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Virtual Mentors

Great mentors, even if not available for private consultation, often leave legacies of teachings and thoughts, and there is great value in seeking them. Guy Tal is sharing with us his intriguing thoughts on photography mentors

Mentorship perhaps is the most significant form of teaching. Once technical skill and craft are learned, further advancement has to come from within; from the photographer’s own mind and sensibilities, from having something of their own to say to, and about, the world. Many photographers manage such feats on their own, though mentors may play a crucial role in the transition. A good mentor is one who offers students not a way of doing, but a way of thinking about their work, their goals and their priorities.

I have not had the privilege of a mentor. More accurately, I never had the pleasure of interacting with the people who became my virtual mentors. They were deceased by the time I found their teachings and musings, though their influence on me was profound.

Like many, when the trivial matters of photographing well-known spots at the prescribed ‘right’ time began to lose flavour, I sought inspiration in the writings of photographers I admired. There is no way around it, in all matters photographic the legacy of Ansel Adams looms large, and I began with his trilogy: The Camera, The Negative and The Print. I believe that these books should remain required reading for photographers even in the digital age. Beyond any technique described, I was most impressed with Adams’ holistic philosophy as a photographer and an artist. His thoughts on visualisation and about expressing the photographer’s creative intent in every step of the process set the foundation for my own thinking about how and why I made images. But, it was not enough. I was embarrassed to admit it at the time, but, for all my admiration of the genius and accomplishment of Adams, his images were not the kind of images I wanted to make. This became clear to me when I read Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. In particular, the description of the making of his most famous image (Moonrise) made me realise how different his approach is from mine. In the book, Adams describes his arrival on the scene with the light fading quickly, rushing to set up his equipment, not finding his light meter, triumphantly calculating exposure based on prior knowledge of the luminance of the moon, and so on; more than two entire pages of technical considerations about exposing and printing the negative. Not a word is written about composition, or message, or the significance of the experience other than one line towards the end, saying: “it is a romantic/emotional moment in time”. Had it been me describing my work, the balance would have been the complete opposite. The entire passage likely would be about these romantic and emotional aspects of the image and perhaps, if pushed hard enough, I might be convinced to share the exposure settings.

Clearly I needed a different kind of example. That was when I came upon the works of Minor White. When interviewed about his work, White describes an experience very different from that of Adams: “Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me... Watching the way the current moves a blade of gras – sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out”. In the same interview, he says also: “I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made”. And these words resonated with my own thoughts so powerfully and clearly that I went on to read more of his books, biography and letters, discovering an entirely different method of creating photographs that articulated and resolved the same significance I was seeking in my own creative experiences.

These are but two examples, out of many more, of how the writings of great photographers helped shape my own view and advance my own understanding of photography and of myself. Among my virtual mentors are Edward Weston, Henry Peach Robinson, Wynn Bullock and many others. If there is a lesson here, it is that great mentors, even if not available for private consultation, often leave legacies of teachings and thoughts, and that there is great value in seeking them.

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 28 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

1 Comment

  1. R.Dale Orcutt on

    ELIOT PORTER has been my virtual mentor-of-note, since my teen years in the early 1970’s, when I ‘discovered’ his first Sierra Club-published exhibit format photo book “In Wildness Is The Preservation Of The World” inspired by, and featuring some of the natural history journal writings of Henry David Thoreau, paired with Porter’s large format photography. Porter came to Oklahoma City back in the ’80s for an exhibition of his “Images Of The West,” at (as it was known then) The National Cowboy Hall Of Fame, where, for a $5 ticket, I got to hear him lecture, ask him a question, and autograph my (soft-bound) copy of his book, which he was a bit reluctant and chagrinned to do, because he considered the imagery in the paperbound version to be of such low quality, as compared to the lacquered photos in the hardbound edition. Since then, I’ve added 11 other Porter titles to my photo book ‘library’ (I don’t have everything…yet) in several of which he wrote extensively, sharing his history, inspirations and photographic insights. (Ansel Adams, similarly came to OKC in the ’80s, for an exhibition of his works at the Cowboy Hall, which I also attended). Porter’s book “Appalachian Wilderness – The Great Smoky Mountains” –also autographed– contains many of my favorites of his inspiring ‘intimate’ nature landscapes.

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