Cole Thompson: The Ultimate Photography Manifesto

Cole Thompson is an award-winning black and white photographer who has been creating some of the most amazing and brilliant BW images that I know over the years. His art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous leading publications and has received many international awards.

To learn more about his works, visit his Official Website and read his blog Black and White Photography. You can also purchase his Prints, Posters, Booklets and Folios (click to purchase).

The following is an interview with Cole Thompson where he shares the journey of a photographer who became an artist by gaining his own internal success, which inspires me most.

Niaz: Dear Cole, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you.

Cole: I am more thrilled than you Niaz, and honored that you would invite me!

Niaz: You are a “Fine Art: photographer. Year after year, you have been creating amazing art with the integration of photography, creativity, concept and authentic attitude. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about “Fine Art” photography?

Cole: Well this will be a funny and ironic discussion Niaz, because I really don’t really know what “fine art” photography means! And is there a difference between “art” and “fine art” photography?

Honestly, I only ask myself two questions:

  1. Do I like the image?
  2. Would I hang it in my home?

So why do I call myself a “fine art” photographer? Because people generally know what I’m talking about when I use that title and the term also tells people what type of photographer I am not:

  • I am not a documentary photographer
  • I am not a portrait photographer
  • I am not a wedding photographer

The term “fine art photographer” implies that I am creating something that I consider art and it’s something they may want to hang in their home.

What is fine art? Who cares!

Niaz: You’ve once stated that there’s a difference between a photographer and an artist and you strive to be an artist. I think you’re absolutely right but I would like to hear your explanation of that statement.

Cole: I do think there is a difference and it’s a huge one.

I think of a photographer as someone who documents or “takes pictures” and an artist is one who “creates images” according to their Vision.

For many years I thought of myself as a photographer and felt it was wrong to manipulate an image or to change it in any way.

I grew up believing that I lacked creative skills, and so as a photographer I tried to make up for that by excelling in my technical skills. It seems preposterous now to think that technical skills could compensate for creative skills, but that’s what I thought.

But as I matured with the help of an artist mentor, I started seeing images in my head and found myself wanting to manipulate my photographs to bring them into conformance with that Vision.

“The Angel Gabriel” is the first time that I purposefully “created an image.”

The Angel GabrielThe Angel Gabriel by Cole Thompson

I’d like to tell the story of this image, because I cannot separate the story from the Vision I had of it:

This is the Angel Gabriel. I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. 

He was homeless and hungry. I asked him if he would help me with a photograph, and in return I would buy him lunch.

The pier was very crowded and used a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. 

We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to hold his bible. The image worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those who lingered long enough for the camera to record their “ghosts.” 

Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions. When it came, he ate it with his hands.

I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania. He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with.

I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him. He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; for he had everything that he needed. 

Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.

“Creating” this image was a breakthrough for me and marked the beginning of my transition from photographer to artist. No longer would I document and record, but rather create.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be a photographer, but there were images in my head that wanted to get out!

Niaz: So how and when did you get started in photography? Did you go to school to study photography?

Cole: I discovered photography as a 14 year old boy living in Rochester, NY and I’ve never taken a photography class in my life.

I was out hiking one day when I stumbled upon the ruins of a home that was once owned by George Eastman. That piqued my interest and so I read the biography of George Eastman.

Before I had finished that book and before I had ever taken a picture or seen a print come up in the darkroom, I knew I was destined to be a photographer. I know how silly and pretentious that might sound, but that is how I felt then, and it’s how I still feel to this day.

I am self taught, from the age of 14 and until I was 20, I lived and breathed photography. Photography was my entire life and I spent every waking moment photographing, working in the darkroom, reading how-to books or studying the works of the great masters. Photography so dominated my life that I rarely attended classes and almost didn’t graduate High School.

Gull and MoonGull and Moon by Cole Thompson (created when he was 16 years old)

Learning on my own was good for me, it reinforced a life view that I could do anything I set my mind to and was willing to work hard for. I believe it also helped me avoid “group think” and thankfully I avoided learning the “rules of photography.”

