Ms. Ground Glass has had a number of good posts recently, on mentoring and women in photography. It’s gotten me thinking about my own search for a mentor, especially as I transitioned from photojournalism to whatever you want to call me now.
When I first started out, I received a bit of mentoring from certain persons in the photojournalism industry who seemed to expect something from this young doe other than just supplying good photography. My naivete in regard to the motives of these respected gentlemen was quickly dispensed with, and I once again wandered the wilderness alone.
I once took a workshop with a noted photographer under the advice of another noted photographer. It was one of those expensive ones, with a retired lawyer type who loved to take pictures of his grandkids and continued this tradition of mug shots throughout the workshop, an abrasive woman who knew everything but whose level of photography had clearly not progressed past the postcards from exotic locales (perhaps she was just presupposing Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards), and several inexperienced but full of potential younger photographers that I really enjoyed and learned from. What my photography got out of this workshop was a great and cognizant mimicry of the famous photographer, who as it seemed to me, was clearly disinterested in any photographic endeavor that strayed from his own, such was the strength of his self-absorption. Don’t get me wrong, I loved his style, that’s why I signed up. But I could have imitated it by just looking at his work and going out and doing it, I was not inspired by my experience at the workshop, at least not through him.
Before I even shot a frame for publication, I attended the Missouri Workshop. It’s a weeklong workshop where people drop in from all over the country, most working photojournalists, and spend a week in a small town in Missouri shooting a story of their own invention, researched and executed in the confines of this one week. There are a team of big names in photojournalism assembled by the University of Missouri to mentor you. When I went you got three. And it was a fabulous experience. Don’t get me wrong, I was intimidated and scared beyond belief, and I didn’t exactly overachieve. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And I made friendships in that short week there, that I still maintain today. And one friend, a talented and inspired photographer herself, and even better (for me!), a photo editor, just hired me for a fabulous assignment. So that experience has really paid big dividends in the long term, both in the inspiration and mentoring I received there (with a team of three you receive a nice variation of voices – and I was lucky to get one, Melissa Farlow, who is a very nurturing soul and encouraged me despite my not evincing as much talent as yearning).
In graduate school, the school I went with placed a big emphasis on the tradition of photojournalism best evidenced by the NPPA and National Geographic. I had signed up to get away from that Washington photojournalist thing. That soul-killing question I was asked too often on the phone calls from New York, “Do you have anything that matches the wires?” If you want the wires, just use the wires, I thought. It makes no sense for us all to be shooting the same thing the same way. At least, not to me. It was clear that this was not what I had signed up for.
In terms of mentors, there were no Joel Sternfelds, at my university. A) They wouldn’t have known what to do with him at OU, but more to the point, B) If I wanted Joel Sternfeld (and in retrospect, that would have been great, he sounds very inspiring and doesn’t seem to necessitate mimicry for approval), I should have done my homework and gone to Joel Sternfeld. My graduate school director orientated us the first day of school with an eye-opening slide show of his oeuvre on nude faculty at OU in the 1970s. It was a hairy experience, and a bit Avedon derivative, but I’m sure made with a lot of feeling. This was clearly, not my mentor. Anyhoo, I think that everything builds on the other, and my time in Appalachian Ohio was very inspiring, by the friends I made, and the good country people I found, and I discovered my own voice, even if it was out of sync with the prevailing wisdom at school. I have no regrets there.
But in terms of mentoring, I have had none of long-term consequence, and like the fatherless child I am, I have felt that lack. Don’t feel sorry for me though, truth be told, I have a wonderful and supportive mate who is an artist disguised as a photojournalist, so he is of some use in the supportive and inspirational front, but there are just so many things about my chosen career path with which he can’t relate.
I just read this great article in the March Atlantic magazine, “Marry Him!” by Lori Gottlieb, about women who have refused to settle and now find themselves, past their prime, with more than a little regret of being so intolerant of imperfection in their most fertile years. Likewise, I wonder if it is necessary to have a superstar mentor (surely it probably helps professionally ), but rather someone who while not a “made-man”, but rather like a good partner, will nurture and support you for who you are, inspire you to be a better person/artist, and guide you towards a path where it will be possible to both eat and produce art, this with the implicit knowledge that giving can be very rewarding as well.
For my own part, I have tried to support younger artists/photographers. Often I find that the mentees are not good at following up, maintaining the connection, and really once opening the door, I don’t believe that the mentor should be obligated to nag one’s mentee into communication. I myself have not had such opportunities, but I would still welcome them, are you ever too old for a mentoring relationship?
Navigating a career as a photographer can put me in mind of a statement Robert Louis Stevenson once made about visiting a foreign land: the kaleidoscope of sensations that is as jumbled as a bit of counterpane, forming shapes and colors, but devoid of contextual meaning. Perhaps I overembellish.
If I were to put an ad out for a mentor, it might read something like this: Wanted: Mentor (preferably female) for earnest photographer seeking wisdom and professional guidance – fame and/or Guggenheim Fellowship/Genius Grant not necessary but helpful. In return, I offer sincerity, motivation, homemade soup, everlasting gratitude, and a great sense of humor. Interested parties can email me at sr (at) susanaraab.com.