Back when hippies roamed the earth and astronauts roamed the lunar surface, I was the typical 10 year-old suburban globule who, like thousands of other 10 year-old suburban globules, was being subjected to weekly piano lessons. Don’t misunderstand; I liked music — loved it, actually. But the piano lessons weren’t doing it for me. My pedantic plunking of some dumbed-down Bach or Brahms ditty had no apparent connection to the rock and roll that streamed forth from FM radio. Piano lessons, I figured, were just another of the many things that all kids were forced to endure — much like going to school or eating vegetables.
One day, about a year into the grind, I entered the local piano store for my weekly lesson, and was surprised to find my teacher had left. In her place sat Jim Victor: a young man in his early 20’s; long hair; John Lennon glasses. He asked me to call him “Jim.” In truth, he looked a little more like John Denver than John Lennon, but he was still far cooler than any music teacher I’d ever seen.
Jim asked me to play what I’d been working on, so I began my soulless rendition of the musical notes that sat propped before me on the piano — notes to which I’d dedicated exactly three and one-half hours of my life to learning. I finished the piece and waited for the critique.
“Do you like this music?” Jim asked.
Suspecting a trick question, I responded “It’s OK.”
“You know you don’t have to play this if you don’t want,” he said.
Now thoroughly convinced that trickery was afoot, I began to scan the little recital room for Allen Funt’s hidden camera.
“What kind of music do you like?” asked Jim.
“The Beatles?” I answered tentatively.
“Then buy a Beatles music book, and bring it to your lesson next week.”
“Really?” I asked disbelievingly.
“Of course. If you’re going to learn to play the piano, you might as well learn by playing music you like.”
Over the next month, my life changed dramatically. I stopped watching the clock, and found myself happily exceeding my 30 minute practice dictate — sometimes playing for an hour or more. It was satisfying to learn to play something I knew; something I liked.
A couple months later, after I finished playing yet another rock song by some currently popular artist, Jim sat quietly — seemingly hesitant to respond.
“It’s good,” he said, “but wouldn’t it sound even better if you played it like this?”
He then proceeded to play a groove-oriented jazz interpretation of the song that, though obviously having its roots in the original melodic structure, veered into entirely new territory. I was enraptured.
“You don’t have to play the notes that are written on the page,” said Jim, pulling out a pencil and scribbling in an entirely new bass line and modifying the chord structure of the chorus. “Try it now,” he said.
It was the first time I’d ever had my mind blown. It exploded into a billion little pieces. From that point forward, I never again played a piece of music the way it was written. In the weeks that followed, Jim and I would rewrite music together, but it wasn’t long before I started modifying all the pieces myself. Practice soon consumed every spare moment of my day, and I would rush home from school, plow through chores and snub my homework — just to get a few more moments behind the keyboard.
Before long, I started to think “why am I rewriting existing material? I’m modifying these songs so much, I might as well just write them from scratch.” And so I did — my piano lessons were no longer ‘lessons,’ but the ‘world premiere’ of that week’s new composition. And now, because all I cared about was music, I began to appreciate other musical genres that most kids wouldn’t dream of listening to — I started to develop a strong interest in classical music and wanted to understand its structures and theories. I wanted to learn about orchestration and counterpoint. I became fascinated by the avant-garde. I wanted to absorb everything I possibly could — and I had barely even entered my teens.
Jim took my unwired, uncooked brain and taught me that rules were merely suggestions — that my own soul was where music really comes from, and not from the notes on the printed page. It launched me on a music-based career that lasted decades.
Jim’s approach to teaching piano has had a direct impact on every creative endeavor in my life. His technique taught me to seek inspiration from those whose work I admire; to understand it; absorb it; reinvent it; then make it my own. This process — repeated endlessly throughout my life — is what enables me to find my own voice, my own passions, and unlock my creativity. This strategy — though taught in front of a piano — works for anything and everything with a creative component. For this reason, my childhood piano lessons became the best (and only) photography lessons I ever had.
Last week, reinforcing my status as an overly predictable creature of habit, I went to my local bookseller to peruse their latest inventory of photography monographs. Squatting to see the contents of a bottom shelf, I saw a pair of shins shuffle toward me, then pause perilously close to my face. Thinking I was obstructing someone’s view, I stood to move.
“You’re a pro photographer, aren’t you?” asked the man to whom the shins belonged.
“More so in spirit than by any accepted accounting standards,” I answered.
“I knew it,” replied the gentleman. “You look like a photographer.”