At age 17 I briefly considered going to school for photography, it seemed the natural course for me, but then had this premonition that earning a living through photography would eventually dilute my passion for it.

Instead I earned a business degree and that’s how I’ve earned my living for all of these years. I’ve never regretted that decision, for I still love photography as much today as I did when I was 14 years old.

Niaz: As a photographer what is the most complicated issue you experienced & how have you overcome?

Cole: Overcoming the desire to please others and to receive external validation.

For most of my photographic career I created to please others, to earn accolades and to become famous. As I started achieving some success, I noticed that it felt great for 15 minutes, but the next day I was left feeling hollow and empty.

I realized that no matter the accolades, in the morning it was still just me, my work and what I thought of it. If I was not creating for myself and did not love my images, then no external praise could make me feel good about my work or myself.

And so I began to question my motives and asked myself some hard questions:

  • Why am I creating?
  • Who am I trying to please?
  • What do I want from my photography?
  • How do I define success?

I found it curious that it was very difficult to be completely honest with myself. But it was only by answering these questions with brutal honestly, that I was able to stop chasing transitory praise and focus on the things that would result in personal satisfaction.

From these answers I was able to define what success meant to me and that’s what I now pursue.

In the past I considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently. My success is no longer measured by what others think about my work, but rather by how I feel about it.

While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art…this is an extra benefit of creating but not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

Niaz: You’ve citedMy art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards. And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments.” Why? Can you expand on coming to these perspectives?

Cole: It all goes back to my motivations for creating. For too long I found myself working to create a long resume just to impress: look at all the wonderful places I have exhibited and the awards I’ve won! I must be a good photographer.

But when I found my Vision and defined success for myself, I saw how silly all of that was. My goal is not to impress others, but to please myself by creating images that I love and am proud of.

I’m also against judging a person’s art by their resume. I feel that my images are my resume and that’s all anyone needs to decide if they like my work or not. It should not matter where it has exhibited or what awards it has won.

All I want a viewer to ask themselves is: do I like it? The resume should be irrelevant.

I recently had an experience where a venue wanted to exhibit my work but first wanted to see my resume. I told them that I didn’t keep one and they made it clear that they needed the resume before they could make a final decision.

I think it’s sad that someone cannot judge art unless they know who else has exhibited it, what awards it has won or what critics think of it.

Niaz: What is “Photographic Celibacy”? How has it become your good practice?

Cole: Photographic Celibacy means that I do not look at or study other photographers work.

Why? Simply to keep my focus on my Vision and to not be tempted, either consciously or subconsciously, to copy others.

I’ve spent much of my life copying others; their look, their style and sometimes I’d even try to recreate a specific image by going to exactly where they created it! (Sorry Ansel)

Here’s the story on how I came to practice Photographic Celibacy: Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field.

Review-Santa-Fe

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like your trying to copy Ansel Adams.” I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better. What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

It was then that I committed to find my Vision and one of the first steps that I took, was to stop looking at other photographer’s work. I figured that if I immersed myself in the Vision of others, I was likely to copy their work, either consciously or subconsciously.

I’ve been practicing Photographic Celibacy for about 6 years now and I’m often asked how long I’ll continue it. The truth is, I still find the practice useful and needed.

Let me give an example of why I still practice it: I had an image published in the book “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr. The publisher sent me a copy and I eagerly flipped through the book looking for my image. Along the way, I saw an image by Brian Kosoff that I just fell in love with:

kosoffThreeCrossesThree Crosses by Brian Kosoff

I contacted Brian, purchased the print and would look at it enviously. And for the next several weeks I found myself driving around looking for telephone poles that I could arrange like Brian’s Three Crosses! I’d stop and chastise myself, but then later I’d find myself doing it again subconsciously.

I’m clearly still prone to be influenced by the Vision of others and so Photographic Celibacy is something I continue practice. Most people who read about it disagree with the practice and its usefulness and recently I had someone write to me to boast that they practiced Photographic Promiscuity!

Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not for everyone, or perhaps it’s a practice that should only be considered at a certain point in ones creative development. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it has helped me a great deal to both find and follow my Vision, and to feel good about the work that I create, knowing that it was created honestly and not copied.

Niaz: You’ve formulated your rule of thirds and I have to fully agree with you. Can you tell us more about your rule of thirds?

Cole: I am self taught and was fortunate to have never learned the “rules of photography.”

Just a few years ago someone came up to me during an exhibition and criticized one of my images for not following the rule of thirds. I was amazed that instead of seeing the beauty of the composition, she could see only rules.

If she would have said to me: I don’t think this composition works or I don’t like this image, I would have respected her opinion even if I disagreed with her. But when someone ignores the image and focuses on some imaginary rule, I have no respect for that opinion.

I think it is foolhardy to think that you can distill great composition down into to a few rules, that if followed, will create great images. It reminds me of the “Paint by Numbers” kits that I loved as a kid.

Paint by NumbersPaint by Numbers – Follow the rules and create a masterpiece!

We were promised that if we followed the rules, we would produce a masterpiece.

Mona-Lisa-Paint-by-Numbers-ComparisonCompetent…maybe…but no masterpiece!

Well, as children we were proud of what we created, but it was certainly no masterpiece!

I have no doubt that if you follow these supposed rules of photography, that you will create “competent” images. But they will be just like thousands of other competent images created by thousands of other photographers who are all following the same silly rules.

If you want to create great images, then forget the rules and create according to your Vision.

So in response to this experience, I created my own rule of thirds:

Cole’s Rule of Thirds

A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing

A great image begins and ends with your vision. Vision is a tough concept to describe, but I think each of us instinctively know how we want our image to look and our job as an artist is to bring that image into compliance with our Vision.

When we pursue an image with Vision, then equipment and process becomes the servant and the creative process the master. It’s only then that great images can occur.

Vision is everything.

Niaz: I think the shot – basically technical skills – can be taught and learned, the same applies to the editing. But what about vision? Can you learn vision? Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Cole: I don’t believe Vision is learned, but rather discovered.

I grew up in a modest home where there was no money for art, music or creative pursuits. Perhaps because of this, I grew up believing that I lacked creative abilities. I came to believe that you were either born with it or you were not…and I was not.

But several years ago I was challenged to find out if I had a Vision. Part of me was very afraid to go down this path: what would happen if I discovered that I didn’t have “it?” Perhaps I would be better off never knowing?

No, I had to let the genie out of the bottle, even thought I knew that I could never put him back in. I decided that I must know the truth and off I went. I was unable to find a “how to guide” on finding your Vision and so I just made things up as I went along, creating a 10 step plan that I followed. (You can read about it here: finding vision)

It took two years of hard work and honest soul searching, but I did find my Vision and learned a lot more in the process. Here is what I learned:

  1.  Vision is simply the sum total of our life experiences that make us see the world in our own unique way.
  2.  Everyone has a Vision.
  3.  Vision is not developed, but rather discovered.
  4.  Finding your Vision is hard, following your Vision is even be harder.
  5.  Vision is what makes great images, not equipment, techniques, styles or gimmicks.
  6.  Finding and following your Vision gives you and your work strength, confidence and independence.
  7.  Vision has less to do with photography or art and has more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent person.

Why do I say that Vision needs to be discovered or found? Because I believe we all have a Vision, but many like myself have buried it under so much “stuff” that we forget that we ever had one.

What is this “stuff” that we bury our Vision under? It’s things like caring what others think, fearing that our work will not be liked, wanting to fit in, trying to please, creating for attention, fearing failure and a whole host of other insecurities.

Once I started to address these issues, I was able to uncover my creativity and find my Vision.

The second part of your questions was: Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Yes, basically they are doomed. If a person relies on technical skills alone, then they are doomed to create technically perfect but soulless images, with the exception of the occasional accidental great image.

I really believe that Vision is everything!

Niaz: What kind of equipment (camera body, lens, filters, flash, and tripod, cleaning equipment other) do you use? Do you use any special equipment for long exposure?

