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Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Inspiration is for Amateurs"

Chuck Close is fairly widely quoted as saying this, the title of my current piece here. The full quote is, apparently,

I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. You sign onto a process and see where it takes you. You don't have to invent the wheel every day. Today you'll do what you did yesterday and tomorrow you'll do what you did today. Eventually you'll get somewhere. Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself. If you’re going to wait a around for the clouds to open up and lightning to strike you in the brain you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.

which, perhaps, makes it clear that he's not talking about quite the same thing I am about to. Still, I think inspiration is indeed for professionals.

What I mean by inspiration is really the wideest, most generous definition. What I mean is, perhaps, arriving at a solution which was not at all obvious beforehand, but which is obviously correct afterwards. Consider a very mundane professional chore. Perhaps you're shooting pictures of hand tools for a catalog. Perhaps next up is a #2 philips screwdriver. Now, you could just take a picture of a screwdriver. Bad news, bub, anyone can do that. You're out of a job.

Suppose instead that out of the 100 or 200 more or less reasonable possible pictures of a #2 philips that one could take, after talking to the client, looking at the tool, and thinking about it, it occurs to you that this particular picture, let's say number 79, is the right one for the catalog. Stylistically you can use the same sort of thing for all the tools, and it promotes the right sort of idea. The client, ideally, will begin with "look, just pictures of tools" but will then talk about the company values, the durability of the tools (or how inexpensive they are, or how well made, or, or, or). They'll look at your test shot of number 79 and will say "aha, yes. yes."

That's inspiration. Sure, you're not inventing a new lighting method, you're not inventing a new way to think about photography. But you are arriving at an answer, a way to approach this shoot, that is obviously the right answer.


  1. Maybe what you did was still "show up and got to work". I'm starting to warm up to the idea of "do the thing to feel the thing", versus endlessly waiting around, immobilized, waiting for inspiration to hit me; maybe that's what Chuck Close meant; the immobilization of the amateur, who hopes for inspiration from the outside

    1. Chuck Close is no fool, so if I were to follow my own rules (ha!) I ought to assume that he's saying something sensible, and then try to work out what that is.

      I think you're probably right. Close is railing against immobility, not against inspiration as such. If you work, the idea will come to you. Or at any rate is more likely to.

      Strictly speaking, a schedule of working, alternated with not working, is likely tour best bet.