Inspiration Interpretation · DEDPXL

This week on DEDPXL we’re going to dive into the topic of inspiration. Everyone who contributes to this blog will be speaking about it from their own perspective. We cannot start this series without the famous quote from Chuck Close:

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

That quote is thrown around a lot in posts like this but the full quote is more impactful I think.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

That. So much that. All of that. That leads me to another great quote about inspiration from Picasso:

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

I’ve been asked so many times where I find inspiration to do my work. I never have a good answer for that. Truth be told I often feel most of my work is uninspired. I just show up to work and do what I know how to do. It’s in that work that something is pulled from some corner of my brain that is plugged into the shoot that is happening right then and there.

To say we work without inspiration, though, is wrong. It’s like saying we live without breathing. Something inside of us inspires us to make work, change our lighting, try a different lens, try a different angle. Sometimes our failures inspire us. Sometimes other photographers or artists inspire us.

“I love how Dan Winters lit his latest portrait. I’m going to try something like that.”

“I love how Paolo Roversi uses motion blur. I’m going to try that.”

“I love how Gregory Crewdson puts so much meticulous thought into his work. I’m going to slow down and really think my next shoot through to the smallest detail.”

“I love that post production thing Aaron Nace just posted about on Phlearn. I’m going to see how that goes on a few photos.”


The thing about this kind of inspiration is you must put it into practice. You have to stop reading. Stop watching. Stop thinking about making stuff and you need to go get shit done. Try it. Fail at it. Try it again. Fail some more. Be okay with the failure. It’s okay to completely foul something up. You’re learning. You are at work and that is where inspiration will find you. I’ve been inspired by trying one lighting technique and then a light stopped working and something else happened that I found more interesting than the thing I was trying to do.

Being inspired by others in your craft is a good thing. It’s how we learn how to do the thing we are trying to do, but we must move from duplication to interpretation. How do you interpret that Dan Winter’s light? How do you interpret the feel of a street photo into a portrait? How do you take one thing and make it another? That, to me, is what inspiration is there for. You are doing one thing and you are inspired to make an interpretation of something else through whatever means and measures you have.

Let’s take see what interpretation looks like.

Let’s start with Dolly Parton and her 1973 hit Jolene. Even if you are familiar with this song please stop and listen all the way through. If you hate country music then quit your bitching and stop and listen. If you love this song then stop and listen. Stop. Listen.


So — the song in and of itself isn’t what inspires me per se. It’s the interpretations of this song that inspires me. The first interpretation is when someone played Dolly’s version on a 45 single at a slower speed on a record player and instead of sounding like Dolly walking through mud it actually sounds like someone recorded the song that way and it’s beautiful.



We have the original and a simple interpretation of the original. Now enter Jack White to take the same song, same lyrics, and interpret it in a way that only Jack White can do it.



OMG. OMG. OMG. If I could trade my twenty years of photography in for one year of being able to make music like Jack White I would do it in a heartbeat. I’ve told this story before and I’ll tell it again. The first time I saw the White Stripes perform was from the photo pit. I could shoot the first three songs and then I’d be escorted out. I shot for the first two songs and just stood there, jaw on the floor, and thought, “I want that for my photography.” What is that? The rawness? The passion? The talent? The roughness? It was as if Jack was filled with demons and the only way to fight them off was to play music.

His interpretation of Jolene inspires the shit out of me. I will be on a shoot and think to myself, “I’m currently playing my safe and perfectly fine and normal version of Jolene. How can I Jack White this shoot? How can I interpret this differently right now? This photo is boring and the demons are coming. How do I fight them off?  What Jack White does inspires my photography in ways I can’t always point to. I think about his music a lot. I think about the documentary It Might Get Loud and the opening scene where Jack builds a guitar out of nothing.

Who says you need to buy a guitar?


A lot of photographers inspire me. No one inspires me like Jack White, though.

“How can I Jack White this photo shoot right now?”

That, for me, is inspiration.