Cole: For the past several years I have been on a mission to simplify everything that I do, which includes my equipment.

I have a very small and simple kit: my camera (Canon), three lenses that cover from 24 to 400, a tripod and an assortment of neutral density filters including my important tool, the Singh-Ray Vari ND filter.

I find that more equipment does not mean a better image, and in fact I could argue that it gets in the way more often than it helps. I say master the basics and only add equipment when there is a specific need to fulfill your Vision.

Keeping it simple also helps me stay focused on what’s really important: the image.

Niaz: What kind of hardware, software and tools do you use for post-processing, if any?

Cole: As with my camera equipment, I try to use the simplest equipment, processes and software that will get the job done. These things are merely tools and while I want the best tools for the job, I also want the simplest.

I use a PC, Photoshop, a pen and tablet and an Epson printer. That’s it.

I think it’s important to mention what I don’t use: I don’t use special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves, layers, RIPs, monitor calibrators, special paper profiles or inksets.

My workflow is so simple and unsophisticated, that for years I would not let anyone watch me work because I was afraid that they would lose all respect for me. Now I realize that it’s not about the equipment or process, but about the image. Nothing else matters.

I like to show people my before and after images and emphasize that I create them with only six tools in Photoshop. I like to expose the myth that great images require extensive and complex procedures or special plug-ins and programs.

Here is my image Iceland No. 4, before and after:

Before  After

I am not suggesting that others need to process their images using the six tools that I use. But I do want people to know that you can create great images using only simple equipment and processes.

Before AfterThis is “Skelton” and the image on the left is how my eyes saw the scene, and on the right how I envisioned it.

When I show people my before-and-after images, sometimes they come away with the impression that they must improve their Photoshop skills. Unfortunately that is the exact opposite message that I want to convey!

My Vision is what created this image. My equipment and technical skills are mere tools and I use the simplest tools that will get the job done.

There is a great little story told by Sam Haskins that illustrates the role of equipment in the creative process:

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’

Camera

He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:

“That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.”

StoveSam Haskins

Niaz: How do you educate yourself to take better photos? Can you please name some of your favorite online resources/websites for our readers?

Cole: I don’t read any photo magazines, subscribe to newsletters or visit photo websites.

I am self taught and I learn by trying things, experimenting, sometimes failing and many times succeeding.

Instead of mastering a wide range of technical skills that I might someday need, I have approached learning in the opposite way. First I gain a Vision of the image and then I learn the skills necessary to express that Vision.

For example, when I created the series “The Fountainhead” I first envisioned the images in my head, and then learned the skills and techniques to put that Vision on paper.

Cole Thompson 01 Cole Thompson 02 Cole Thompson 03 Cole Thompson 04
The Fountainhead Series by Cole Thompson

I knew that I wanted to portray skyscrapers in a distorted and futuristic way, but didn’t know how to do that. With time and determination, I finally came upon the idea of photographing the buildings reflection off of a bent ferrotype plate (think funhouse mirror).

Cole ThompsonCole photographing the reflection of skyscrapers from a bent ferrotype plate

I do believe that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When I have a need, I will find the technical solution.

Many believe the opposite, that you must have a myriad of skills before Vision can be expressed. I disagree and believe that this puts the emphasis on processes as being the key to the image.

Anyone can be a great technician but it’s hard to be creative.

Niaz: Do you have any photographers/ artists who inspire you consistently? Please share few of your favorite artist/photographer whose work could encourage for creating an art.

Cole: I do not follow any other photographers or artists.

Being celibate, I do not look at others work. The heroes I did follow (Adams, Weston, Caponigro, Cunningham, Strand, Bullock) are all gone now, but they are still influential on my work because those images are forever burned into my memory.

The photographer who has been most influential on my work is Edward Weston, I love his philosophies and the way he lived. In Ansel Adam’s biography he recounts the first time he met Weston and it illustrates one of the qualities I love about him:

“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered.

Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”

I love Weston’s images, but I love his attitudes even more; he created for himself and he did not care what others thought.

