Real Life Mentor • Article by Eric Pye
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In his Landscape Photography Magazine article, 'Virtual Mentors' (June 2013: Issue 28), Guy Tal said: “Mentorship perhaps is the most significant form of teaching." Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with Guy, my experience differs from and, I believe, exceeds his, in that my dealings have been with a mentor who is alive and well. This gave me something I could never have got from a virtual mentor, no matter how influential their work might be, and that was interaction. This in no way detracts from the benefits that Guy discussed so well in his article; there is a great deal to learn from those who have gone before. Rather, I see the two as parallel experiences.
My mentor has certainly proved to be influential in my development as an artist. In the six months I studied with him I found myself on an extremely steep, yet enjoyable and rewarding, learning curve. We initially worked on the technical skills and craft of photography, where I needed lots of guidance. But from the outset I began to realise that this was not what would have the most impact upon me. Always underpinning the teachings I received was the inference that I must develop my own way of thinking; that I should not simply emulate, but use what I learned to develop as a photographer. Our fortnightly sessions were carefully designed to develop both my technique and my thinking and the tasks I was set always provided enough room for me to be able to create images in my own emerging style. Critique was similarly respectful of this, whilst at the same time helping with this self-development.
I too, was afforded virtual mentors. My real life mentor's knowledge and understanding of what has gone before is both broad and deep, and this was well used to point me in interesting directions for reading and further study. However, his knowledge is not limited to photographers and I have found myself reading books on art, visual perception and philosophy. All of it was relevant, interesting and useful to me as a photographer and artist, but not always easy reading.
Despite having done my homework when choosing my mentor, I was still unsure about what to expect once we started our sessions. Any concerns I may have had were immediately allayed by his professionalism and interest in me. Everything we did was covered in-depth and none of my questions were met with anything other than respect and detailed answers – and I had a lot of questions! My learning curve was steep, but it also excited me. The areas we worked on were chosen specifically to meet my needs, which would not have been possible with a virtual mentor. The tasks I was given were appropriate to those needs but also set with consideration for the fact that I am a husband and dad and have a full-time job, which has nothing to do with photography.
As I stated earlier, the biggest advantage I had with my choice of a real mentor was that I was able to receive feedback. In this age of internet and social media, correspondence was not restricted to the confines of our scheduled sessions. If I had questions about a set task or book, I was able to ask them and receive a quick response, thus enhancing my learning experience. Although some initial correspondence was done by traditional mail, everything after that was conducted via the internet, which meant that critique of my images and answers to my questions were almost instant. Over a six-month period, this made a huge difference to what I was able to achieve.
A further area of advantage was that my mentor was also able to (and did) encourage me. Many of our discussions led me to some interesting thinking after the event, much of which continues to develop now. Whilst I was helped considerably with the technical aspects of photography, more important to me was the fact that I was encouraged to think creatively, to see myself as an artist and to focus on the ‘why’ of what I do rather than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. This has started to unlock something in me that will continue to see my art develop for years to come and for this, I am incredibly grateful.
So, whilst I agree that there is a lot to learn from the greats of the past, upon whose shoulders we all stand to some extent, I do not think it can compare to the rich learning experience that a good real life mentor can offer. And who was my mentor? None other than Guy Tal.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 43 of Landscape Photography Magazine.