Channel Your Historical Mentors

About thirty years ago I was 11 years old and sitting at the electric piano at the (Umatilla, Florida) home of my way cool, just-out-of-college piano teacher, Jane Trosper.

Ms. Trosper was no knuckle-wrapping, wrist-posturing, scale-demanding piano teacher. She was different. She was a child of the 60's. She was laid back, happy-go-lucky and seemingly locked in a perpetual groove. She was the kind of teacher who would just subtly nudge you in different directions and let you think you were discovering wonderful things all by yourself.

She was about feeling the music. She even played in a "combo" in the evenings. She was groovy.

And it was at one of those after-school piano lessons that she delivered what may be the earliest Moment of Clarity that I can still remember as a middle-aged adult.

I was having trouble working out a difficult passage when she casually leaned over to me and said something to the effect of, "You can do this. You are a great, great, great, great, great, great grand-student of Franz Liszt, you know."


That's right, she explained. She could trace her piano teacher lineage back to the great Hungarian pianist and composer, through a series of piano teachers through the ages.

Which meant that, now, so could I.

I never became a great pianist. But the instrument brought me countless of hours of happiness and creativity. I suspect it also made me better in math. (There's a lot of correlation between the two.)

And I always took extreme, if undeserved, pride that I could trace my piano roots back to good ol' Franz. (That's him at top on the left, by the way.) I suspect that he looks down at me with a tad more indifference. But that's beside the point for the time being.

My connection to Liszt was the first time I had ever considered the idea of a historical mentor - even if a far-removed one.

I have kept the concept in mind throughout my life, in a variety of areas. And I have applied it to some wildly disparate subjects.

Having someone for an historical mentor may not be as good as being that person's actual first-hand student. But you can be pretty picky about who you choose as a mentor as you delve into a new area of knowledge.

For example, I have been an investor for about 25 years. I started very young, on an informal basis, with help from my dad.

As I became an adult and really started getting into the idea of analyzing stocks for investment purposes, I discovered Peter Lynch. He was a stock picker who rode the great Franchising of America wave in the '80's to create billions upon billions of wealth for his shareholders in the famed Fidelity Magellan mutual fund.

He was generous enough to write a few great books, too. I happily devoured them. But I also looked back to see who his mentor was. Turns out it was none other than the richest man in the world -- and self-made, at that -- Warren Buffett. So I read everything I could about Buffett, who thankfully for his shareholders spends his time managing money and not writing books.

And I kept digging.

Turns out, Buffett was an actual student of a man named Benjamin Graham, who is widely considered to be the father of financial analysis. He was the first - and probably the best ever - value investor.

Boring? Yup. But as close as you'll ever get to having a money tree growing in your yard.

Ben Graham was an amazing man. When he graduated (undergrad) from Columbia U., they immediately offered him teaching positions in no less than five different subjects.

But more than that, he had the courage of his convictions when the excesses of the markets kept saying he was wrong.

He was right, and he compiled a lifelong investing record that may never see an equal.

Graham did write a book. It's about 70 years old. It's considered the Bible of securities analysis, and is appropriately titled Security Analysis. It's an essential read, if you are truly a fanatic like me.

Fortunately, he also wrote a layperson's version, called The Intelligent Investor. For my dollar, it is far and away the best book on investing ever written. Buffett thinks so, too.

How seriously do I take historical mentorships?

Just ask my son, Ben, who is named after Graham. Whatever he does, I hope he will get some of the intellect, strength and courage of his namesake.

(That's Graham in the middle of the top photo, by the way.)

How is this useful?

When I am at an investing crossroads on a particular stock, wondering if I should buy more, bail or just do nothing, one of the things I ask myself is "What would Ben Graham do?"

I don't always take his advice. And on many of those occasions I have been taken out behind the woodshed and shot, financially speaking.

But having the luxury of an imaginary Ben Graham around to give me advice helps me to gain much-needed perspective when making a tough call.

So, what does this have to do with lighting?

Well, like it or not, if you are a regular reader of this site you are using me as an ersatz lighting mentor.

Putting aside for a moment your questionable taste in compass points, I have tried to point you in the same direction as my original inspiration. It's my way of paying respect to the person that gave me my foundations. It also happens to be the best thing I can do for you as a person who wants to learn about light.

For an investing equivalent, it is rather like Peter Lynch saying, "If you liked 'One Up on Wall Street,' you should read some about Warren Buffett.

And then Buffett saying to you, in turn, "Forget me. I'm a hack. Read some Ben Graham and get the good stuff from the source."

Which is why I will regularly suggest to you that look past this website and consider discovering the source for a lot of my knowledge.

I'm a hack. Dean Collins (that's him on the right) was a visionary. He influenced me in a huge way. And for better or worse, I am influencing you.

If you are reading me and passing on him you are doing yourself a great disservice.

And while I'm at it, don't limit yourself to one mentor, either. For both lighting and portraiture, another mentor of mine is Gregory Heisler. And his was Arnold Newman. Heisler was better at this than I am. He did whatever it took to become Newman's assistant.

Smart guy.

Look at it this way. If you were a writer and had the choice between reading some ten-generations-removed critic of William Shakespeare or having Willy Himself spoon-feeding you the real stuff on a set of DVD's, you might be wise to consider the latter.

But that is one but specific within the broader picture of gaining breadth and depth in your knowledge on just about any subject by doing a little digging and following the trail back to the original source.

Find yourself a true, historical mentor. Heck, find several. Dig back until you get to the source. Then branch out and discover his/her followers. And not just the one who led you there, either. There'll be others.

Then, use their inspiration as you stand on their shoulders to achieve your own goals.


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Anonymous Charles Zablan said...