Another artist that has similarly influenced me is the author Ayn Rand. I first read her novel The Fountainhead at age 17 and like Weston, she taught creative independence. These ideas were mere seeds for much of my life, until several years ago when they germinated and have grown into my current philosophy.

Niaz: And five of your favorite photography books?

Cole: These are books from my past that I still treasure:

  •  Edward Weston’s Day Books
  • Ansel Adams’ Biography
  • The Family of Man

And while it is not a book, I am very inspired by the movie “Finding Vivian Maier.” Her work is amazing but even more inspiring to me is the mystery of why she never showed her work to others. I’d like to think it was because she created for herself and did not need external approval.

Niaz: What is your inspiration to do what you do? How do you stay focused and keep making impressive art?

Cole: I can’t explain why I’m compelled to create, I just am. It brings me pleasure and so I do it.

How to I inspire myself? Well, first of all, there are times I feel inspired and there are times I don’t! Those “down times” used to trouble me, but not anymore. I have come to appreciate the down times as much as my up times. Like a farmer who leaves a field fallow for a season to rejuvenate it, so those down times serve a purpose.

In the past I would fret over those dry periods and try to hasten them along, but now I just enjoy them knowing that a creative season will return as certainly as the winter gives way to the spring. And with each returning creative season, a renewed enthusiasm will result.

So, what do I do to find inspiration? First, I have to get away by myself and create alone. I cannot create with others around, even other photographers.

I’ll spend 2-3 days just looking until my eyes start to see, as I call it. I think it takes me a couple of days just to clear the mundane routines and worries of life out of my consciousness.

I’ll read the Weston’s Day Books and for whatever reason, those really make me want to get out and create.

I’ll listen to the Beatles. Why the Beatles? Because they remind me to keep growing and evolving, even at the risk of offending current fans or upsetting a winning formula.

Many people ask how I go about choosing the subject for a new portfolio. I tell them that whenever I get an idea I write it down, and right now that list is about 50 ideas long. Then I tell them that I’ve never yet used one of these ideas.

The truth is that every idea for one of my portfolios has come spontaneously, in a moment of inspiration. The best example is “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau” which was conceived and executed in under two hours. Here is the story behind the images:

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 14 - Final 2-1-2009 500The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

My wife and I were visiting my son who was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and while there we decided to visit Poland and took a train to Krakow. Upon arriving discussions began on what to see and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau was high on everyone’s list, but secretly I hoped we wouldn’t visit the camps because I did not want visit a place of such sadness.

However the family voted to go and so I agreed.

We took a bus tour that would spend about 1 hour at Auschwitz and 45 minutes at Birkenau. Even though I had my equipment with me, I had not planned on photographing the camps because it seemed that this might be disrespectful.

The tour began indoors and we saw the meticulous records the German’s kept of their victims and then the iconic piles of personal effects: glasses, shoes and hair.

This was just all too overwhelming and I felt like I was suffocating, so I signaled to my family that I was going outdoors. Breathing in the open air I began to feel a bit better and I began to slowly walk, looking down at my feet.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 1 - Final 2-1-2009 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Then I began to wonder: how many had walked in these exact footsteps and now were dead? How many had taken this same path and then had been murdered? And I began to wonder if the spirits of those who were murdered still lingered?

And then it suddenly struck me that I must photograph the spirits of those who had died here. I instinctively knew how I would do that, I would use long exposures of the other visitors at the camps, who would stand in proxy for the dead.

The enormity of this task hit me as I realized that the bus was leaving in 45 minutes and so I ran from location to location, working incredibly fast. Each location had its own challenges, I had to photograph people without their knowing it, because if they thought I was photographing they would politely move out of my way.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 3 - Final 8-11-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

I quickly developed a technique to fool people into thinking I was not photographing, I would set up my equipment and then talk on the phone or look in my camera bag, and then trigger the camera with a remote shutter release.

