What Inspires, Drives

May 06, 2010

A few months back I had a moment of inspiration and realization. As a relatively new designer, I look at myself as something akin to Michelangelo’s David, still a stone block up to the waist. I am very much a work in progress, looking for where it is that I can make my mark.

At the time I had just begun reading Middlesex, a fascinating book by Jeffrey Eugenides that spans three generations, two world wars, and a great depression. At particular lull in the narrative, the author mentions “the first photograph of a human being.” I’ve always been captivated by photography, particularly fashion photography, so it struck me to realize that this milestone had never crossed my mind. Imagine… the first human in a photo. Surely it would have been an aristocrat with a well trimmed yet somewhat pastiche mustache and a bespoke suit. He would likely have looked expressionless, nearly to the point of constipation, having gone down in history as being the first person to sit stone still for twenty minutes without being pronounced mad or dead.

I Googled “first photograph of a human” and was amazed by what I found. Not a stodgy noble, but a landscape. The setting: Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1823. At first I thought I had found a bad link. Looking closer, however, I spotted a figure. Leg up on a stool, he etched his place in both in history and my mind, not posing for a photograph, but having his shoes shined.

Across the street, Louis Daguerre perched his newfangled light experiment in a window and aimed it at the best thing he could think of the time: the city out his window. For ten minutes, particles of light bounced off an experimental concoction of chemicals, slowly creating a stain in the shape of the only non-moving figures within its frame that would one day transform a young designer’s perspective as he sat in front of a book and a bowl of Cajun stew.

I began thinking about this man in the photograph. And let’s not forget the hunched at his feet meticulously polishing the man’s shoes, their conversation carried out in a language that is an art form in and of itself. What were they talking about? What were their names? Who were they thinking about as they passed through this moment? Had they been told they were about to be part of history, would they have found themselves in that particular spot on that particular day?

Thinking about this moment, I came to a bit of a realization. The mark people make in history is rarely a calculated one. I doubt some of the great figures in art, literature, or music started out thinking “Today is the day that no one forgets my name.” No, these moments of greatness, for the most part, happen in the course of events that were part of an otherwise standard existence.

So how does this affect me, the block of stone slowly being chiseled into something that will someday hopefully be viewed as a coherent and meaningful existence? For starters, it’s taught me to look at even the mundane tasks as places for greatness. I may not be building the next iPhone or designing the next I♥NY, but I’m still presented daily with chances to leave my mark on history. Sometimes small, sometimes large, each decision I make knits me deeper into the the world around me, and in turn stamps my name on what will one day become something that people look back upon. I can only hope that when my moment of greatness comes, I can exhibit such an inspiring force as a man with a smudged pair of shoes.