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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