists.

    Short of being such a brilliant genius that no teaching is involved, everyone starts being taught somethings, somehow. It may be book(s), course(s), friend(s), but somehow information of “how to” is given. As the person begins to react/respond to what they’re learning, they become more focused on their interest (inclination/vision.)

    Whatever the several dozenish of known guidelines/concepts/conventional wisdoms/etc. (portraits focus on the eyes, landscapes have fore,middle,backgrounds, don’t clutter the edges, etc.) exist for photography, my analogy is that each one is a piece of clothing.

    If one is exposed to it, it hangs in our closet. Some clothes sit there & are never worn, some we pull out only occasionally, some require a bit of tailoring, & some are our threadbare favorites. Some are used so often, they are literally a second skin, a part of us. We don’t even think about them, we react/assess a scene/image instinctively, without conscious thought.

    Being exposed to photographic concepts is part of a learning process; part of being exposed to ANYTHING is to some degree to be influenced by it, even if one chooses to ignore it. However for an individual to figure out which ones reverberate, forming their vision, is a solitary process of discovery; if we are truthful to our feelings, very little will influence this.

    Of the quotes above, Harry Callahan’s (…”the only real answer…is to do it.”) is for me the most telling. No one but yourself can take “learning” & turn it into “vision.” I believe that even our own expectations of what we think our vision is are often wrong. One does not know what the road is until one gets there, step by step. To some degree, we discover who we are by actually “doing it.”

  10. John Heise February 24, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    John, I enjoy looking at others work, not to copy but it helps me visualize when I’m out shooting. When I am out shooting is when I’m happiest,I shoot all 10’s. Then I come home and see they are 5’s at best. I’m happy not getting to cerebral, so yes a big Amen. 🙂

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

      Hey John. This one is getting WAYYY toooo Cerebral! 🙂

  11. Larry Richardson February 24, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

    The manifestation of our photography begins the moment we create our first image with a camera. We are subjected to hundreds of thousands of visual stimuli that have been deposited in our memory bank since birth. The culture and society we grow up in dictates the kinds of visual information we perceive. We become predisposed to certain subjective preferences about photography. Freeman Patterson infers, “The images seen in the mind’s eye are based on pictures and patterns from previous experience….The more sensory experiences you have, the more material your imagination has to work with.” Our first image is the beginning of the expression of these impressions and influences we have accumulated up to that moment in time. These visual imprints buried in the mind emerge and motivate our seeing. Abandoning these preconceptions is necessary if we expect to experience any kind of freedom to explore creative photography. We need to break free of some of the constricted habits we have cultured and recognize new dimensions of photography. As we continue to pursue our investigation of the relationship between the camera, lens, light, subjects and ourselves, we begin to discover certain ways of seeing that resonate with us. These are not things that we have been taught about photography, but rather are ideas that we come to realize about our photography.

  12. Joan Herwig February 24, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    John, I think another dynamic that enters in during this time that we are living is that I just feel really overly saturated by excellent images everywhere! There was a period of time say 10 years or more ago that I would love to see & learn from the wonderful photographs of others. However, now I see so many truly amazing photos that I have become habituated to them so to speak and it takes an even more & more stunning photograph to get my attention and for me to really look at & see it! Do you know what I mean?

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

      I do know what you mean Joan. And this why Cole chooses not to look. It can be very intimidating and work against your creative side. I used to spend a fair amount of time on 500px… now not so much.

    • Chuck Kimmerle February 24, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

      I’m going to disagree here. The Internet is not full of amazing photos. There are a lot of pretty pictures, a lot of nice images, but very few which I would consider to be amazing. And to me, THAT is the real problem. We are inundated with mediocrity and with pretty, and have been indoctrinated into thinking that those standards are high enough. We no longer yearn to be inspired by the proven masters, but by those skilled in Internet marketing and self-promotion. We have become the proverbial (and literal) lemmings, and we are producing mediocrity at an alarming rate.

      And that is the danger with looking at photos in the Internet. Our standards get lowered, our perspectives are skewed, our creativity is hindered.

      • Joan Herwig February 24, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

        I do agree with the point you are bringing up. Yes, we have been flooded with “pretty” photos and the resulting mediocracy which does indeed lower our expectations. However, if you do know where to look there are some amazing images out there as well. It is just the overall over saturation that habituates me so that I am not really enjoying looking at photos like I used to. I agree with you that the real “innovative on the creative edge images” are rare and they are the only ones that grab my attention anymore. I am weary of the same old stuff and the same scenes and the same subject matter. I am desiring some fresh work that really grabs me!

  13. janice February 24, 2014 at 7:45 pm #

    I don’t think one can build a photographic house on sand. I see a house with four pilings: technique, motivation (or drive), inspiration (or heart), and vision (what Dan called originality). Each stands on its own, but all four are required for a photo that moves people. That photograph may move hundreds or move only its owner. But if it moves even one, it still has merit. Yes?
    And if a photographer studies the work of others…well, isn’t this how we learn? We copy, practice, copy, practice and then achieve our independence and move beyond what we copied. The process cycles each time we add to our skills or knowledge. I feel, at my level, I can learn a great deal from studying the works of others – even studying photographs from a particular site that I will soon photograph myself. That is a part of the inspiration. And I agree with Dan that those who practice photographic celibacy are those who have already studied the photos of other – perhaps for decades. They don’t need the “copy” component anymore. It’s all part of the process. You can’t teach experience.
    And if self-doubt creeps in…well, isn’t that exactly what we need to keep motivating us to succeed?

    • john8276 February 24, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

      Indeed it has merit in the simple fact that you the photographer felt moved to make the image! Hummm, self-doubt sometimes is the opposite, it can be a de-motivator… and this is where the psychology thing comes in. We need to be able push aside the self-doubt and believe in our ability to create.

      It does seem that copying has been the norm for years for may types of art. So yes.

  14. Linda Russo February 24, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Great image, JB. But I would like to see it in B&W.

  15. Steve L March 4, 2014 at 8:05 pm #

    Love these kinds of necessary discussions. We all need to at least think about these things…to reflect.

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