I do feel that I was inspired, both in concept and execution. As I looked at each scene I knew in my mind exactly how the finished image would look. However if you were to see the original shots and compare them to the final images, you would be surprised to see the extensive Photoshop work it took to bring the “shot” into compliance with my vision.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a depressing place, but I am glad that I went. I hope my images have portrayed the camps not just as a historical location, but as a place where real people lived and died.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 8 - Final 6-24-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Niaz: There are so many photographers working with long exposure photography techniques in black and white that sometimes it is hard to be original. Yet your work is very original. Can you give our readers any tips for finding an original approach to long exposure photography?

Cole: My suggestion will be predictable: find and follow your Vision.

Do not set out to pursue long exposures or any other style or technique, but rather set about to follow your Vision and go wherever that takes you. I honestly don’t know if my long exposure work is unique or not, I only know that it is original and honest for me.

Sometimes my Vision takes me somewhere that is not so original. For example I created a series called “Grain Silos” several years ago and submitted them to LensWork.

2007-5-25 Silos - Final 6-11-2007 750Grain Silos by Cole Thompson

The editor Brooks Jensen replied that he’d love to publish the work but that they were featuring almost identical images in the current issue by a photographer named Larry Blackwood.

Larry and I are friends and we created an almost identical series without each other knowing it! My point is that my work was unique to me, but not necessarily unique in the world of photography.

I’m okay with that as long as my work came about honestly.

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what would your words of wisdom be?

Cole: Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about being a fine art photographer:

Carefully decide if you want to try to earn your living from your art (please note the emphasis). Will you enjoy it if it is your job? From my experience, you will need to focus on what sells and what the market demands, not on what you truly love. Some people can live with that, and for others this takes the joy out of the work.

Early on you should define success for yourself and not just pursue the standard definition that society sells: limited editions and high prices, big name gallery representation, long resumes and book publishing. Perhaps you do want some of that, but be sure to examine that question carefully before you go down that path.

Focus more on finding and following your vision and less on technical skills.

Only create images that you love, not those images that bring praise or sales. You may think you’re winning in the short term, but that that type of success will sour with time.

Be a good person. Success in any field is affected by the kind of person you are. Be sincere, honest, helpful and just plain nice. Those qualities will help you no matter what you do in life.

Niaz: I can see from your portfolio that you are widely traveled, especially within the United States. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?

Cole: Travel is not as important as I thought it would be when I was starting off. I initially thought a great location would produce a great image. I have learned that it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

I have been to unique locations and have not created anything unique and I have been to mundane and pedestrian locations and have created something wonderful. Much more important than location is your ability to see and imagine.

I once wrote an article about this, how with the right eye your backyard is enough. I assembled all of the images I had created within a few miles of my home and to illustrate the point.

Best of Cole ThompsonCole Thompson Photography

But yes, I am well traveled. I’m fortunate that my full time job took me all over the US and my children have lived all over the world, so I’m often able to combine work and family with my photography.

Niaz: What defines a good photograph in your view and what prevails: aesthetics or mood/a deeper message? What will last longer or is the phrase ‘mood’ just overrated?

Cole: What defines a good photograph, in my opinion, is simply how I feel about it. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s as deep as my thinking goes.

I am terrible when it comes to using words to describe images and the feelings they evoke. I think that’s why I became a photographer, so I wouldn’t have to use words.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so I say let it speak for itself!

Everyone’s definition of “good” will be different and that’s why I don’t believe I can define a good or bad image, I can only say which ones I like and don’t like.

Niaz: And what defines a good photographer in your view? Does s/he have to be a celibate, just like you are or does s/he need to absorb all art, all influences and then try to pick out the best of all these influences and combine and integrate it into his then newly created art?

Cole: In my view, a good photographer is one that creates images true to their Vision and which they love. Achieving that does not guarantee commercial or critical success and it doesn’t mean that others will love your work as much as you do. But I do think that it guarantees personal satisfaction, which I think is worth more than money or fame.

As strongly as I feel about the principles and ideas that I espouse, I am not so naive to think that my way is the only or best way. People learn differently and have different experiences, so I have to believe there are many paths that work.