I want you to do a little homework right now. Head over to YouTube and type in “Dolly Parton Jolene Cover“. I’d like you to listen through about five or six pages of that search result. You are going to hate this song when you are that far through. Pin the original. Pin the slow version. Pin the White Stripes version. Pin those in your mind. Now how many countless covers are there of that song? How many actually get close to something unique and original?

There are so many people who do a fine “cover” of that song. They can play the notes and sing the notes and it all sounds fine and pretty and blah blah blah blah. How many interpretations are unique. Interesting. Note worthy?

How many covers of that song stop you and make you think? What are you doing in your craft that is a nice “cover” but lacks personality and unique interpretation?



P.S. Be sure and check out Meg’s latest TSoGS post from yesterday if you haven’t already.

Zack Arias

A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.

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  1. jason flynn

    I’m shooting Jack White tomorrow … well, a Jack White. Not THE Jack White.

  2. ashlee pinegar

    Watching him build a guitar out of nothing really shows that he knows his stuff, but also that he knows the why and the how. Meaning how many other musicians went out and copied what he was doing, but not knowing why he put the piece of wood where it needed to be or the coke bottle being where it had to be. He’s not just showing up at the studio and saying, “Ok, auto tune me”. So many times (me included) photogs get inspired and copy other photographers not asking the why and the how. Why did they picked that location to go with that emotion. Or why did they put the light at that angle to create that mood and it’s not just when you’re looking at other people’s work, but with your own. UGH, I want to delete all my work and start over.

  3. Mal

    Great post Zach, again 🙂

    Jack White used to take pride in using the cheapest gear, and recording in the shortest possible time, mistakes and all. It was\is all about the feeling, the moment, and creating something raw with impact.

    I think that there are plenty of parallels there with photography, and what really makes something worth creating. Something we could all aspire to!

  4. Dave C

    Probably the best article on inspiration I’ve ever read, brings it home in a way that I can really relate to.

  5. Andrew Spiers

    Well I am a fan of Rick Wakeman. So all I need is a lot of cameras and a massive talent !!! I think that is what you were saying Zack 😉

  6. russellswann

    Jack White ! inspirational ?! he hasn`t even seen the Blackpool lights !!
    only joking !
    I`m more of a Black Crowes fan but love that 33anda1/3 Jolene

  7. Styron Pennywell

    I love “It Might Get Loud”, the whole documentary is worth watching. I’m definitely more drawn to Jack White’s (w/ the White Stripes) know your history, work your ass off and do more with less approach. But some people may relate more to The Edge’s relentless tweaking and experimentation of new technology and maybe a few are virtuosic geniuses like Jimmy Page.

    • Matthew Black

      I appreciate The Edge, but his stuff doesn’t move me the way Jack and Jimmy’s does. I can’t remember who I heard say, “If you need effects pedals to make your song a song, it’s not much of a song.” (I think it might’ve been Jeff Tweedy.) That’s how I feel about photography, too.

      • Styron Pennywell

        I agree, but The Edge does have one of my favorite quotes from the film:

        “Clarity…clarity of vision…what you’ve been looking at from the wrong angle and not seeing at all. You labor, you sweat to see what you couldn’t see from the other perspective.”

        As photographers, as musicians, as whatever…we must labor to find a different perspective, to find clarity.

  8. Sara Lando

    sometimes I really do think we are the same person in two different bodies 😀

  9. Richard Wintle

    Saw an episode of Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways” recently, featuring interviews with a number of notable Nashville songwriters. Dolly Parton tells the story of pitching a song to Elvis, who apparently wanted to cover it. When Colonel Tom Parker told her that they always took over the publishing of songs Elvis performed, she walked away. She said it killed her to do it, but she needed to hold on to her own art.

    The song was I believe a hit for her, but years later it became huge: “I Will Always Love You”, by Whitney Houston.

    Sidebar lesson from Dolly: stick to your principles, no matter how great the temptation to do otherwise.

    • Josh

      Great episode. Also, how great is that series?

  10. Dallas

    Finding inspiration is like hacking through CSS code. You have to learn the code first, see how others have applied it, then you have to flavour it yourself based on your own tastes. So yes, in photographic terms, find out how a shot is made, then make it work your way by changing things slightly.

    • Jason

      As an Ex-Software developer that was mainly self taught that is exactly how I learned how to code and do the same when it comes to some of my photography.

  11. Dave R


    Thank you.

    That is all.

    I can’t tell you how much I needed this.

    • Richard Wintle

      Came across this one and was very impressed… but – it’s very like the original isn’t it? I think Zack’s trying to get us to find versions that are quite different.

  12. Ryan Stinn

    Jolene by Jack White is by far one of, if not the best covers of all time. It has such raw emotion, every time I listen to it i get goosebumps repeatedly. The way you’ve taken that feeling, that emotion and tried to put it to your craft is something I’ve never thought of, thank you.

  13. Andrew

    I remember seeing him and his wife on the original Conan O’brien show and stopped in my tracks. Never heard or seen anything quite like that. Then I learned they were from Detroit. I was from Detroit. Conan was in Detroit and discovered them at the Magic Stick on the small upstairs stage where I had meandered aplenty. I too have always been inspired by Jack in a way. To be completely honest, I’ve heard you rave many many times that your biggest wish is to be able to photograph Jack. Many less talented Photographers have photographed him. It still boggles my mind why this hasn’t happened for you. Your clean simple style and approach inspired me long ago. Anyway, thanks for putting the post together and sharing what inspires you.

    P.S. – I’m hoping you make good on the Fuji field guide you’ve been teasing forever. You still never made a final post covering why one would consider a move from FF DSLR to the X system.

  14. Matthew Black

    Ugh. A few of my friends saw the Jack White show in Fargo a couple days ago. Somebody posted leaked footage on YouTube, but I can’t bring myself to watch it because:
    A) The guy who uploaded it is sort of a dick
    B) I’ll just get sadder that I wasn’t there
    C) I’m saving up my time-wasted-in-front-of-a-screen allotment for the self portrait critique
    D) I could just put Lazaretto on the turntable instead

    None of that was relevant information, but anyway, thanks for the inspirational inspiration post.

  15. F

    Zack, you are a LOT more talented in photography than Jack White is in music. Seriously.

  16. Patrick Farrington

    I love It Might Get Loud. I’m not a musician, I joke that I play a mean CD, but I loved seeing the creative process of these three greats. My favorite part of the film was watching Jake White and The Edge while they watched Jimmy Page play Whole Lotta Love.

  17. John Healey

    Hi Zack,

    So, how would you shoot Jack White given the chance?
    Would you start out with what you know and when that was in the can would you then go for the untried or untested? What would that look like?
    I’m just curious to your thought process.

    Thanks for the Picasso quote.

  18. Susie

    Damn this post is great…dare I say inspirational…jk. Seriously though everything so true…I heard yesterday comparing your self to others is death… So true that is… To reach deep inside yourself and find that creativity to get outside of your own little box is scary. Like you said though mistakes that we may fear is how we learn. I’m just reiterating here but letting it all sink in. Thanks Zack

  19. Vic Román

    Thanks for verbally kicking my in the balls bro. When I get up, I will stop whining about the loss of my studio and stop shooting mediocre work. The crap that life sometimes throws at you has had me uninspired for a very long time.

    I will get up and I will Jack White. Thanks bro.

  20. Josh

    For crying out loud, Zack, stop posting this stuff exactly when I need to read it. Or, don’t stop.

  21. simon

    I’d add the most suprising of Jolene covers, Miss Cyrus herself :

    Now. NOT the best cover or interpretation. But it’s so far out of what Miley does right now that I think it speaks volume on how to do things differently!

  22. Patrick

    Hi Zack,
    You are spot on with this post (as often).
    It’s truly amazing to hear that the Dolly Parton song actually sounds good when played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm 😉
    And thank you for making me discover Jack White’s version of the song. I don’t know if he is possessed, but I think he is 100% connected with the moment and with what he is doing. And that’s what true photographers need to do as well. Never be in auto-pilot mode, always give everything you’ve got!

