Inspiration in Photography & Why My Crazy Isn’t Going Anywhere

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I love December. I love Christmas, I love all the sparkly lights and gingerbread everything, not to mention the fact that snow makes for fantastic photos. But besides all of that, I also love that it comes right before clean-slate January.

I’ll be honest; I make a lot of mistakes during the year. I’m either missing that little voice in the back of my head that steers me away from stupid shit, or it’s completely drowned out by the other voice screaming to most definitely do the stupid shit, it’ll at least make for an epic story later. Either way, it’s not exactly a fool proof way of going through life, and by the time December rolls around, the mistakes have added up, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and I’m quite ready to reflect on just how many of them were worth it. 

That’s where these people come in. This kind of person reflection isn’t about assessing measurable forms of progress – I’ll do that later. This is about evaluating whether or not I’m anywhere closer to the kind of artist and person I want to be. Call me crazy, but after 7 years of college and 3 degrees I don’t use but definitely paid for, I’m no longer interested in just drifting along and hoping “things will work out.” No, if something isn’t working, it’s up to me to fix it. 

So at the end of the year I turn to my biggest inspirations in photography and business, and ask myself these questions: 

– What qualities do they possess that I find so rousing, and am I any closer to possessing those qualities myself?
– What do I need to do to further become what I find so inspirational in others?
– Where have I strayed from the artist I want to be and how can I do better next year?

To answer these questions, I give you my top 5 inspirations in photography and business, and exactly what I’m hoping to take away from each of them. 

The Artist: Stanley Kubrick

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My background is in psychology, which might give some insight as to why I love Kubrick’s work so much. To him, everything is important.  In The Shining, there are several long camera shots of Tommy riding his trike throughout the hotel, alternating between carpet and hardwood. The sound he makes on the carpet is barely audible, while the sound of the hardwood is enormous and uncomfortably loud. That rhythm: peaceful, near silence broken by harsh, jarring uneasiness is an actual torture tactic used to break people. How brilliant then, to include it in the early scenes of a horror movie.

In addition to his painful attention to detail, his work ethic was unparalleled. He was known to shoot the same scene hundreds of times, until the actors were completely exhausted and even delirious. That scene where Jack Nicholson breaks down the door with the ax and yells, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” was a complete improvisation. If you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, just before the last take he was waving the ax around the room like a madman, laughing and dancing and making everyone pretty damn nervous. After 100 takes, that was the mental stage he was in, and it worked.

Kubrick actually holds the Guinness record for most takes in a dialogue scene in a movie (also for The Shining), and he was working on film! That kind of work ethic is pretty tough to find anymore. Where others may have shrugged after 40 takes and thought to themselves, “We’ll just make one of these work”, he didn’t. If something wasn’t working he stuck with it until it did. He was obsessive, detailed, persistent and never settled for anything less than his original vision – a perfect artist philosophy if there ever was one. 

The Educator: Alton Brown

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Alton Brown is a chef and author on Food Network. He originally had a show called Good Eats but you probably know him more as the host of Iron Chef America. 

Admittedly, I rarely watch Food Network anymore. I don’t like reality shows and I don’t like dramatic soap operas, but when I’m in a horribly bad mood I watch the crap out of Food Network while texting my mom memes of the various “stars”. 

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But Alton Brown is an entirely different person altogether. On his show Good Eats, puppets explain the discovery of saffron while he builds homemade cooking contraptions that require the use of goggles “just in case” something goes wrong. It’s like taking a cooking class from Bill Nye the Science Guy. With puppets. And a shitload of valuable information.

What makes him so inspiring though, is he doesn’t just show how to put a recipe together, he shows why that recipe exists in the first place. That’s a very important distinction.

I love to cook, and at this point in my life I’m really fucking good at it, but I still have trouble following a recipe. In a standard cooking show, they’ll get to the part where you have to bring something to room temperature and I’ll think to myself, “Screw that, I’ll just stick it in the microwave and then I won’t have to wait 3 hours.” During Alton’s show he explains the chemistry of why you definitely do not want to put this in the microwave; and that’s what makes a great educator. It’s not about giving you a quick recipe, it’s about breaking down and explaining that recipe so you have a solid understanding of the chemistry behind it. 

