The romantic notion of inspiration striking like a bolt of lightning is just that—a romantic notion. From my experience and research, great work comes from a hearty work ethic. But if you’re passionate about photography you shoot because you want to and it rarely feels like work.
Fact is, when we look at some of the masters in the arts, often these are people who have the luxury of working and thinking about their craft 24/7. So when inspiration comes, it’s often the result of a percolation of sorts, triggered by whatever fires those particular neurons in the brain.
But if you have another job and can’t quite spend as much time as you’d like with your passion, just get to work when you can and good things will happen. Artist Chuck Close talks about the process.
“The advice I like to give to young artists, or really anybody, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens.”
—Chuck Close, from Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another by Andrew Zuckerman
One of my mentors, documentarian Eugene Richards, told me as a young photographer, “It takes ten years to become a good photographer”.
He was speaking about life experience and having something to say and express through your work. As a younger photographer you will practice and learn from your mistakes. But you also need to accumulate life experience, which can be incorporated into your vision, communicated through what you point your camera at, how you choose to capture it and what you want to communicate.
It takes practice and a volume of work to get to the other side of great photography. So what exactly is a volume of work and how do you define it? For a large-format photographer, the idea of volume is different from that of a professional sports shooter. What I’m talking about here is less about the number of frames and more about spending time in the field shooting.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers cites the 10,000 Hour Rule based on a study by Anders Ericsson, which basically says if you do anything for 10,000 hours you will become an expert at that thing. He gives examples of mastery that come with putting in the time, like The Beatles, who played live an estimated 1,200 times from 1960 to their arrival in New York in February 1964. They arrived as expert musicians/entertainers with well beyond 10,000 hours under their belt.
The best way to improve your work or get better at anything is to practice. In photography, the more you shoot, the better you get. Even if you didn’t try to improve, you will.
It makes sense that immersed in a photographic workshop you’re devoting the majority of your time in the pursuit of making images. The rest of the time, you’re talking about photography and thinking about it. This is why so often students come back with the best work of their lives.
Photographing in a extraordinary place, with the support of workshop leaders and fellow students in a supportive and exciting environment. But mostly you’re just out there shooting.
The more you shoot, the luckier you get. As Jimmy Dean said, “You gotta try your luck at least once a day, because you could be going around lucky all day and not even know it.”