Niaz: With the arrival of digital tools, the Internet, sites like Flickr, apps like Instagram and other social media, photography has changed in many ways: not only in the way we shoot, the way we post-process them but also in the way we share them with the outside world. We’re flooded with photos on the Internet by people who are self proclaimed photographers and artists, and not only are we now confronted with a lot of bad work that I wouldn’t call art but at the same time I see so many artists who are just fantastic and who would never be discovered if they would’ve lived 30 years earlier. How do you look at this and how do you personally see the future of photography? Is this digital era a curse or a blessing for photographic art?

Cole: I think these new digital tools are wonderful for many reasons.

First, more great artists are being revealed. The technical threshold of digital is much lower so that more people can express themselves more easily. This is a good thing, even though at times it seems that there are so many new and great photographers in the digital world that there is no room left for me!

I also think that digital helps people stay more focused on the image and less on the technical process. In the film world, a photographer had to invest such an enormous amount of time, money and knowledge before they could produce a decent print. Back then photographers became such technicians that many neglected the creative element of photography.

And for me personally, digital allows me to do so much more with my images. My work has never looked so good since I switched to digital. It’s so much easier to manipulate my images to match my Vision. I have many, many fond memories of working in the darkroom, but I’d never want to go back!

And then there is the issue of exposure, in the old days my work would be seen by the few who entered the galleries who carried my work, or those who saw my work in a photography magazine. This meant a relative few people in the world ever would see my work.

Now, I have people contacting me from almost every country in the world. I am now more in control of my destiny, not having to rely on the gallery system. There are of course some downsides and challenges, but all in all, I love the opportunities made available in this new world.

Niaz: How can an artist remain fresh, unique, and on the cutting edge (whatever that actually even means)?

Cole: I never seek to be different, but to simply illustrate what I see through my mind’s eye. Sometimes that means my work will not be very different as in the case of my Grain Silo portfolio resembling my friends work. And sometimes it will be very different as in my Auschwitz images.

But I never worry about that, I simply follow my Vision and create for myself. That’s the best way to stay fresh, unique and most importantly: satisfied.

Niaz: How do you define the term success? What and who comes first when you hear the term success? And why?

Cole: One large mistake I made in my photographic career was to not stop and question what success meant to me. I wasted so much time chasing things that didn’t bring about personal satisfaction.

It was late in life that I defined success for myself, and it’s a very simple definition:

To do what I want.

To create what I love.

For me success has nothing to do with sales, resumes, exhibitions, how popular my images are or any other external measure.

Niaz: I believe you earn a living, or at least a part-time living, as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?

Cole: I do not earn my living from my art, but rather support myself through a full time job in business.

You cannot imagine the freedom that gives me, I am free to pursue any idea, any project and to take as long I need to produce my work. I do not depend on sales and so I don’t care if my work sells or not. I am completely free, aside from my vanities of course!

I am glad that I never chose to earn my living from my “fine art” photography and would advise your readers to seriously consider the impact of that decision on their freedom and independence as an artist. I personally think money and art do not mix well.

If you choose to earn your living by selling your work, then be prepared to create images that the market demands, which is rarely the type of work that you love. Selling to earn your living always means compromising and I have chosen not to make that tradeoff.

Now that doesn’t mean that you cannot do both, create one type of image to sell and then also create your personal work on the side. But I have to be honest, many people write me who have tried to do that and complain that they don’t have the time and energy to do both.

And in that situation, guess which one languishes? Maslow taught us that eating always comes before art.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Cole: Niaz, I consider myself to be the luckiest person in the world. I have a job that pays the bills and I create art that I love. How could life be any better?

I have my honest views based on my experiences, but I do not suggest that they are right for everyone. Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not the best for you, perhaps earning your living from photography is something you really want and your definition of success is different than mine!

But if any of my ideas resonate with you, then maybe there is something to consider. If anyone would like to ask me further questions, please feel free to contact me directly.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Cole: Thank you Niaz, I appreciated your questions, they cause me to think and to analyze my beliefs. Thank you for your website and this opportunity!

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

01. Debra Harder on The Art of Photography

02. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

09. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs