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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Explorer

John Sexton — Opinions are Just Opinions

In an odd sort of way, I may owe my life in photography to John Sexton. Without John's encouragement, I may have quit photography altogether. There's a story behind this which is personally embarrassing, but illustrates John's compassion and dedication towards teaching and helping young photographers.

My first big-name workshop was one I attended in Yosemite Valley in the early 1980s sponsored by the Owens Valley Workshop Program. The Owens Valley Workshops were a three-man effort by John Sexton, Bruce Barnbaum, and Ray McSaveny. All three of them are terrific photographers and I was excited to attend and have them critique my work. I'd been working hard at developing my craft and my eye for the better part of a dozen years and felt I was ready for this first serious exposure to accomplished photographers. To conduct the critiques, we were divided into three groups to have our work looked at by each of the three instructors independently. My first critique was with Bruce Barnbaum. Bruce subsequently has become a good friend, but that first experience was what could best be characterized as a "tough love" critique. I put up for display my 15 pieces of work and Bruce looked at them for several minutes without comment. Then, in his inimitable cut-to-the-quick method of critique he turned to me and said, "Are you sure you want to pursue a career in fine art photography?" I was nonplussed. I was devastated. Bruce went on to explain that he saw very little in my work that demonstrated much potential, that it was hackneyed, that it was not printed very well, that there was, in short, very little here of any interest. I cringed, my blood boiled, and I was torn between walking out with my tail between my legs or punching Bruce in the face. The painful truth, in retrospect anyway, was that Bruce had some good points and indeed not a single one of those prints do I now think have much merit beyond their useful learning curve. That night, I seriously contemplated quitting photography and driving home. If I hadn't carpooled with a fellow photographer from Portland, I may have actually done it.

The next day was my critique John Sexton. I held back and waited in the hopes that he would forget me in the back of the room, but he didn't. When my turn at last arrived I put up my same 15 prints in the same carefully-calculated order and awaited my second pummeling. Sexton, however, after looking at the work for some time started asking me questions about the first half of the prints on the left side of the sequence. Why did I select these images to print? What areas of the print did I think were the most successful? Which parts would I do differently and how? In short, he focused on that first group to the left with encouragement saying that he thought they had potential and hoped I would continue to work on them. He even went so far as to say he'd like to see how I changed the printing if I ever had the opportunity to work with him again. I was encouraged, motivated, and bouyed. And even more pissed at Barnbaum.

The next day I had my critique with Raymond McSaveny who looked at my prints for an even longer period of time, zeroed in on the right-hand half which Barnbaum had trashed and Sexton had ignored. "These," McSavany said, "are simply wonderful. I wouldn't change a thing." The light bulb went on. Critique is as much a matter of personal opinion as it is anything else. Facts are non-sequitur. Opinions and ideas are the launching point for a discussion of possibilities. Put more succinctly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — as we've all known all along.

That lesson has been one of the most useful of my photographic life. Ultimately, photographers make their statements, present their prints, and must accept the applause or the poisoned arrows with as much indifference as they can muster. You place your bets, you take your chances. Sexton's great gift to me was the idea that ultimately opinions are just opinions — and as obvious as that might seem, it is not intuitive when one has sweat bullets over the creation of something that is as precious to us as is our artwork.

There's one other aspect of Sexton's teaching that is worth noting because it is such an incredibly valuable attribute for a teacher: He does not try to turn his students into little John Sextons. Instead, he listens, he looks, and he offers counsel based on his understanding of what the photographer wants to accomplish with their work. Far too many workshop instructors approach the task of teaching with the attitude of, "Here's what I do. Go forth and do likewise." Sexton's entire approach to teaching is to try to determine what it is that you want to say with your photographs and then he does his best to help you achieve that. There is no doubt in my mind that the long-term success of his workshops and commitment to teaching are due to a very large degree to this attitude of empathetic instruction.

I should, I suppose, also say something about John's photographs. He's considered one of the best printers of his generation, an opinion with which I agree. As a former assistant to Ansel Adams, he knows his stuff, can teach his stuff, and does so in an entertaining and downright humorous way. A workshop with John Sexton is simply fun. He is, it should be said, a product of his times. His approach to photography is rooted in the West Coast aesthetic of the 1970s and 80s, concurrent with his photographic coming-of-age. As knowledgeable as he is about analog photography and wet darkroom processes, he is not likely to be your best choice to learn cutting-edge digital techniques — a statement with which I'm sure even John would agree. That said, if you are looking for a teacher rooted in the traditional aesthetics and methodologies of West Coast landscape photography, Sexton is as good as they come.