One summer more than 15 years ago, just before my career as an editorial photographer got going, a friend called me up and said that a photographer friend of hers was looking for a printer. I was happy for the opportunity as I was trying to leave my position as studio manager for another photographer. I had been there for a couple of years and I was more than ready to move on. I printed for Philippe Cheng for a couple of weeks and was soon printing for his studio mate, Holger Thoss, as well. These were good times for me. I was so happy to meet other photographers who were making a living and leading happy lives. I hadn't really had this example in my life up to then and so I was really soaking it up. Toward the end of the summer, Philippe had asked me to bring in my portfolio and when he saw it, without saying a word, he touched my shoulder and led me across the hall to meet his third studio mate, John Dolan, who had just returned from vacation. John had made his name in the editorial and wedding world and was transitioning into a commercial career. I started assisting him and traveled with him quite a bit over the next couple of years as his commercial career took off.
I was thinking about all of this because I just read Every Good Boy Does Fine, a mini-memoir by pianist Jeremy Denk. In it, Denk talks a lot about the precarious balance between mentor and mentee and it struck a chord. I learned so much from John and watched my own work really come together during this time. After a couple of years, I was ready to go out on my own and while we stayed in touch, I think it's easy to imagine that it can be an awkward transition between assistant/employee to what? Friend, colleague...equal?
After a while, I moved away to California, had a baby, clawed my way back to the Northeast and, at a certain point, thought of putting my cameras down for a different career. With my hands free I realized that I wasn't built for much else and after a particularly inspiring conversation with Holger, I decided I would make my photo career out of equal parts editorial, commercial and weddings. I felt rusty so I asked Holger and John if I could come on a couple of weddings to remember the rhythm of it. During a break at one wedding with John, I asked him (feeling very proud) if he had looked at a website that I had recently put together of my wedding photos. Very unexpectedly, he totally laid into me, telling me that this wasn't sport and that you had to really give it your all. I was completely stung and had to hold back tears for the rest of the night as well as during the endless drive home the next day but, I find that things like that only hurt if they are true. I don't know if John even remembers this but it was a decisive moment for me personally and, I think, for our relationship. Denk speaks of a similar moment with one of his teachers though his teacher publicly embarrasses him which is different and unforgivable. Of it Denk says, "Maybe we were both realizing that our time had run it's course. Evil moment, when you doubt the magician's magic..." For me, it wasn't that I doubted John at all. I did, and still do, admire him very much, but this little dressing-down made me realize how much I was still seeking praise from him. I don't think we had been equals up until that point, but somehow, after that, we were. I have grown a lot since then. I certainly cannot give John all of the credit for this but I am grateful for the nudge out of the nest.
I have gone with John to several weddings since then, as a second shooter. This is always fun since I mostly shoot alone and it's a good time to catch up. I don't know if John would agree but for me, there has always been a weird, separated-at-birth quality to us and our pictures (thus Philippe's gentle shove into John's office way back when?). At a wedding this summer the point was proven (see above photo). The flash from a camera lasts between 1/200 and 1/1000 of a second (I looked it up). Hard to be more in sync (or equal?) than that.