Inspiration is for Amateurs

This Chuck Close quote, “inspiration is for amateurs,” resurfaced recently. The full text isn’t long, but since you’re busy: Jump in, don’t wait for Muse, and trust in your process.

I’m of two minds about this:

  • If you bill by the hour, you have an ethical responsibility to work as fast as your process permits. You don’t have the luxury of waiting on inspiration.
  • I’ve made peace with my process. Like in any friendship, sometimes Muse and I need some silent time, some each-of-us time.

If you plan to work as an artist, you have to reconcile these ideas.

This July, I shot around my hometown, in Massachusetts.

I had three days to cover every nook I remembered from childhood, and frame them well. I used a 24mm lens, much wider than my usual 50mm. You wouldn’t think there’d be such a difference, but it’s staggering.

For me, that’s where inspiration lives: time constraints and an unfamiliar point of view. It’s the opposite of working typically.

It’s a funny paradox: when you walk into a new kind of situation, your unfamiliarity works against you as much as for you. The better you know your options, the further they can take you, and the easier it is to get stuck on their familiarity. But this is how we spend most of our lives. It’s the same way we work with friends, with lovers, with family.

Inspiration is for amateurs

I’ve been listening to Jeff Curto’s excellent History of Photography podcast. He points out early in the Spring 2014 semester that “amateur” actually means “lover.” In the 19th century, “amateur-grade” was top-shelf. We still call the most dynamic, over-the-top, burstingly-full art a “labor of love.”

Pay a reputable professional artist, at a minimum you’ll get something awesome. If they’re inspired, you might get something great. Professional artists must either have a special relationship with Muse, or compensate with raw chops.

Because some days the earth is just tilted wrong (or you are). As a(n amateur) poet, I know damn well those days are better spent eating ice cream and not thinking too hard. Those days, nothing stays where you put it, nothing coheres. Eventually, I learned to do as Tom Waits did. I let go.

Inspiration on demand

When I first encountered that sentiment, inspiration is for amateurs, I got locked up. How many gigs have I left feeling like lightning didn’t strike? Then I remembered I can count on one hand the jobs I couldn’t complete. Those I didn’t knock out of the park, sure, they bother me some. But there is a standard way to live with it: only the best lives on in my portfolio.

A common and effective way to manage inspiration is to buffer. You don’t promise a design, or a block of writing, or a pot, in the ideal time it takes to do it. Computers die, print shops have long queues, inspiration comes and goes.

But event or portrait photography, like performance, is another animal. Your time is limited, and you’re using your client’s time (or inspiration), too, so you shoot more than you think you need. You try new things—like telling your client you’re done early, then quietly keep shooting—to shake things up. You do whatever you can to make it work.

“Inspiration is for amateurs” is a provocative idea. Do you agree?

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The author

I bring 11 years as a professional writer and designer, as well as my feminism, ecological philosophies, and editorial aesthetic to photography. When no one's looking, I bring my sense of humor, too.

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