Inspiration & 10,000 Hours

Whether it’s 10,000 hours or 10,000 frames, there is no doubt Jay Maisel has put in his time to master the medium. Photographer Chris Callis photographed Jay swimming in his rejected slides for the cover of American Photographer magazine in 1982. © Chris Callis

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 we passionate photographers shoot because we have and want to, so it rarely feels like work.Fact is, when we look at 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 it is that fires those particular neurons in the brain.

If you’re like most passionate amateurs, you need to get to work making pictures and good photographic 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,” and after some time had passed, I agreed with him. Not only do you need to 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 say.

Hurry Up and Wait

So what exactly is a volume of work and how do you define it? For a large-format photographer, the idea of volume may be very different from that of a professional sports shooter. What I’m talking about here is less about the number of frames shot and more about spending time in the field shooting.

Yousuf Karsh spent a lifetime perfecting his portrait lighting techniques. Here are Yousuf and I, Graduation Day, Dawson Institute of Photography, Montreal, 1979, at the beginning of the many hundreds of thousands of frames I have taken since this picture was captured by my Dad. 
Yousuf Karsh spent a lifetime perfecting his portrait lighting techniques. Here are Yousuf and I, Graduation Day, Dawson Institute of Photography, Montreal, 1979, at the beginning of the many hundreds of thousands of frames I have taken since this picture was captured by my Dad.

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.

You’ve no doubt heard it countless times: the best way to improve your work or get better at anything is to practice. I have always maintained that, in photography, the more you shoot, the better you will get.

Even if you didn’t try to improve, you will.

Taking it further still, by having your eye to the viewfinder and finger on the shutter release, you increase your odds of shooting more and getting better images. 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.”

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