This is a great point, too often we get caught up in all the technicalities of our art, and we forget the inspiration behind the photographs, your article goes deeper than the inspiration of any single photograph it goes through the inspiration of how the artist became the artist.

September 19, 2006 1:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were always my inspiration... my mentors...., though I liked Roger Fenton's work quite a bit. I loved Penn's north light portraits, especially of european artists like Cocteau.

September 19, 2006 2:37 AM  
Blogger Jon Thornton said...

I always have my crap-meter on when I read your posts. Happily, my crap-meter has remained silent from day one.

Your advice about finding a mentor, digging deeper and just plain taking an active interest in learning stuff rings true with me.

For quite some time, John Shaw has been a virtual mentor of mine. John advises that to become a better nature photographer, you first need to become a better naturalist. I won't prattle on too much about John Shaw, but I will mention that John Shaw was influenced by Ansel Adams who in turn was influenced by Alfred Steiglitz. I read my way up the chain and this was very worthwhile.

Another virtual mentor of mine is David Hurn. In "On being a Photographer", David talks about the development of a photographic style. He suggests that a photographer's style emerges from an over-active curiosity about a very specific subject. This curiosity sometimes results in empathy, understanding and occasionally insight which in turn sometimes results in great photos. The self-absorbed photographer more concerned with their style than an understanding of their subject matter on the other hand, is unlikely to devlop a truly unique style.

I am yet to traverse David Hurn's written tree of influence, but I'm sure that when I do, it will be thought provoking stuff.

September 19, 2006 5:12 AM  
Blogger MartijnGizmo said...

Nice read David, I liked it! And to complete it, my Dean Collins DVD's arrived today. :-)

September 19, 2006 5:13 AM  
Anonymous Captoe said...

Funny timing, I was just thinking about Rembrandt as a great grandfather to the art of lighting up an image.

September 19, 2006 1:24 PM  
Blogger Jersey Girl said...

This reminds me of that "6 degrees of separation thing"...LOL

Inspiration...that's something that we all need and seek out in various was an interesting read! I like the idea of going deeper.

September 19, 2006 1:46 PM  
Anonymous lee said...

Thanks for the history lesson. It's important to know who your heroes learned from. When I was playing rock and Eddie Van Halen was the rage, we were surprised to learn that his heroes were J.S. Bach, then Clapton and Page.

Listening to the previous composers gave a tremendous amount of insight into why Van Halen did what he did; his inspiration for tone, tweaking the electronics, the two-handed tapping on the fretboard.

New to lighting and photography, I can apply these same historical lessons to what I want to do now.

Excellent post. Really inspiring and thought provoking.

September 19, 2006 2:43 PM  
Blogger David said...

Lighting wise, I'm a Vermeer fan, myself...

September 19, 2006 3:18 PM  
Blogger ron_hiner said...

Aside from David Hobby, my menotors are Edward Degas. Light.. comopostion... 'exposure'... he always nailed it. Joe McNally... for generally outstanding new approaches to old subject (e.g. nude olympians -- he broke the typecast that nudes were sensual -- he made them athletic. Think outside the box. Ballet dancers on the roof? Opera singers in the subway car? We all know about contrasts between light and dark, between sharpness and fuzzyness, and contrasts in colors... Joe knows all that too and goes further by contrasting the context between subject and background in startling ways.. All in a day's work for Joe. And Vince Versace for helping me realize that the art is the entire process... and not just the capture. Oh, and I can't forget Pete Turner. I cannot for the life of me understand why B&W is so popular in portraits and weddings. Pete opened my eyes to the power of color.
And on I could go... but much to learn, much to do.

September 19, 2006 11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You mentioned your interest in investing - i believe a good website is run by Todd Harrison. The name is funny but the site is pure quality.

September 20, 2006 12:14 AM  
Blogger Clint said...

It's a common excersize for us Buddhists to have to learn the lineage of our teachers back all the way to Buddha himself. Just like with your teacher, it helps remind us that all of us have a thread back to some greatness.

I'm pretty blessed that my grand-teacher is Jerome Liebling. Whenever I think I'm putting up some good work, all I have to do is look at his and I'm instantly humbled.

September 20, 2006 4:43 AM  
Blogger Bill. said...

My buddy just sent me the link here. Great stuff.

Anyway, I thought about something after reading this post. My grandparents (my dad's 'rents) were professional photographers here in Portland. My grandfather's father was a professional photographer. He started the old Meier and Frank photo studio here in 1910 after moving here from Denver. Now I don't know who taught him, yet.

But my grandfather's first studio gig was in a studio back in the late 1920s. His boss, and mentor, worked with Edward S. Curtis.

So thanks for making me think about that. Now if only I could take better portriats...

September 22, 2006 4:07 AM  
Blogger Nikographer said...

Great read, both the article and the comments.

I'm sort of like a sailor that just started to cross an ocean without planning. Now that I'm part way through the crossing, I wish I had a chart, a plan, a goal...

Reading sites like yours, podcasts like The Candid Frame, Camera Position, Martin Bailey's podcast, Tips from the Top Floor, etc, are really helping me along.

Yesterday I approached a family, talked for a while, then asked to take their photo, and was allowed to and I even tried some off camera flash (at Centennial Lake, btw) The flash shots didn't come out great, but I got a nice one of the father and son fishing...

Keep on keepin' on.

June 01, 2007 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Jens Thang said...

Hi David,

I can totally relate to what you have just said. This can literally apply to every art-form (some consider investing an art).

I play Jazz and have been advised to go down to the roots, the sources by my mentors. Many people are so obsessed with the contemporary stuff that they ignore the "godfathers".

Exploring the art from the source brings about better appreciation of the art. This brings greater creativity and joy.

Jens Thang

January 12, 2008 12:10 PM  

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