My mind quickly attempted to construct a composite image of a de-facto photographer. I mentally sequenced and re-sequenced DNA strands from Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson, Smith, Koudelka and others in an effort to create a profile of a generic photographer, but I just couldn’t find a match for my own reflection. I sprinkled in a bit of Diane Arbus, Ruth Bernhard and Lisette Model in hopes of accentuating some of my softer features, but still couldn’t concoct a doppelgänger. Just as I was beginning to compare Richard Avedon’s hair to my own, Mr. Shins spoke again.
“Can you recommend a book or a class that will teach me to become a photographer?” he asked.
The poor fellow couldn’t have been more surprised by my response. “First,” I said, nodding toward the ‘Photography Techniques’ section, “don’t even bother looking through those books. They purport to teach you photography, but they don’t tell you anything about yourself.”
My inquisitor looked puzzled.
“What motivates your desire to photograph?” I asked.
“I don’t really know,” he replied.
“Who is your audience? What do you want your photos to communicate? What are they about?”
Again, he couldn’t answer.
“The only thing those how-to books will teach you is how to take photos that look like everybody else’s photos,” I said. “Sure, you’ll manage to take generic facsimiles of the photos contained in the book, but what’s the point? A million other people are reading the same book and trying to take the same photos. If you want to learn photography then what you really need is to learn how to see.”
I saw the light turn on behind the eyes of Mr. Shins.
“Photography isn’t about the mechanical act of photographing things,” I said, “it’s about showing the viewer what’s unique about you — about how you see the world and about how you interpret it.”
Mr. Shins’ shins began to do a little dance. “Yeah! I hadn’t really thought of that, but you’re right!”
Approaching maximum pontification, I continued with my monologue. “That’s why the best way to start learning how to photograph is to look through all these monographs,” I said, plagiarizing myself as I waved a hand to and fro at the bookcases before us. “You need to find some photographers whose style, photos, subject and vision connect with you and then figure out what that connection is. The more you recognize how they see and interpret their surroundings, the more photo opportunities you’ll see in your own life.”
“That’s my problem!” exclaimed my new friend. “I can never find anything to photograph.”
“And that’s the key to becoming a photographer,” I said. “At any given moment, there are thousands of potential photographs all around us — being a photographer is about learning how to see them, and then choosing the ones that mean something to you. Most people restrict their photography to the visual cataloging of various objects, people and places — but great photography is more about emotion and interpretation than about replication.”
“I see what you mean,” said the man. “But how do I learn the basics? How do I know if I’m doing it right?”
“There’s no such thing as right or wrong in photography,” I said. “You just have to start shooting. Then keep shooting. Then shoot some more. The more you shoot, the more you learn.”
“But how do I know if my pictures are any good?”
“Simply by looking at them, and being honest about how they make you feel,” I answered. “Unless you’re a commercial photographer with a client, it doesn’t matter which of your pictures other people like — it only matters which ones you think are good. When you look through all these monographs, you’ll see dozens of photographers whose work does nothing to inspire you — but that doesn’t mean they’re not great photographers. It just means their likes and interests are different than yours. They’re not trying to satisfy everyone who views their work, and neither should you. The more people you try to satisfy, the blander your photos will be. But if you’re honest with yourself when assessing your own photos, then you’ll find yourself developing your own style and your own voice; one that will be unique to you and not just a copy of someone else’s idea of a photograph.”
“I’m so glad I talked to you. I can’t wait to get started!” exclaimed Mr. Shins; a smile stretching widely across his face.
“Good luck,” I replied, “and have fun with it.”
As I turned to leave, the gentleman took up residence in front of the photography monographs, reached onto the top left shelf, and extracted the first book.
I felt somewhat optimistic that maybe, perhaps, I helped steer someone toward an approach that will launch them on a long and pleasurable journey with photography. Decades later, Jim Victor is teaching pupils he doesn’t even know he has in an art form he didn’t even practice. For an educator, that’s a significant victory.
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Soylent Green” was shot with a Leica M9 and 28mm f/2 Summicron lens. “The Rote Year” and “Early Gig” were both likely shot by my Dad and don’t look nearly as bad as I’ve presented them here — purposely, stylishly and artificially “aged” for use on another website. “A Closer Look” and “Jailer’s Muse” were both shot during a Vancouver Street Photography workshop that the Leica Akademie asked me to assist with. Though nothing overly special, they remind me of how much I like helping other photographers find their own voices. Both were shot with a Leica M9 and a 28mm f/2 Summicron lens.
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