Throughout our lives, there’s a good chance we’ve had a mentor or two (or many) that have taken us under their wing, and guided us around or threw the “trials and tribulations of life.” Some mentors have given us a golden nugget of advice that has shaped who we are or what we do. Others may have bonded us to their hip, ensuring we didn’t make the same mistakes they did, and reveled in our accomplishments and successes.
Many mentors are close family members: My paternal grandfather instilled in me the philosophy of thinking things through before starting a project. He had a sign above his workbench that read, “Never Start Vast Projects with Half-Vast Ideas.” My maternal grandfather was a precision-oriented person – every screw head was aligned and everything he made was built to a 1/100-inch tolerance. That’s probably why I’m so anal in finishing my pieces, and why everything has to be perfect before it can leave my studio. Then there’s my dad, who subscribes to the Roger Penske equation of, “Effort = Results.” I remember him starting computing companies from nothing, grew them through sheer hard work, then selling them and repeating the process.
With my photography, I was lucky to have a couple of mentors that took me under their respective wings, and truly shaped the way I see the world and the way its lit: When I started what I call my “real college years,” (I spent several years prior at Pasadena City College bouncing between a business and music degree) at Cal Poly Pomona, I enrolled in the College of Arts Communication Department for a degree in public relations. Looking at the curriculum, I separated the college required courses from the core degree courses, deciding to get all the generic course work out of the way.
One of those mandated classes was basic photography. Since I had been taking pictures since I was a kid, I considered that class to be a galactic waste of time. None the less, I decided to get it out of my hair early on, and I signed up for COM 131, Introduction to Photography. A few weeks later, I walked into the darkroom, and fell in love with light.
One of things that made the fall even harder was the instructor, Dr. Wayne Rowe. Besides contributing regularly to Architectural Digest, and illustrating high school and college text books, he’s also extensively photographed the Provence region of France. If I could sum him up in a single word, it has to be, “passionate.” His passion for the art of photography, its rich history, and the way a photographer can use light to tell a story know no bounds. In every lecture, every lab and every critique, that passion came through, and it was infectious.
Friends and family are quick to say that photography and the darkroom became my obsession, and my sister calling it more a disease – one I hope a cure is never found. I can understand their reasoning, for Dr. Rowe took me under his wing, and I ended up taking every photography class the college offered, plus I ended up being the department’s lab tech for three years.
Those initial years started shaping me from a shooter of “snaps,” to a real photographer, always thinking about composing scenes, waiting for the right light, and using depth of field to let the subject do the talking. With each shot, I could see my images getting better, and a style developing, but it wasn’t until I met my next mentor that my photography would move to the “next level.”
In November of 2003, I took workshop with Robert Glenn Ketchum in Hana. I had always admired his work as a photographer and conservationist (his images of the Hudson River Valley and Tongass National Forest are amazing). Heavily influenced by the work of Eliot Porter, RGK’s images are not only breathtaking, but also speak volumes to preserving delicate ecosystems – the loss of which can have massive trickle down effects.
That first day, sitting in the living room of the Hotel Hana’s Plantation House, Robert lectured about how we see and perceive light, and how the camera sees things differently. The proverbial light bulb flickered on, and I finally “got” how light works. Seeing that I was a bit more advanced than the other students, he took the time to emphasize how the thoughtful framing of subject, light and contrast can not only create a great image, but a mood that tells a story, and a cause to action. Robert taught me that every image should have a purpose, whether it influences the viewer to joy, sorrow, empathy or action.
As a pioneer of aerial nature photography, RGK also challenged me to capture the “big picture” – an image that tells the whole story. To this day, I love strapping into a Hughes 500 helicopter with the doors off and capturing the grandeur of Waimea Canyon, the Wailua chain of waterfalls or Waialeale.
Being one of the few people in the class with a digital camera, I was able to quickly apply what I’d learned and verify my results with Robert. Back then, the digital revolution was gaining speed, but the class was an even mix of film and digital photographers. I was shooting a Canon 1Ds at the time, and I remember class mates oohing and aahing at its (then) ginormous 11 MP sensor. As RGK was shooting Fuji Velvia, I helped answer questions pertaining to digital capture and RAW processing.
With Robert’s tutelage, I watched my creative process and images mature. The foreground to background depth ratio increased, as well as the emotion within each image. More importantly, my photography started to tell stories. It’s with RGK that I started teaching photography – the following year we tag teamed a Hana workshop, adding a digital component that was my kuleana, and the first time I enjoyed watching others get their a-ha moments.
The rest, you might way is history: Over the last five years, I’ve transitioned from the “mentoree” to a “mentor,” providing guidance and insight to up and coming shooters on Maui and throughout the world. For those locally, we go out shooting together, talk story and go over the pros and cons of different equipment or galleries. For those that I mentor in the continental U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia, we usually email back and forth or use Skype. The goal, no matter where they are, is helping them to create better images, avoid the pitfalls that I’ve experienced from time to time, and help mold their creative vision. The best part is not just watching them grow from picture taker to image maker, but to evolve into successful photographers. That alone gives me great pleasure, knowing that I’ve helped perpetuate the passion for capturing light.