What Do Your Possessions Say about Your Creative Obsessions?

Vinyl record collection

Photo by interrupt

Earlier this week I switched on the TV part way through a documentary about the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Presenter Jon Ronson was obviously a huge Kubrick fan, and was thrilled at being invited to the director’s home by his family and chief assistant. What did he find when he got there? Cardboard boxes. Thousands of them. Big ones, small ones, scruffy ones, neat ones. Boxes in the living room, boxes in the dining room, boxes in the study. Boxes in the outhouses, stacked from floor to ceiling.

Each box was labelled with the name or initials of one of Kubrick’s films, such as ‘EWS’ (Eyes Wide Shut) or ‘FMJ’ (Full Metal Jacket). And inside? The family admitted they hadn’t opened most of them, so the contents were still a mystery. But they allowed Ronson to start exploring. While I watched, the boxes he opened were mostly full of photographs – endless photographs, of the same kind of objects or places. Bedside tables. Gates of country houses. Doorways to prostitutes’ flats. Cafes. It was clearly source material for his films, but on a mindbogglingly obsessive scale.

How many pictures of fancy dress costume shops do you need? Don’t they all look pretty much the same? Not to Kubrick, evidently. The director’s nephew was introduced as principal photographer, recounting how he traipsed round every single fancy dress shop in south-east England to capture the required images.

On another occasion, Kubrick decided he wanted photographs of every single building on Commercial Road in London, so that he could lay them all side-by-side and inspect the entire road in his living room. But crucially, he didn’t want perspective to get in the way – if taken from street level, the buildings would look tilted backwards, and he wouldn’t be able to line them up properly. So the photographer had to take a large ladder to the Commercial Road, climb up 12 feet in the air, photograph the first building, then climb down, move the ladder along to the next building, and climb up to take the next photo. All along the road (it’s not short). Both sides. All the while fielding phone calls from the director asking him to hurry up and how soon could he get the photos back to him. Nice work, if you can get someone else to do it.

Unhealthy Obsession or Labour of Love?

A lot of people would find this behaviour eccentric. An unhealthy obsession? I’m guessing Kubrick would have said he was just doing his job. It’s hard to argue with his track record. Maybe the secret of his greatness was that he was simply prepared to work harder than other filmmakers (as well as delegate the ‘no fun’ jobs to willing helpers).

Look at the career of any truly outstanding creator, and you’ll find a similar pattern of obsession, which often takes physical form in collections of objects.

Legendary promoter Bill Graham is credited by many people as the inventor of the modern rock concert. The roll call of acts he put on is like a Who’s Who from the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame, including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Santana and U2. An article from CBS News explains how “for nearly 30 years Graham saved everything he could get his hands on from every concert he ever put on”. After his death, businessman Bill Sagan bought the entire collection for a reported $6 million. He believes he got a bargain. It took 25 40-foot trucks to collect the collection and move it over to Sagan’s warehouse.

First there are the photographs. “I thought there was maybe a half million to a million slides and negatives,” said Sagan. “As it turned out, there’s probably is closer to a million and a half to two million slides and negatives.”

There are posters by the thousands, the psychedelic artwork that went up weekly in San Francisco in the ’60s. “We have more than 500 posters that are so rare that their retail price would be in excess of $15,000,” Sagan estimated. “There were drawers full of tickets from decades of concerts.”

Graham seems to have kept every contract he ever signed. But he had one more big surprise in store, and only after he bought the collection and started going through boxes did Sagan discover what may be the most valuable asset.

“There are nearly 7,000 tapes of 7,000 different performances,’ said Sagan. “And the reason I say nearly is because we haven’t counted them all and we haven’t looked at them all.”

According to Janis Joplin, what set him apart from other promoters was that “Graham really understands musicians, and that’s really important to musicians”. Evidently, it wasn’t just a business to him – it was his passion, embodied in this fabulous collection.

Creepy or Creative?

Artist and illustrator Robert Crumb is another famous creative collector, having amassed a huge stash of 78 record albums. In an interview with Boing Boing, he describes collecting as “creepy”, but with a positive side:

A true collector is more of a connoisseur, and that’s the good thing about collecting. It creates a connoisseurship to sort out what’s worthwhile in the culture and what isn’t. Wealthy art collectors in this country have sorted out who the great artists are. If you’re collecting a lot of objects of one particular kind, you develop a very acute sense of discrimination.

One theory of creativity suggests that sharp critical judgement is what separates truly great artists from the rest. And to exercise judgement, you need plenty of material – photos to sift through, books to read, records to play. So perhaps this kind of obsessive collection is inevitable for some kinds of creativity.

I’m not in Kubrick’s league, but when I saw those boxes on TV, I couldn’t help thinking of the day I moved in with my wife-to-be – and the look on her face when she saw the 42 boxes of books I’d brought with me. To me, this was travelling light, just the bare essentials…

You and Your Stuff

Do you have a collection of treasured objects that relate to your creative passion?

