About a year or two into taking up landscape photography as a hobby, I went with a few friends to hear Cole Thompson, a Colorado-based black and white photographer, speak about his photographs, methods and finding his personal vision. At the time, I found his talk to be interesting and thought-provoking but not terribly relevant to my own photographic path. I was busy pursuing iconic landscapes and chasing dramatic weather so his messages about personal expression didn’t resonate much at the time.
Years later, now with different goals for my photography, I see significantly more relevance in many of the points from his talk, with his views on what he calls “photographic celibacy” constantly coming to mind. While Cole describes this practice and his reasons in more detail on his website, these few sentences from him sum it up well:
In hearing Cole talk about this practice years ago, I understood his reasons and the benefits of this practice but didn’t see the applicability to my own work. As a beginning photographer, I spent a lot of time looking at other people’s photographs, learning from and being inspired by them. Over time, however, I have come to see that what I was characterizing as inspiration in viewing other people’s photographs actually manifested in significant influence over the photos I was crafting in the field and in my processing decisions once I returned home. While I was not setting out to replicate the choice of subject matter, compositions, or processing style of other photographers, that is what I was doing in practice.
I know some photographers who extensively research existing photos of locations in advance of their own visit to help them actively seek out new or more unique views of a place. By studying common views, the photographer is able to avoid making copies of existing photographs and seek out something of their own, or so the argument goes. I, on the other hand, can do exactly the same thing with the same intentions but then have my mind clouded by all those photographs when it comes time to create my own. While I might not be deliberately seeking out replicas of someone else’s photograph, the influence of viewing the results of how other photographers have approached a subject makes it almost impossible for me to pursue my own interpretations.
We recently spent a week exploring Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, an expansive wonderland of colorful and varied sandstone. Since we had already visited and photographed some of the park’s iconic photo locations on previous trips and our photographic interests have changed since then, we instead planned to spend our time wandering out onto the sandstone, exploring over the next hill, and seeing what we might find without any particular destination in mind. Valley of Fire is a place that rewards this kind of exploration and we each individually found quite a few interesting, new-to-us views of both expansive landscapes and smaller scenes. The photography felt fulfilling, as I was seeking out the things that interested me most without having a bunch of other people’s photos floating through my mind. At least for my own field practices, I would consider this the time when I am at my best as a photographer.
On a few occasions, we consulted the detailed and helpful photography location guide, A Closer Look at Valley of Fire, to find a few of the park’s more interesting arches. One in particular, Thunderstorm Arch, caught my eye in the ebook and I – against my better judgement – did an image search to see more views of the arch. The next day, we hiked out to the arch and with interesting late afternoon storm clouds forming, decided to spend some time photographing it. The images I had studied the day before filled my mind and even though I didn’t set out to copy anyone’s photo, I did exactly that. By seeing how others had approached the subject, I couldn’t think objectively about how I might approach the arch had it been entirely new to me. Aside from doing things like letting a lens roll down a hill into a river, I would consider this the time when I am at my worst as a photographer.
As my interests in photography turned away from creating a portfolio of iconic locations and more towards developing a body of personally expressive work, the idea of photographic celibacy started to make more sense because of experiences just like this. While I am gaining confidence in my portfolio of work and how I approach landscape and nature photography, I am still refining my approach and interests along the way. And, I am still prone to allowing myself to be influenced by photographs from others and it negatively affects my ability to create photographs that are more of a reflection of me.
In recognizing this pattern, I started practicing a modified form of Cole’s photographic celibacy and think it has paid off (although, as noted above, I do have moments of Google-related weakness). While I still find energy and inspiration in viewing photographs from others, I try to be diligent about not researching a place I am going to visit or am already photographing. By avoiding researching how others have photographed a place, I am able to approach it with awe, wonder, and curiosity rather than spending mental energy trying to keep outside influences at bay. And, after I have taken and processed my own photos, I also try to stay away from looking at photos from the same place so that I am able to maintain confidence and appreciation for my own approach.
In sharing these reflections, I am not endorsing the idea of photographic celibacy, offering this as advice that others should follow, or judging the practices of others. Instead, I am offering appreciation for Cole’s encouragement in this direction. I do miss the kind of extensive research I used to do before visiting a place. But, for me, avoiding the work of others under certain circumstances has been an important element in developing a more personal body of work and gaining confidence in my photographic results.
If you have any thoughts on the idea of photographic celibacy or its applicability to your own practices, please share them below. We always enjoy the opportunity to learn from our readers.