View Full Version : Mentoring younger photographers

David R Munson
17-Nov-2003, 13:16
Earlier today I was thinking about just how much a few individuals have positively influenced me, photographically, from the time I first started doing photography. I really started getting into photography seriously in about 1996 when I was 14. At that time, I had just moved to a different state, didn't know anybody, and was pretty much fumbling around in the dark without much direction to my photographic education. Not long after that, though, I took a landscape photography workshop with Ian Adams and subsequently became friends with him. He was my mentor all through high school, and did so much to encourage my growth that I wonder where I would be without his influence. I think there were times his encouragement was about the only thing outside of my own determination keeping me from just giving up on photography.

There are a handful of photographers here on the LF forum who have also made a decidedly positive impact on my personal and technical growth as a photographer. What's more, this forum in general has been a great resource and source of encouragement since I first came here, which I think must have been about January, 1997.

But the point I'm driving at is that, to someone who is just starting out or is unsure of his place in photography, being mentored or even just encouraged by someone with more experience can make all the difference in the world. A few words of encouragement or a pearl of knowledge here and there, given without expectation to a student, as it were, can easily make the difference in whether someone continues an active pursuit of photography or whether that same person just abandons it altogether. Likewise, one unqualified negative remark is all it takes to bitterly kill off someone's interest for life.

I know I've been helped immensely by individuals who, for whatever reason, decided they wanted to encourage or educate me in some way. Maybe that's why, when I come across a situation where I feel someone is being unfairly discouraged from something like photography in which they've taken a genuine interest, I'm somewhat apt to take their side and defend them doggedly as a matter of principle. But I digress - there's a question coming here, I swear. Given the possible positive effect of mentoring someone, I have to wonder sometimes why one doesn't see more of it. Perhaps it is in decline? But then, was it ever that common?

Really, there's two things here. First, what I'd like to hear from the forum members are any thoughts or personal experiences involving mentoring younger photographers or being mentored by someone older and wiser. Second, I would like to challenge some of you out there to consider, next time the opportunity presents itself, personally helping out someone who's just getting started. You never know the diference you might make.

james mickelson
17-Nov-2003, 14:19
I am mentor to quite a few budding and journeymen photographers at the moment and never hesitate to talk with anyone who wants information. I also mentor printers as well. I feel it is an honor to impart your wisdom should anyone want to learn from you. If there are any here who would like any help via email (or in person but you have to live in So Calif to do so) then let me know. And from my experience on these forums, I think that is the same of most of us. We all like to feel that we share what we have learned freely.

Jay DeFehr
17-Nov-2003, 15:18
Hi David. If you photograph as well as you write, you'll make a fine internet mentor to some of us beginners. I can relate to your roots in photography, and although I've never been able to attend a workshop, I was fortunate enough to deal with some very experienced and very pragmatic gentlemen who operated the local camera store. If you were to ask these guys if they were photographers, they'd laugh and make a sarcastic remark about getting away from photography every chance they got, but if you asked a specific question with the slightest hint of intelligence, you'd get a very straightforward, no nonsense answer, and their collective knowledge of equipment was encyclopedic. Unlike some of the photographers I've met since then, they were non-competitive, and constructive in their critique of my fledgling efforts. I bought a lot of my first equipment from them, and I would have bought a lot more, but they refused to sell me something I didn't need, or something of low quality. They took it upon themselves to guide me through the very steep early learning curve of photography and made sure that I had a solid foundation of knowledge upon which to build. They didn't consider themselves photographers, much less artists, and never attempted to advise me along those lines, but they were always very positive and supportive of my efforts. I've found men of similar character here, and in other forums whose names I won't mention for fear of omission. There are others, of course, who make their work finding fault and self congratulation , and even one well known and highly respected photographer who has done nothing but berate me and diminish my efforts, but having had the respect of men I admire at an early stage in my development makes those buffoons easy to discount. I'm still finding my way in this medium, and my work has yet to match my expectations, but the support and encouragement of those mentors gives me the confidence and patience to keep working at it, and even at my humble level of development, I've found opportunities to pass along some of the knowledge that has been handed down to me. Often I find that in explaining a principle to the unfamiliar, I gain a more intimate understanding myself. There are a lot of facts, figures and concepts rattling around up there, and it helps to organize them in a way that can be communicated to someone who doesn't already know more than I do. Clarity through simplification, as it were. As a part of my education in photography I've occasionally volunteered to assist other photographers, or worked in commercial labs, or taken on projects that promise new insights. My version of adult education, I guess. I assisted a local wedding photographer for a while, in exchange for the use of his studio and lighting equipment, to learn about that kind of work and considered the weddings as my payment. I ended up learning more from the weddings than I ever did in the studio. For one, I learned that I never wanted to shoot weddings. I also learned how a photographer can focus his efforts on one way of working to simplify his equipment and technique in the interest of efficiency. He was a pro in every sense of the word, but the breadth of his photographic knowledge was surprisingly narrow. He was of the "f8 and be there" school, and had no knowledge of darkroom work, chromes or even B&W. Everything was shot on the same clor negative film and when a client asked for a B&W print, he had the lab make one from his color negative. While his way of working was diammetrically opposed to mine, I came to respect his precision and efficiency. He worked automatically and without hesitation through his well practiced routine. The clients got what they wanted, after all, they'd seen his work and chose him on that basis, and he made a decent living. My point is that there is something to be learned from just about every photographer, wether or not we admire their work or techniques, and regardless of their experience.