So many “educators” are stingy with the information they hold, and I hate that. They want you learn, but not too much. They’re masquerading “give a man a fish” as “teach a man to fish”, when they aren’t actually teaching you anything. Alton Brown doesn’t care about any of that; he genuinely packs as much information out of his show as they possibly can. That is a true educator: someone that is entirely selfless about sharing their knowledge in the most effective way possible.

The Unapologists: Anthony Bourdain & Hunter S. Thompson

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A few weeks ago I received an email that told me I have the same, “snarky, cynical writing style as useless ex-cokehead Anthony Bourdain, and the same rambling incoherence as Hunter S. Thompson.” I was thrilled. When my fiance got home I read him the good news and he congratulated me. Relating me to either Anthony Bourdain or Hunter S. Thompson is a joke of a comparison; they’re both actual, published writers and I’m a budding photographer that occasionally pens a rant-style blog post at 3:00 in the morning, but who cares? As far as step one goes, it was a very good day in the Martin household.

Anthony Bourdain is another chef, author, and traveler of virtually everywhere. You might know him as the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown or the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. He’s curious and has an in-depth knowledge of food, which would be reason enough to be a fan, but I idolize him specifically for his open disgust for convention and corruption. He’s embraced his history of drug use and depression, in a raw, foul-mouthed, unapologetic kind of way; a “this is who I am, deal with it or leave” kind of way. As a fellow artist, desperately trying to find my place in the world, this mindset is not only refreshing, but freeing. It’s the idea that as broken as I may be in some ways, I’m also pretty great in others. I love that. 

Hunter S. Thompson is another brilliant writer, most famous in my generation for writing the book the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based on. He did a lot of other noteworthy things (some good, some very bad), but if his name sounds only vaguely familiar to you, there’s a good chance that’s where you know it from. 

Mr. Thompson is one of my favorites for the same reason Mr. Bourdain is one of my favorites. For one, his history with mental illness and drug use is also well documented, and he never shied away from it in the slightest, but rather embraced it as an accurate and essential piece of his character. Second, his writing style is iconic, with long rambling run-on sentences containing some of the most unique descriptions ever written. I can never duplicate his writing style (no one can), but just the fact that the SEO plugin I use on this blog constantly flags me for long, 20+ word sentences (like this one), gives me at least a small sense of pride. Fuck off, SEO plugin, if Hunter’s 100+ word sentences were good enough for Rolling Stone, my 30+ string of words can survive a damn blog post.

I idolize these men for many reasons, but mostly for their brutally authentic sense of self. They’ve made no attempts to hide the parts of their past that others may have found “unsavory”. Instead of censoring themselves or creating some fabricated public persona, an incredibly common occurrence in the world of social media, they’ve lived their lives essentially the same way they would’ve had they not been famous.

See, by traditional standards, I’m not a very perfect person. I’ve been fired from a number of jobs for what we’ll call a “lack of verbal filtration”, I believe any personal conflict can be solved with fire and besides the last 6 years (when my fiance realized he was dating a klepto and gave me an ultimatum), I didn’t really pay for much of anything. Once you’ve become fairly skilled at stealing shit, it’s pretty tough to make a conscious decision not to. But I can proudly say I’m about 6 years sober – besides a small relapse a couple years ago when I did some damage on a bottle of tequila and unsuccessfully tried to steal a cop car…while dancing…

All those little imperfections and mistakes are also what attracts me to others. If you’ve got a squeaky clean background and image, I don’t trust you. I’m not very interested in meeting, or learning from, an overly happy, lab-engineered, fake-as-shit personality meant to sell me some fantastical, non-existent concept of reality. How can you trust someone who describes every, single life experience as breathtakingly awesome? You can’t, because you know at some point or another, that person is lying. There is no way I can rely on one’s sincerity to convey life’s most truly stunning moments if they use the exact same vocabulary for life’s shittiest moments. It just doesn’t add up.

