I've just spent several days with Harold Ross in Lancaster, Pa. This was my second workshop with Harold as I continue to learn his light painting technique. As I type this, I'm in Charleston, SC with my long-time friend and mentor, J. Nathan Corbitt. I'm, as I grow older, learning to appreciate the value of mentorship over larger spans of time. There is a place for the punctuated moments of 'wise advice' that we receive early in life; but it's another matter to have people who can both observe and speak to one's experiences over time as one is shaped and matured through them. I think it's the same whether we are talking about navigating our daily lives, work, or art. We need mentors, not to set the course or make the decisions, but to act as collectors and observers of our lives as a long-term project. At one time in my life, I searched for a mentor that could tell me what I should do but that's not a healthy expectation (and I can easily spot the stereotypical older man who wants to play the role of a mentor but is essentially looking for converts to his way of thinking). The best mentors are people who are secure enough in their own life experience that they have no need of changing others but, equally, confident enough to share it.
I've been blessed with good mentors and teachers though my life. I don't know that this necessarily means I've always made the best decisions along the way. However, that may not be the point. Some of the wisest people have made rather unwise decisions (one of the best pieces of wisdom I've had from Nathan is 'you never really find out what you want to do; but you will know what you don't want to do again'). You can't learn that if someone is there to simply fill in the blanks for you and navigate every turn. I found this as Harold guided my work over these past days. I've been using the technique over several months since our last time together; however, I had developed some sloppy practice along the way so much of the workshop was just reviewing the previous one and correcting my errant ways. Harold patiently brought me back through the process as we worked on several images together. There was little hint of frustration on his part. It's an involved technique that has taken him years to master; a good mentor has the understanding of the scope of worthwhile work in a person, a project or a piece of art. Also, though he explains and shows how to do the lighting and then post-production in Photoshop, Harold takes care to make sure his students actually do all the work themselves on a final piece (though, full disclosure, there are a couple layers in 'The Titan' above that Harold did for the sake of time as we ended the last day that I will redo myself later). Over coffee one morning, we discussed people who expect a plug-in that can mimic the look of this whole process with the click of a mouse. That is no more possible (or desirable as an artist) than a magic way with which one can solve any given life issue; the whole point is the process itself regardless of how difficult or sometimes painful.
One of the things I'm starting to understand with my photographic work is that, yes, it's important to have a certain volume of practice. However, for me, I'm at a place where it's perhaps more important to have a slow steady studied output where my technique is refined through consideration and rigour. Perhaps that’s a common theme in life and art regardless.
On the two images: Both images are practice pieces pieces to work on specific challenges (textures, metallic surfaces, etc.). The piece of driftwood is only a couple hand lengths across; however, as we worked on it up close, it presented as a vast cliff face (it would be interesting to see it printed large as it could be quite enveloping). 'The Titan' is an artificial hip joint atop an assembly of various bearings and gears balanced on the largest fuse I've ever seen (I think it was something like an 8000 amp fuse). Scale, scope, angle of light and our perceptions…it all takes time and wisdom to shape and understand.