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.

View All Posts