Mentoring~ Pass It On
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a very pleasant young man from my home state of Minnesota. His name is Jae Seifert and he’s currently attending college in Bemidji, Mn. Jae and I met at a presentation I was giving for the Boca Grand Camera Club in Boca Grand, Florida. After the event he came up to introduce himself, we chatted briefly and he requested an opportunity to sit down for a short interview. I agreed and the next day we met at my parents home in Placida, Florida. I share this with you to set the stage for what I feel is a very important obligation in any persons life, the gift of mentoring.
When I think back on my early years as a toy-loving 12 year old boy the first mentor in my life was my father. Many of us are fortunate to have had a male person for guidance but there are many others that have not. More so today than ever before and I can only imagine were my life would be without that person in my life I call my dad. He gave me much of the foundation I use today.
When Jae asked for a few minutes to “pick my brain” I immediately thought of a nearly identical situation I had when I was about sixteen years old. The person I wanted to meet was a guy I remember as John Eberling. He was from Brainard, Minnesta and at the time was extremely successful at making a descent living selling images of the the outdoors and wildlife subjects.. I made the exact same request to Mr. Eberling that Jae requested of me. Mr. Eberling agreed and I was on cloud nine. I remember showing up at his house getting there by way of a ride from my mother. His office was a bit messy, lots of photographic prints on the walls, on his desk, in the closet, transparencies on a light table stacked 30-40 images high. In the corner of the room sat a camera bag, several old Nikkormats tucked away inside. It was a surreal experience and I’ve always been grateful.
Next in line was a man I still consider my friend today, Dan Grandmaison in Duluth, Minnesota. Dan owned Grandmaison Photographic Studios. Equally important was his partner Tim Slattery also of Duluth. Dan took me in and gave me a job after weeks and weeks of me nearly beating down his door. I finally convinced him I could sweep better than any other person on the planet and thats what I did for the first several months. Eventually, Dan and Tim brought me into the darkroom, taught me how to shoot weddings and took me along on commercial shoots as an assistant. I eventually began to shoot weddings on my own for Grandmaison Studios but never could I have done that without the superior training that Dan and Tim gave me. Next in line is a man I met only briefly, similar to Mr. Eberling. His name was Ozzie Sweet and he was speaking at a regional convention for Professional Photographers of America. I was in Sioux Falls attending the PPofA conference myself. At the time I was 21 years old. Dan Grandmaison had sent me to the conference to learn more about shooting weddings but low and behold one of the scheduled workshops was about making a living as an outdoor freelance photographer. I went to all of my mandatory programs for the studio but thankfully had enough additional time to attend the lecture by Ozzie Sweet. When he was finished I approached him and asked him if I could buy him a drink. He graciously accepted. As we walked down the lengthy hall of the Holiday Inn chatting along the way, he paused momentarily, looked me straight in the eye and said, “are you old enough to drink?” I smiled and assured him I was. We carried on into the lounge and during the brief time I had to “pick his brain” he gave me one of the most important nuggets of advise anyone has ever offered. He said, “young man, if you want to make a living in this field one of the most crucial things you can do is head to New York and see the editors in person”. That next January I did just that.
On that first trip to the east coast I also went to Washington, DC. My plan was to see National Geographic and other natural history publications and conservations groups based there. I had way too much confidence in those days and that confidence got me twenty minutes with an assistant photo editor, Mr. Dean Conger at National Geographic. I can remember that appointment like it was yesterday. There I sat in a chair across from his desk, his hunched body leaning forward as he quietly studied each image. Five to ten minutes passed before he raised his head, gently handed my work back and commented, “Daniel, you need to remember one very important thing. The sun doesn’t always shine.” And believe me, I’ve taken that to heart ever since.
Not all people are so kind however and it’s a good life lesson to remember that. There is one photographer whose work I still consider the best in the business and is still very active in photography today. He’s shot many, many stories for National Geographic and at one time was one of their contract photographers. No names will be given. One summer I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet this person. He started out in the natural history field very similar to the way I did it and it was interesting and hopeful to me to see such parallel paths. A friend of mine was an executive at an ad agency that was using this guy to shoot a project. My friend asked me if I would like to tag along. I was about twenty years old at the time. I brought my portfolio and after the shoot my supporter talked this gentleman into reviewing my work. He did and he was gracious enough, but that’s as far as it went. My dream was the hope of this person seeing our comparable paths, interests etc. and for some reason would want to give me a hand. Suffice it to say it never materialized. Oddly enough about ten years later, well after I had begun to establish my own name, this person actually called me at my home in Bozeman. He was shooting a new project for National Geographic in my new home state of Montana and needed an assistant. My heart nearly went through my throat until he finished the sentence with, “It can’t be you, but maybe you know someone that might be able to help me.” Amazingly, I had no idea.
In those early days of building my career I promised myself that if I ever had a chance to help those just starting out I would do that. Today our office takes on at least a couple of interns a year, most from Montana State University. I do anywhere from 1-3 workshops for budding photo enthusiasts for PopPhoto’s Mentor Series World Wide Photo Treks. Additionally, my wife and I lead several other photography workshops each annum to world class photographic destinations where we host eight to fifteen people who want to learn more about capturing pictures. All in all it’s a very rewarding way to make a living, see the world and do my best to give back in the name of those kind folks who went before me. Thank you Dad, Daniel, Ozzie, Dean and last but not least Mr. John Echave and Bill Allen who gave me my first break at National Geographic. I’ll never forget the opportunities you all helped bring my way.