Would you like some pepper with that?

March 20, 2021  •  8 Comments


Fencepost in IRFencepost in IRHollenbeck Canyon Wildlife Area, Jamul, California
Fencepost in IR
San Diego County, California

Tonight, the San Diego Photo Club was treated to an engaging presentation by Cole Thompson, a black and white photographer whose work I've enjoyed for a few years now. A while back Cole posted an essay about Photographic Celibacy.  If you're a photographer it's a worthwhile read, if not, well, thanks for being here and I'll try to keep it interesting. 
The key component of this approach is that Cole would no longer look at other peoples' photography. Thus, his vision would not be influenced by the work of others. This has proven controversial as you may imagine. Why wouldn't you look at the work of Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Weston, Atget, Cartier-Bresson? It's like saying I won't look at Rembrandt or Van Gogh for fear of being influenced. Cole has his reasons and for him they're valid and obviously worked as his imagery is remarkable. 
And yet...
Consider this, I make a pretty good Huevos Rancheros...damn good actually.  Yet, whenever we have breakfast at a Mexican or Southwest restaurant I'll order theirs just to see a) is mine better and b) if theirs is better can I improve mine by taking something they do and incorporate steal it. 
I do this to improve my own work, to find new ways to garner more flavor, more texture, perhaps better colors or presentation. Someone out there is making better Huevos Rancheros than me. Someone out there is at the top of their game and I want to see how they got there, wouldn't you?  Now, keep in mind I don't want to make THEIR Huevos Rancheros, I want to make mine better. 
From listening to Cole tonight I imagine that he'd respond that that's fine for you if you're not overly influenced by others' work. He feels he is and needs to protect his vision. Completely understandable. 
Yet, if I'm in a position to advance further along my path of Huevos Rancheros godhood I'll taste what others have to offer. Should I eventually reach that state I won't bother with what other chefs are doing.  But I'll still order their Huevos Rancheros, because I like Huevos Rancheros. 



I remember that essay...it was a familiar problem from art school days. Personally I would hate not seeing other people's work, especially at the level of important museum shows and collections, but also at the level of what people more like myself are doing currently. But I know when I need to take a break. It's much like what Todd said about times when one is involved in a project and needs to focus down, so you turn off the input for a while. It's great that you promote these discussions on your blog. The photo appeals to me, too - I like that dramatic use of light and of course, the diagonals are great.
T.M. Schultze(non-registered)
So you're saying that once you're fully vaccinated you're making Alex and I huevos rancheros.......

I'm not a photographer or any type of creative artist, but I enjoy reading your blog and looking at the photos. I just read Cole Thompson's essay with interest. I wondered what would happen in other artistic fields, if an artist decided to "quarantine" himself from exposure to other styles.

What if Beethoven had never listened to Bach or Mozart? What if the Beatles had never heard Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash? What if Al Pacino had never seen a film by Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or if John Steinbeck had never read a book written by Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald?

Some artist borrow from those who came earlier and attempt to blend several influences together to create a new sub-genre. Others ignore certain predecessors entirely. But very few work in a self imposed vacuum. I suspect all approaches are valid,

I do wonder how would art be accepted if there was an isolated "lost tribe" discovered somewhere in South America and the tribe happened on to a box containing a couple of cameras, several musical instruments, some movie equipment and some writing equipment. What sort of photography, music, film and literature would result? Would the rest of us accept it as something "new and refreshing" ? or would we reject it entirely as it had no roots or basis in our traditions and established cultural norms?

Like the Huevos Rancheros , it's food for thought.....
Tom Dills(non-registered)
I've saved the article to read later but understand the concept. I agree with your Huevos Rancheros concept, and we do something similar when we eat out. I like to use restaurant meals as inspiration for things to do at home. Not to try and duplicate them - I'm not a chef and don't like to work that hard at cooking - but I appreciate the artistry and creativity that goes into a dish. My experience with others' photographic work is similar. I don't wish to copy anyone's work, but if I find inspiration in Monte's shadows or Earl's processing techniques, I can adjust my own "seasoning" and add that to my repertoire.

I frankly think it might be a little pretentious to feel like our own work is so special that we don't want to "corrupt" it by looking at others' work, but that's just me. Everyone needs to do their thing their way.

Lovely photo, I may need to copy it! ;)
Todd Henson(non-registered)
Interesting thoughts. I've not yet read Cole's essay but will. I can see both sides, and I suspect I adopt both sides at different times. I agree with Earl that it seems more about the process than the results. And I agree with Alex that it likely has a lot to do with each of our personalities and knowing ourselves. I think this can be seen in so many different realms, too. In stock market trading some people are very influenced by others and by their own emotions as prices moves up and down, and this can result in them making moves that hurt them. So it's good for them to learn this about themselves. Then they can create a system that caters to their strengths and weaknesses, perhaps adding automation so their emotions can't harm their process, perhaps not reading the market news anymore.

Back to photography, I personally am at the stage where I'm still learning (and likely always will be) so I view a lot of other photographers work. Like you, I know I may end up incorporating some of what I learn into my own photography, after all, we're the sum result of everything we've ever seen or done. And that's part of why I view them, to learn what others have done and maybe discover something that resonates with me. But if I were working on a project, especially if it were a more artistic project, I might take a break from viewing others work, or at least of viewing others work that might in any way be similar to what I'm working on, so I won't be overly influenced by them for this project.

I've read about many writers who have similar issues and systems for dealing with them. Being writers they also love reading, however when working on a book of their own they can't read anything else by other authors in the same or similar genre because they find themselves incorporating the other authors story elements instead of coming up with their own. Other authors might be able to read others work and not be overly influenced. I’d imagine music is the same way. If you’re reaching deep into your soul trying to get just the right arrangement of notes out you might not want to listen to others music for fear you’d end up writing their music into your own, perhaps without even realizing it right away. And I've heard some mention they avoid consuming others content to mitigate any legal issues if they one day end up creating something similar. It all comes back to knowing your own personality and creating systems that are best suited to you.

Sorry, I got a little long-winded there. :-)
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