Censorship is boring, sugarcoating is overrated and value can still be found in a genuine voice with a candid message. When Anthony speaks highly of a specific restaurant, I know I can trust him, because if it were an absolute shithole that should be avoided at all costs, I know he would tell me it’s an absolute shithole that should be avoided at all costs.

I like that my writing reflects almost perfectly the tone in which I speak: blunt, slightly sarcastic, fairly grammatically incorrect, inappropriate at times and usually dotted with some exceptionally placed profanity. These two give me the green light to embrace that style; to write exactly what I feel needs to be written, minus the flowery language that would make it more digestible to the more delicate-minded masses. They inspire me to be honest and authentic to those that matter, and unapologetic to those that don’t. 

As a sidenote, I really do hope I get to meet Anthony Bourdain in real life someday. Typically, on an occasion such as this, I’d crack some awkward joke that no one gets, laugh at myself for too long and then look up only to wonder where the hell everyone went. I have a feeling he has an appreciation for socially awkward jokes though, so in the hypothetical world I’ve created (and frequently visit), Anthony Bourdain will think I’m hilarious and we’ll spend the day bullshitting while getting plowed on Montana-brewed beer.  

The Badass: My Mom

Without going into too much detail, let’s just say my childhood wasn’t really all that great. If we’re going by statistics, the probability of me becoming a heroin-addicted stripper is undoubtedly much, much higher than the probability of me gaining an income through legal means, dating a nice respectable young man and driving a car that doesn’t double as a getaway vehicle on the weekends. But hey, somehow I ended up on the happy and productive side of society, so I’ll take it. 

But, as many of you probably know, those demons don’t just go away, and my personal theory is you can either get very, very good at hiding them (for the short period of time before you spontaneously combust), or you can embrace them and put them to good use. My mom is a perfect example of putting them to good use. She turns that craziness into straight focus. When I was in high school she wanted an ice cream truck, but she couldn’t find one, so she bought the pieces and built it (we run it every year here in Billings, it’s called Mr. Pugley’s Ice Cream). When she wants something she goes out and gets it, and when something is in her way, she either finds a way around it or she quite literally goes out, buys a torch and welds her way straight through it.

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Honestly. I’ve seen it done. Welded the doors clean off.  

She doesn’t see her past as a crutch, she sees it as a badge of honor. From what she’s been through, there is no possible way of breaking her now, and she knows it. She’s afraid of no one, she’s intimidated by no one and she wastes no time dealing with people that don’t have her best interests in mind. When there’s a problem, she fixes it. She’s basically Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction if he had been an Italian/Basque woman with a flair for cooking and a much better sense of humor.  

Those two life perspectives of living through a horrible situation and using it to better yourself, as well as openly accepting whatever demons might be there is what I find so inspiring. Over the past few years I’ve learned to take a bad situation, pull a few lessons out of it and apply them. Once you’ve been through some real scary shit, the idea of being afraid to submit a photoshoot to a magazine is a joke. There are much more frightening things in the world. I know because I’ve lived through them. Push the button, send the email, move on with your life.

I’m proud that I am becoming more and more like my mother every day. Last year, my future mother-in-law and I were talking about how your childhood can shape who you are, and she asked if there were any parts of my dad that stuck with me. I said no (probably not entirely true, but I like to think so anyway), and she said, “But you’re not afraid of anything! And you’re…kind of crazy…” I thought for a second, then smiled and said, “Nope. That’s still all Mom.” 🙂

I am, hands down, my mother’s daughter, and if I grow more and more like her every year, I’ll count that as a win in my book. 

Decide For Yourself…

Now that you know my main inspirations, and what I hope to gain from them, I want to hear from you! Who are your inspirations? Who do you look up to and why? What characteristics do your greatest inspirations possess? We all have someone we have in the back of our mind that does something right, so who is yours? Take a second and let me know in the comments who your greatest inspirations are and why you choose to follow them. I want to know! 🙂

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