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2x4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers
2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.
C.J. Chilvers is a photographer on a mission… A mission to awaken those who are more focused on equipment than images. A desire to get those who obscure their shots with filters to get back to basics. A drive to stop us from taking yet another “me too” image that can be found on a thousand different dime-store postcards. C.J. Chilvers is a man who wants us to rediscover the role of our own creativity in the art of photography.
I was fortunate enough to discover C.J.’s and his amazing (and free) “A Lesser Photographer” manifesto through Patrick Rhone’s patron’s newsletter. Not only was I enamored by his approach to his work, but I realized how true it was for my own casual photography. Like many geek fathers, the birth of my first daughter was the ideal crap rationalization to get the obligatory DSLR (that I barely understand how to use) and a few lenses (because one couldn’t possibly be enough). It chronicled the big moments of her first years, but all of our favorite pictures happened at random times and were often taken with a camera phone. Now with our second child as the DSLR sits on the shelf collecting dust and the iPhone becomes the go-to tool for capturing life’s moments.
It doesn’t matter if you are an amateur, a professional or even just a casual photographer, C.J.’s minimalist philosophy can help any amongst us understand just how little equipment is needed in order to unlock our creativity. And as you’ll see in the interview, that philosophy of less extends far beyond the photographic and into his approach for both writing and task management. Without any further ado, here’s a snapshot of how C.J. Chilvers approaches his craft:
Have you always considered yourself a creative person?
Sort of – I fancied myself a scientist.
When I was little, I asked for microscopes and telescopes for Christmas instead of toys. My parents were smart enough to give me toys instead.
I was into quantum physics when I was a teen. My friends were smart enough to start a metal band with me.
My degree is in biology. That’s about the time I became smart enough to realize I’m a really just a writer.
A newspaper columnist once told me, when I was 12, that I was a talented writer and it pushed me to learn everything I could about writing. I got kicked off the high school newspaper for writing something “controversial” about Slash. That issue sold out. I found the combination of writing chops and the natural controversy of my inner voice were a winning combo.
Photography came later, but it’s all just a part of the greater skill of storytelling.
What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?
I used to write paper books. In 1994, I put up my first site and it’s gradually taken over everything I’ve published. I recently had a flirtation with paper books again, but gave it up when I decided it was more important to be read by more people than paid a pittance by a few for the privilege of flipping pages. I’m completely over the book scene and I’ve ripped the elbow patches off my blazers. I’d rather make a difference.
If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?
I suppose my books would be the best things to point to (and we’ll pretend they’re collectively one thing). There’s been about 7, but here’s the ones that are I’m actively updating right now:
The Van Halen Encyclopedia was an ode to my favorite guitar player. It took two years of research to complete the first edition in 1998 and at least another year for the follow-up edition. It’s now a website, with an iPhone app in the works.
My most recent book is tiny by comparison, but packs a punch: A Lesser Photographer. It’s the result of two years of blogging on minimalist photography.
Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?
Yes, move to Williamsburg, grow dreadlocks and spend your days searching for the perfect artisan tool to create whatever art you’ve been told is anti-establishment these days.
It’s not hard to act like an artist, just be a nonconformist… in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Anyone can be creative if they can figure out how to fight their brain’s need to avoid the pain of creation. If you’re not feeling that pain, you’re not pushing yourself enough.
Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?
I write for the intranet of a hyper-mega-global company of 400,000 employees for 8 hours a day, then I write for fun for as long as possible after.
I have an impossible number of ideas and projects to put out there in the world, but we’re expecting our first baby in about a month and that’ll mean most of those projects will be abandoned or given away – rightly so.
How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?
I’ve given myself permission not to try to make money or be productive online. The less productive I become, the less I find needs doing.
What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?
I work on a variety of platforms, quarantined from each other because of the confidential nature of my work, so I can’t count on any tools. Even paper.
I tend to attack the workload itself as suspicious. I edit and edit until the workload doesn’t need any special tools or elaborate systems to manage.
The greatest artists and craftsmen in history never needed tags or contexts or 50,000 foot views to create. I think we all take our jobs too seriously. A true master craftsman may rely on tools and techniques, but I would bet they have nothing to do with a productivity system.
What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?
Ask why. Then, keep asking why until you realize: a.) you probably don’t need to be more productive or b.) there are some things so important, their importance alone will drive you to do what’s necessary. Don’t worry about it too much, though. Productivity often just gets you going faster in the wrong direction. We could all do with a bit less productivity in our work and a bit more attention to the people in our lives.
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