    Thanks for sharing,

  23. John Allen

    I loved that essay, for me I’m always looking at other artists and artisans and thinking ‘what is the smell of that song’ or ‘the sound of that painting’, ‘how do I take this 2 hour play and reduce it to a dozen two dimensional images and how did that playwright do what he just did with nothing but the letters of the alphabet????’. Poetry is my real goal, one picture that does with light what Seamus Heaney did with words. So tomorrow I’ll be in an anonymous hotel room with 6 men in suits who don’t want to be there or be photographed and will want to walk away after the first click, I’ll be thinking of your words Zack, the struggle continues.

  24. Vanu

    Hi, Zack,

    not in any relation with the article but will there be new critiques and assignments? Thanks in advance.

  25. Graham P

    Interesting post, never though of looking at an image musically so to speak.

    For Jolene covers, you want to have a gander/listen at/to the Queen Adreena version.


  26. Daf

    When talking about covers – the phrase I like is “Make it your own”

    I have a spotify playlist of covers where the cover is more well known than the original
    Hendrix – All along the watch tower.
    Bob Dylan has actually said he prefers the Hendrix version – and will now play closer to that.

    Also just struck me – I realise where you’re coming from (and I possibly do the same) but there’s a bit of irony in in the statement:
    “How can I Jack White this photo shoot right now?”

    Shouldn’t it be
    “How can I Zack Arias this photo shoot right now?”


  27. adam bucci

    inspiration sneaks up on you. one moment theres nothing, and the next its suddenly there, be it in the form of a song, a picture in a magazine, or even by a flock of birds. inspiration is everywhere and at the same time it can be nowhere. going out and working/trying to find inspiration is more often than not a lost cause.

    inspiration is an accident waiting to happen. its not going to happen because you want it to. for example: i opened this web page and the photo of the business cards has inspired me to make new business cards for myself, or more correctly, reminded me i need to make more as i’m out of them. though seconds after seeing the cards, i was inspired by the use of type, the distressed appearance and the colour – i applaud zack for being inspired by something as common as a poster pasted to a wall. i’m pretty sure he didn’t set out that day seeking inspiration for his business card, i’d say he stumbled upon it and ran with it to great effect.

    • Ellen

      Zack, what a thought provoking topic! The rabbit hole opened and my mind got sucked right in. (The “rabbit hole” is a term I use to describe those instances when an idea sparks a fractal response in my brain and the ideas go ricocheting around like a bullet in a cave.)

      Inspiration – it’s not a formula and I can’t force it, but I know it when I see it or feel it. Sometimes it just happens when I least expect it; sometimes I have a small glimmer and I have to coax it and work it, but I’m always on the look out.

      I have self imposed roadblocks to inspiration and they reside in my mind in the form of a tiny voice that taunts me and says that one’s creativity goes downhill after age 30 and you can never get it back. Fear that I’ll never be as good as Dorothea Lange or Lee Miller or Cindy Sherman. Fear of not doing it the “right” way, or of being criticized by the opinions of others. I’ve learned to observe these thoughts and just let them float by. But they never quite leave and sometimes they sneak up and stomp and wave their arms just outside my peripheral vision.

      Inspiration is a lot of work. I find it everywhere and nowhere. I have notebooks filled with ideas, sometimes I can get them to work, many still sit on paper screaming for attention. I write free flow poetry, but most of it just appears and I dump, then I revise and revise until it feels right. Zack is spot on about working an idea, then massaging it more; making mistakes until you finally say “bazinga” and you know it’s your own unique interpretation; you own it. Sometimes my vision/concept doesn’t always happen, but it always makes me feel good just to know that I tried. I never throw it away, I simply turn the page and wait for another day.

      I’ve learned not to worry about losing it or having dry spells. I finally realized inspiration comes when IT wants to, when you give it space, then listen for its voice. It comes in the quiet morning hours with a cup of coffee and a good book to keep me company.

      I’m always on the hunt for inspiration and I find it everywhere (Scandal, does anyone else love the videography, the close personal shots that look like they’re taken behind beveled glass, the sound as the shutters click when the story transitions between scenes?) I write, I read, I explore, I research – magazines, movies, TV shows, Google, Pinterest, advertisements, billboards, graffiti, etc.

