Nothing had prepared me for that moment. A flood of conflicting emotions washed over me. I was simultaneously awed, jealous, proud, happy, a little sad, speechless, surprised and amazed. Mainly I was happy, a little bit for me and a whole lot for her. Let me back up and set the scene that had me so flummoxed. The moment of my emotional chaos occurred in 2016, but its roots go back thirty-four years.
I met this girl, Jennifer, in 1982. It was my senior year of college and my last semester; it was Jennifer’s first freshman semester. I was on the cusp of obtaining my photography degree and she was just beginning work on hers. As it goes with the usual college hierarchy, seniors and freshmen didn’t mix much, but I noticed her around the photo-labs and studios. She’d be around during those impromptu photo-critiques that spontaneously occurred in the photo department; whenever I’d be showing whatever I was working on I’d see her among the other students. While she was noticing my photographs, I was noticing her because she was pretty, really pretty, the fashion-model kind of pretty. Since every senior-level photo student never has enough fashion-type photos in their portfolios, I talked her into modeling for me. We spent an afternoon in the studio and I shot one of those very typical, early 80s post-punk/new-wave kind of photos that were so popular at the time. We got to know each other, had a fun time, and I got a very nice (for the time period) fashion photo. I made a big 16x20 inch print of her, put it in my portfolio, and graduated.
In 1983, a mere seven months after I graduated college and after being unceremoniously sacked from not one but two corporate jobs, I came to the realization that I wasn’t corporate material. A friend of mine, who was not corporate material either, had been sacked shortly before me had taken a job teaching airbrush at The Art Institute of Houston suggested I apply for an open position in the photography department and made an introduction for me.
So I applied for that teaching job and found myself doing the portfolio-dog-and-pony show for the Art Institute’s head of photography. Since I’d been out of college for less than a year I had not yet had the opportunity to replace all the photos in my college portfolio with ‘new work from jobs’ so my portfolio was still about three-quarters college work, including that picture of Jennifer.
Flipping through my portfolio he stopped on the page with the picture of Jennifer. “She’s a student here.” He said.
Not wanting to contradict the man attached to the ass I was kissing to get that job I simply stated: “I photographed her last spring at Sam Houston State University.”
“She’s taking photography classes here.” He restated.
“Must have transferred.” Was my only reply.
I got the job, a few weeks later classes began and, sure enough, Jennifer was in two of my classes.
I remember working really hard to impart as much knowledge as possible to my students. Because it had been less than a year since I’d been a student myself, I wanted to be better than my professors, and they were very good. My job as teacher was to teach my students the teachable things; techniques and procedures so the talented student would then have the necessary skills to express themselves. I never tried to teach ‘talent’ or ‘meaning’ or ‘expression’ or any of the art-school things that screw-up students. I never tried to direct their story-telling, I merely provided the grammar they would use to tell their own photographic stories.
Regretfully, I don’t really remember any of my students’ work, but it has been thirty-plus years so maybe my faulty memory is excused. What I do remember is that Jennifer was one of the few students who had a vision or personal style. I clearly remember walking through the black and white darkrooms in the mornings before class began. I’d look over all the prints on the drying racks and I knew which photos were hers.
I also recall many Mondays, listening to my students’ stories about ‘partying all weekend,’ and then being asked what I did on my time off.
“I worked in the darkroom all weekend.” Was my frequent reply. Most students would just roll their eyes, probably thinking, nerd. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was getting through to a few of them, not necessarily in classroom lectures, but by example. It turned out, for some like Jennifer, it was what I did and not what I said that was the most influential. It was this example that impacted Jennifer the most, but I wouldn’t know about that for another thirty-two years.
I really enjoyed teaching and was good at it but I got fired from that job after a year and a half. I made the fatal mistake of being better than my boss, the department head, which is something detrimental to job security in academia. So I moved on and Jennifer’s class graduated in 1984.
By 1985 I had started my own studio and had lost touch with Jennifer.
Over two decades passed before I saw her again. I’ve forgotten the exact year but it was around 2010-ish. By then I was living in Arizona and she was living in Los Angeles (I don’t recall how I knew this, I probably Googled her). I had to go to L.A. on business and looked her up. We sort of picked up where we’d left off. She was struggling somewhat (as I was too) and we talked and ‘compared notes’ and shared some of the high and low-lights of our bumpy career paths. During our Chinese food lunch I recall thinking to myself, I’m not the mentor anymore and you’re not the student anymore, we’re both equals and we’re equally screwed in this weird business of art and photography.
I saw her again a year or so later in Los Angeles and she’d made significant strides. She’d produced a lot of very good work and she had a licensing agent and things were looking much more positive. We stayed in touch but it wouldn’t be until 2016 that I’d see her again.
I’m glad we stayed in touch because that meant I knew she’d moved from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. That also meant that I would see her again after I wrapped a photo-shoot nearby at The Salton Sea and Borrego Springs.
We were enjoying dinner and drinks in the dark and moody bar at Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs when the conversation turned to art. Jennifer spoke very enthusiastically about the new artworks she was making and I was anxious to see her new portfolio. Out came her phone, a few taps and swipes later she’s got Instagram open (oh, Instagram again!) and here’s her new stuff. I scrolled through her Instagram feed until I suffered a ‘cardiac event’ and felt my heart ripped in two opposite directions simultaneously.
