When Compulsion Spurs Creativity…


There’s a fine line that separates a collector from a hoarder. Both are as willfully passionate about the items they collect, but where a collector is stringent about the items he acquires and compulsively organises them in a methodical manner, a hoarder loses his capacity to do so. Synonymous to the term pack rat, a hoarder is someone who collects unwanted items. His need to collect is debilitating, and very often affects the quality of his life. However, the act of collecting is an impulse that quiets a restlessness that possesses them both. The philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, had noted, “(There is a) spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

Some of the greatest artists were collectors and hoarders. A person that immediately comes to mind is Andy Warhol and his time capsules. In 1974, after relocating his studio, Warhol began accumulating items for his time capsules. It was a decision that was spurred by the cardboard boxes he had accumulated during the move; that they could be used to house items he wanted to save. No object was too passé to be included in the boxes that eventually became time capsules. Amongst the deluge of items that made it to the boxes were photographs, daily correspondence, bills, dead bees, nail clippings, even an uneaten pizza crust. Once a box was adequately full, he would tape it up and date it. Up until his death in 1987, Warhol had accumulated 610 time capsules. His assistants were aware of their existence but hadn’t ascribed any importance to them. His collection, however, provides valuable insights into what was a chaotic life as well as the social and political climate of the time.

Another hoarder albeit less famous than Warhol was Saul Leiter. In a piece written by Francis Hodgson for 1000 Words Mag, he explains, “The story goes that he (Leiter) was invited to make a book of photographic nudes, a book, which never materialised. Then, ten years later, in his studio, surrounded by the stack of unused prints, he started to paint on them. In the best of them, the paint acts to clothe the figures, not covering them entirely, but adding something more. The painted surfaces act as a caress–one almost sees the brush as stroking the body–but once the caressing is done, the body is clothed. Not all of the images, it must be said, are good. Leiter was a hoarder and too many of his tests and mistakes survive. The unpainted nudes are not particularly good at all; although it is noticeable how relaxed the sitters always are. Leiter was a gentle man, devoid of any great ambition or drive. “I aspire to be unimportant,” he said.

On the other hand, Garry Winogrand turned into a hoarder in the latter part of his life. After his failed marriages and his subsequent move from New York to Austin and then Los Angeles, his work became more diffused. But he never stopped photographing. What he did stop was developing and processing his pictures. “He became a hoarder of his own genius. And so, when he died suddenly from a cancer that had been recently diagnosed, he left behind 340,000 unseen images,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in his review of the film Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable.

The elusive Vivian Maier shared a similar sensibility except that she was a hoarder throughout her life. Making pictures took precedence over having them developed. Even when she did send her film rolls for development, she never selected or edited them, and very often never opened the boxes that it came back in. In the end, she had amassed 40,000 slides, which was later left to individuals like John Maloof to sieve through. And like Warhol albeit not in the same capacity as him, she collected newspaper clippings, bills and correspondence which she stored in boxes.

One would think that there was a correlation between hoarding and creativity, but studies conducted on the subject turned out to be non-conclusive. And yet, one cannot deny that it was this eccentricity that elevated these artists. Warhol’s desire to collect helped inform his artistic point of view. For him, pop art was the equivalent of liking things. So, he continued to hoard without any bias. Leiter on the other hand couldn’t get rid of prints that didn’t live up to a certain standard. Perhaps it was because he never saw himself as an extraordinary photographer, which allowed him to remain firmly rooted in his present. He didn’t go out seeking the extraordinary but created it out of the ordinary moments that he encountered in the neighbourhood that he photographed in for over five decades. In the case of Winogrand and Maier, just being able to walk around observing and photographing was enough for them. Perhaps some degree of obsession is warranted when you are an artist, to an extent that you lose yourself in the very thing that you love.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Better Photography.