AMA: Quotations and Artists

Of this there can be no question-creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this—who does not swallow this—is lost.

~Mary Oliver

Many thanks to those who sent me ask-me-anything questions in the past weeks! I’ll address a couple of them here, and hope you send me more as they help me consider my own thoughts and ideas, and on occasion come up with new insights.

Note that I updated the submission form with the option to remain anonymous, for those who prefer I not refer to them by name.


DCraig asked: “What is your process for collecting and recalling quotes? Do you write the piece first or is it inspiration at the outset?”

I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, long before the days of personal computers, mobile devices, and the internet. In my younger years I didn’t really feel any need to retain or commemorate anything I’ve read. I’ve had some books at home, I borrowed many books from various libraries, and generally when finishing a book I just put it away and couldn’t wait to start the next one. Until my teenage years I was in the habit of reading 2-3 books in parallel, picking one at random whenever I had time to read (sometimes multiple times a day). I seem to have lost this “context switching” ability with age, although I still work through multiple books at any time, I just spend more time with each until I lose interest and switch to another, then go back to the one I left unfinished, sometimes as far back as a few months.

I recall one recurrent thought I always had when entering a library or bookstore (other than how much I love the smell of books): I wish I knew everything that’s in all these books. It was this thought, along with my initial forays into computer programming using an old database system called DBase that first prompted me to begin collecting useful quotations. I’ve since lost my database and started it again from scratch several times, and I now just keep everything in one huge file that I keep adding to as I read. My books are all full of highlights and notes (and it warms my heart when someone shows me a copy of one of my books that is similarly marked up).

While I have a hard time memorizing exact phrasings, my brain seems to like making associations and connections, so often all I need is some “trigger” to recall that someone said something that may be relevant, and I can look it up. Other than technical impositions, I generally work in chaotic and disorganized ways, without anything that (at least consciously) resembles a consistent process. Sometimes a quotation will trigger an idea, and sometimes the other way around.

Blake Pridgen asked: “I’d be curious to know, who are some of the non-photographic artists from whom you’ve derived the most inspiration?”

Admittedly I have a hard time with this question since there are too many to list, and because I always worry I’ll miss someone important inadvertently. It really comes down the fact that, as Picasso (who is certainly on the list) said, “the artist is a receptacle for the emotions that come from all over the place.”

My inspiration comes not only from artists, but also from scientists, philosophers, public intellectuals, writers, and of course friends (and I’m sure this list, too, is incomplete). Some inspiration comes from other people’s works and ideas, some comes from their attitudes, lifestyles, courage, etc.

Still, I’ll offer this short list here, limiting it to non-photographic visual artists, with some explanation of why I chose these people. Please keep in mind this caveat: just because I was inspired by something about these people, doesn’t mean I agree with them on everything. Also, the list is in no particular order of importance.

  • Caspar David Friedrich: Being an extreme introvert, anyone who knows me will have no problem understanding why I admire an artist who said, “You call me a misanthrope because I avoid society. You err; I love society. Yet in order not to hate people, I must avoid their company.” But Friedrich to me is much more than just an ornery recluse. He is also a painter who felt deeply about the natural world and about the elevating power of exploration and adventure; he had no reservations about departing from the sensibilities of art in his day and expressing what the landscape meant to him. Critic David d’Angers wrote about Friedrich: “The only landscape painter so far to succeed in stirring up all the forces of my soul, the painter who has created a new genre: the tragedy of the landscape.” Although I don’t generally have favorites, when it comes to paintings I do: Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.”
  • Mary Cassatt: I find a lot of inspiration in the work of all early impressionists, but I think Cassatt deserves special mention, being one of the three “grandes dames” of impressionism (along with Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot). Not only was her work every bit as good as her contemporaries, but she managed to gain recognition (she exhibited along with the most famous impressionists) on her own merits and courage. She left her home country (US) to live in France on her own terms, resisting her family’s opposition to her becoming an artist and feminist—by any measure, she was a person of great courage, conviction, and talent.
  • Paul Cézanne: Considered by some (including Picasso) as one of the fathers of modern art, it’s hard to overestimate Cézanne’s influence in an artistic sense, but there’s no shortage of people who made great art. Cézanne to me is exemplary in the strength of his conviction and his love for the natural landscapes of his rural home (Aix-en Provence). For decades(!) he created art on his own terms, distinctly different from (and indifferent to) popular expectations, despite constant rejections and terrible criticism. When he did manage to gain some recognition, he still refused to move to Paris, which was the hub of art and urban sophistication in his day, and chose to live and work in a landscape that was personally meaningful to him, despite being looked down upon by the elites of his day. Where the impressionists had the courage to depart from realism in art (at the cost of being shunned by the art world of their day) and to focus instead on qualities of natural light and colors, Cézanne went a step further and did away with common expectations of what “natural” should be. He used whatever colors, textures, and techniques served his expressive purpose, expectations be damned. I think this kind of courage is very much needed in the world of photography, too.
  • Vincent van Gogh: It’s easy to say you love van Gogh for the beauty of his work and his florid letters, but to me he stands out as a hero among artists for several reasons: he never expected to gain money or popularity from his work (he died never knowing how famous he would become posthumously); he was not afraid to paint in a style all his own despite having deep familiarity with other artists of his day—he had no desire to imitate them; he is a fantastic example that passion is more important than the proverbial “10,000 hours” when it comes to doing something well (he had very little formal training in painting, and almost all his famous paintings were made within a period of about 8 years); he was not shy about expressing his genuine, chaotic, emotional persona in his work; and all this despite suffering profoundly from a terrible mental illness.
  • Georgia O’Keefe: not only an incredible artist, willing to take personal and creative risks, and an embodiment of a “free spirit,” O’Keefe was also a badass (yes, I said it) outdoorsy adventurer. She knew her worth and pursued an exciting and adventurous life, setting a great personal example for any artist—male or female. Like others on this list, she was not content with just rendering pretty, realistic, things she came across, she used her art to make bold and passionate statements, and she lived just as boldly and passionately as she painted.

Comments are open… please feel free to list your own inspirations.

Between Sand and Stars

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3 thoughts on “AMA: Quotations and Artists

Add yours

  1. Thank you for taking my question, Guy.

    Even though I work almost exclusively as a landscape and nature photographer, I find more and more inspiration from anything but nature photography. Impressionism and its various offshoots are hugely inspiring to me. As for photography, I love the color pioneers like Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, and William Eggleston. I’d rather look at Leiter’s work than, say, Ansel Adams, but I have almost no desire to do work in an urban setting, and much prefer the wide open spaces of Adams’ work. Inspiration can be a real mystery like that!

  2. Thank you Guy, and thank you Craig for asking a question that revealed more about Guy’s photographic inspirations.

  3. I’m the same, Blake. There are many more genres of art (and photography) I love than those I want to practice, myself. I like what many photographers accomplish in urban settings, even when I know that if I had been there in person, my mind would be in fight-or-flight mode, rather than in a creative mode. Diversity is a wonderful thing, especially for consumers of art. I don’t look at works of art as things to imitate but as things to experience.
    There’s no doubt that Adams’s work is very inspiring to many, not only for its visual qualities but also for its connection to the person who, by any account I’ve heard from people who knew him, was a wonderful human being. I think his fame is well deserved. What worries me is not that Adams is celebrated, but that so many other great photographic artists are relatively unknown, including some of the giants of the medium.

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