Jan Pietrzak
17-Nov-2003, 15:25

You pose a very interesting question. Today as in all days I still think of and deal with my mentors. Two photographers are still apart of my life from the70's Steve Crouch, and Al Weber. The fact is that after 30 years Weber still gives me some course correction, but not like the old days. As to this day Al and I still work back and forth I some times wonder who is mentoring you at this point.

As stated mentoring is not easy it has not been easy for me. It takes time and energy lots of it, to work with students. Not every student wants to be mentored even when it is greatly needed. Modern students want the answeres now, right now. They don't want to work out the issues themselfs.

I have taken the back road in my photographic education, but oh has it been a great and wonderful trip. Learning from whoever I could.

I have been teaching students for over 20 years. It is a great reward to see what they have done for themselfs. A number of years ago I tought a class in handcoated processes. At the end of that class 5 students wanted to keep going on with the work. We met on a regular basis for the for the next 2 years. With my darkroom in boxes we quit meeting, three of those students have helped build my new darkroom space and work area. The next job is to start the class/workshop a new. Hopefully after the first of the year. Once a week for 10/12 weeks a session is a small price to pay to help students.

This comming summer I willbe helping Al Weber with some sort of project, 'you take, you give, you give back, you receive.

Jan Pietrzak

John D Gerndt
17-Nov-2003, 19:28
There is nothing like the bond between student and mentor. I am proud anytime I am a part of it, on either side. Yes I take each opportunity that comes along but only a few have yielded long lasting results. That bond is not a done deal. There is something very difficult to define and more difficult to conjure in a teaching relationship that makes for great reward and discovery. We all have had many teachers, only a few have been great connections. Cherish those few and far between and to paraphrase Jan, give as good as you get! It is the best way to honor those who have taught you well.


James Driscoll
18-Nov-2003, 07:20
David, I like you started photographing at a young age. 13 to be exact. At the time, I met a photojournalist named Mike Falco at a junior high school "career day".

He saw my interest and encouraged me to start shooting. He later processed and printed my first roll of film in front of me to "show me the process". I then took a class, and he was always around to critique my work or loan me equipment. Once he even got my Nikon fixed for me for free using his "repair account" at the newspaper he worked for. Saved me $200....thats a lot of scratch for a 13 year old!!!

Now I am 24. In the past few years I have made many inroads into professional photography. I photographed my first book when I was 22, and my second when I was 23. Mike Falco, in the past few years has gone on to work on some very high profile projects, and has been profiled in PDN and the NY Times.

Last year, he was published in National Geographic.

I see a strong bond between the Mentor/Student relationship. Mike is responsible for my career choice, and not only helped me techinically and mentally, he never waved his ego at me.

It was one of the greatest feelings in to world, to sit down with Mike over a Gin and Tonic and talk about "our books".

Sometimes, I wonder if he feels any satisfaction knowing that he started it all for me.