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.