Do you think it helps you develop your critical judgement – or is that just a handy excuse? 🙂

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. What a fantastic thesis! I need to re-read this article again and again.

    As a creative and business owner, I’ve been struggling with defining a new path as I get older. Do I really want to sit in front of a computer all day producing presentations and fact sheets? Probably not.

    Looking at the items I “personally” cherish is confirmation of my deep rooted passion(s). Now, how can I parlay that into revenue-generating services and/or products?

    Mark, maybe we can talk discuss the lateral question sometime.



  2. Mark,

    I have a cowbell!

  3. This is a topic I have often discussed with friends and colleagues. I live in a large house in the suburbs, mainly because I couldn’t fit my huge book and music collection into an appartment in the city.

    I have a room full of CDs, cassette tapes, LP’s. I bought 14 CD’s this week. Mainly from a thrift store.

    My library is kept in an actual library, plus their are stacks of books in my office.

    But I work in film and television, and I probably own less than a hundred DVDs.

    Maybe I should really work in a radio station.

  4. I am a confessed minimalist.

    Clutter inhibits my creativity.

    After I’m done with a project, I extract “lessons learned”, then I “archive” all the leftover detritus. If I haven’t opened the box / file / storage locker looking for something within six months, I throw it away – unopened.

    I have never regretted it.

  5. I’ve moved a lot and hated doing it every time. Each time I was finished lugging my stuff, I promised myself that I’d own less. Now I’m more or less a minimalist as far as my possessions go. I’ve got some good books that I like to re-read and my old hand written pieces, but besides that, I like to give stuff away when I don’t use it.

  6. At what point does it become garbage? I am lucky now because I’ve found someone who is excited to take my “business book” collection from me. But not until after I’ve already thrown away or donated hundreds of books already.
    It’s not just physical stuff that clutters. How many pictures, bookmarks, e-books and pdf files do we keep on our computer that we think we’ll get back to later and we never do? And receipts that we keep – just in case.
    The stuff we collect may not warrant an auction by Sotheby’s but most likely will add to our landfills or be part of our children’s garage sales. The time to clear it out is now while we are still alive so it won’t be a burden to our kids when we’re gone.

  7. Thanks everyone, maybe we should have a poll about minimalism versus clutter in creativity!

    Shane — you should have been in Berlin in 1977. http://twitter.com/markmcguinness/status/1104673628

    Ryan —

    At what point does it become garbage?

    Excellent question — and one that could be asked at other stages of the creative process as well. 🙂

  8. The big question is what will collecting look like in 30 years, when we look back and realize most of our assets were digital?

    Now that we’re doing everything online though, we can collect without creating clutter. Pictures, writings, scans of drawings and cocktail napkins, music, movies, even books and comic books… we can store it all forever if we want to, in a digital format. It lacks that charm of a real physical object, but it doesn’t have to be forgotten and it doesn’t have to take up space.

    Will it really be creepy in 30 years from now if every performance that (say) The Kings of Leon ever did was still preserved on the web? If every object we create – from buildings to dresses – is preserved in high-definition photographs?

    If obsessive collecting is the mark (or at least ‘a’ mark) of great creativity, what happens when we’re all collecting all of the time?

  9. Remarkable post. I used to collect antique prints of saints, especially the odd ones.

    Then my wife pointed out how creepy that was.

  10. In 2001, while driving around the country as part of my Great American Road Trip, I bought souvenir coffee mugs from every place I visited. I’ve never drank from them, and they collect to this day on a series of bookshelves. I should probably sell them, but the mugs symbolize a creative obsession from eight years ago.

    Maybe there’s a market there.

  11. I am with the minimalist camp, cannot stand clutter but do find it fascinating to read about nutters like Mark 🙂 and Kubrick who hold on to every last piece of lint.

  12. I think every creative type collects something or has collected something at some point, but not every collector is a “creative” person though.

  13. Reading all the comments makes my chest tighten up in determined anticipation of next Saturdays activities.. I’m going to trash 1/2 of the stuff in my home office, a fresh alternative to organizing it.

    Having done this before I know one secret to success – never start reading the stuff. If I start reading, I’m done for, everything grinds to a halt.

    I just remembered another strategy that works for me. Never organize anything when I’m in the ‘throwing-out’ phase.
    Just put good stuff in one ‘keeper pile’ and re-sort it some time next year.

  14. To me, this concept begs to be tied into the Tyler Durden philosophy of materialism, which I see you resisted! I’ve always wondered what Slash does with all those damn guitars. I mean, c’mon now.

  15. Mario — good point about digital collections. I guess at least they can’t gather dust…

    Demian — I feel your pain. 🙂

    Ari – maybe you’ve found your niche!

    Andy –

    Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
    and thin partitions do their bounds divide.
    (John Dryden) 😉

    Jay — nice distinction, the same goes for MacBooks, Moleskine notebooks and black T-shirts. (Speaking as a proud owner of all three.)

    Closet — I agree, reading is fatal, it’s like a timewarp for me.

    Christian — would love to be a fly on the wall when Tyler and Kubrick get together.