      I know inspiration is knocking on my thick head when I experience a tinge of fear as I think of doing something different – something out of my comfort zone and beyond my abilities. I get inspired by thinking of the unknown and what’s around the corner if only I dare look. I’m inspired by pulling apart an idea to see what’s inside; I can get lost in the process. I’m inspired by the realities of life, by people and their stories. The fertile ground of inspiration exists in moments both mundane and sublime, as well as those that are messy and filled with drama. So, I keep looking.

      “I challenged myself I would go down there, just to see if I could grab a hunk of lightning.” Dorothea Lang

  28. Jim Shaw

    Inspiration Interpretation !!! Zack …. Zack… Over here its me in the back row, The old guy with the tears running down his face. Wondering how I passed this by so many times , Didn’t take the time to read or listen, Well I have read and I have listened, Now I’m going to post the pictures I thought were too raw , The ones I thought were too basic , The ones I took while I listened to Jack White. Thanks to you My day was changed …. All for the better.I have been moved. Thanks J.

  29. Andrew Molitor

    An interesting thing, to me, is that inspiration (that is, how to find it, how to “get inspired”) is something that you can just learn, or teach.

    And you’re right, work is a big part of it.

    1. Read/look/study, build up your library of ideas.
    2. Then go work, struggle, test one idea out, then another.
    3. Rest, space out, take a walk, leave it alone for an hour or a week.
    4. Return to step 1 or step 2, your choice. Step 2 more often, though.

    There’s some pretty deep neuroscience on this, but so what? It just works.

  30. Luke

    Late to the party.

    Another Chuck Close quote has stuck with me for years. I don’t remember it exactly but it went something like: “Photography is the easiest medium in which to become proficient, but the hardest in which to develop any sort of individual style.” It was a comment he made in the BBC’s “The Genius of Photography”. Brilliant six-part series. Everyone should watch it.

    In terms of individual style (or self-expression or whatever you like) I wonder if you think the toolbox available to a musician like Jack White is greater than what’s available to a photographer. I do. Instrumentation, tone, timbre, dynamic, tempo, melody, harmony, language – all that nuance. And add a live performance or a video and it becomes a multimedia experience. There’s so much working on you.

    Individuality in photography is possible – the proof’s out there – but damn it seems a long way off sometimes. You must get there, as you say above and as you have yourself presumably, through work. John Keatley’s images are recognisably his, and I watched the Keatley videos and that’s what struck me – it’s all graft, same as my shoots. No magic spells or voodoo, just work. But out of that process comes something that is plainly Keatley. Must be that if you do enough, something uniquely yours will come through. I have to hope so, cos when it all comes down to it, I think that’s my inspiration.

    • adam bucci

      chuck close is in episode one of the genius of photography if it helps.

  31. Yucel

    I was getting put off by the quote about inspiration.. till it was followed by Picasso’s… Yes, you have to work, file away, remember, and work…

    Else, well, nothing…

  32. Dennis Huteson

    Zack, for me it’s Warren Zevon…in all the same ways.

  33. Dayana

    Thanks for the inghist. It brings light into the dark!


    One thing I’d like to say is the fact that before getting more computer system memory, consider the machine in which it is installed. If the machine is actually running Windows XP, for instance, the memory ceiling is 3.25GB. Using above this would merely constitute some sort of waste. Make sure one’s motherboard can handle this upgrade volume, as well. Thanks for your blog post.


    What about doing some real "work" on YTube and put the Feed RSS back?I find it very annoying to enter YT each time I want to see new videos from the subscriptions.

  36. Rick

    Mr. Arias,

    First names are for someone you know.

    Please take this comment knowing that I’m a admirer of your work, and your willingness to share; which I’ve seen on KelbyOne and the pictures (videos?) you’ve posted online. The image umbrella_zack_arias.jpg in this story is interesting. Did you try it with rain/water? I saw your latest posts and thought this one could use the same hose trick… I think it would be more impactful; but I’m just a late comer poster to an old thread you’re probably using for cathartic release.