My heart returned to a normal rhythm and pumped just enough freshly oxygenated blood to my brain for me to form the thought: Oh my god, this is freaking brilliant! I was truly blown-away. Her new works were fully-formed and fleshed-out, it was clear that she wasn’t experimenting but had found her way with clarity and confidence. The imagery was a clear departure from the obviously excellent works I’d seen in L.A. a few years prior. Her new works were bright, colorful, smart, witty, thoughtful, unique, original and, for lack of a better term, freaking brilliant. And they weren’t photographs, this was pure digital art.
Basking in the cel-phone-glow of her imagery I felt my heart shift directions and relocate itself one-hundred-eighty degrees and suddenly I felt instantly sad and, somehow, sorry for myself. It was a fleeting feeling that didn’t last but a moment, but what happened to me? What was this wave of sadness that just washed over me?
It was the sudden realization that the student had surpassed her teacher! Looking at her portfolio I saw no hint, no vestige, no thread whatsoever that traced a line from these images back to anything I’d taught her. What I was seeing was so new, so uniquely hers that I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness because nothing I’d ever said or taught was left in these images, she was now far beyond any influence from me. My illogical sadness quickly passed and my heart swelled and I felt pride. I had succeeded as a teacher!
Because the student should surpass the teacher!
And so we shared a wonderful meal and conversation that went long into the night. We discussed the important things like life and art and she clued me into some things I never knew. Way back in 1983 when I’d first interviewed for that teaching job I’d left my portfolio with the department head so he could ‘show it to the higher-ups.’ I don’t know if ‘the higher-ups’ ever saw my portfolio but Jennifer did. Apparently the department head showed my portfolio to Jennifer who told him to, “Hire Dale, now!” For all these years I thought it had been some guy in a suit up the hall who’d given the green light to hire me, but it had actually been a 22 year-old blonde chick in the Photo One class that got me the job! Thank you, Jennifer!
As we reminisced about the 1980s she mentioned the One Thing that was the biggest influence. It had been my throw-away line, my flippant response of, “I worked in the darkroom,” to the question, what did you do last weekend? She’d heard that, and she’d been one of the party-girls that weekend, but when she heard my response it prompted a thought in her: I should get to work. And she did!
After thirty-four years it was she who taught me an important lesson. For her it never was about the classroom lessons about f-stops, or shutter-speeds, or printing, or any of those things. Sure, she’d learned those lessons but the real lesson she’d learned from me had come from example and it was a work ethic.
She saw me ‘doing the work’ and then she ‘did the work’ too. That was it. That’s all.
I’ve been ‘doing the work’ for my whole life, and so has Jennifer. Now, more than three decades after we were student and teacher, we stand together as semi-successful artists who did the work. In academic circles teachers talk about ‘training the competition,’ but that’s a cliché. The fleeting feeling of sadness I felt when reviewing her new works was a result of Western Societies’ competitive culture; for just a moment I saw her as ‘competition,’ and that’s wrong. For a nanosecond I thought, she’s better than me! And that thought was wrong too. Her works aren’t any better than mine and mine aren’t better than hers, she’s simply the best at what she does and I’m the best at what I do. She’ll always be better than me at making her pictures. Her pictures are something I cherish and respect, her artwork shows me a world I cannot perceive, they’re a window into her world, a place I only visited through her eyes and art. The only reason I (and others) can see the world the way she does is because she did the work. I cannot claim any influence of her imagery whatsoever, that’s all her! The only credit I can claim is providing motivation by example. At the time I didn’t even realize that, “working in the darkroom all weekend” was a lesson, but I applaud Jennifer for getting it.
I think I’d like to acquire one of Jennifer’s artworks for my personal collection but she’s really good, and I don’t know if I can afford one. Maybe she’ll be open to a trade? I think I should offer two of mine for one of hers, she’s that good.
One final note, from a different perspective.
There was a time when I was the boy who exceeded his professor. For me it came quickly and differently but since I’ve now experienced this from both perspectives it’s worthy of sharing.
Parental finances forced me to drop out of college in the summer of 1979 and it took me until 1981 to earn enough money to complete my degree. During my time away from school I had a number of photography-related jobs, the most recent at the time in audio-visual production where I worked on large-scale slide shows (these were the pre-PowerPoint days). In the A/V job I also became an expert in E-6 processing and I created optical special effects, which was a very specialized area of photography.
I returned to college in the winter of 1981 and during the re-enrollment process I met with my Academic Advisor, Dr. Emmette Jackson, who was also the head of the photography program. He went over my freshman/sophomore transcripts (which were all A’s in photo-classes) and he spent a lot of time examining my new-from-work portfolio of optical special effects.
“You’ve made considerable advances during your time in the workforce, Dale, I’m having a hard time fitting you into classes where you’d actually learn something you haven’t already done, so I’m going to design some independent-studies specifically for you.” Dr. Jackson informed me with a serious tone.
“Can I do that?” I wondered aloud. “Is that legit?”
“Sure.” He explained. “You and I will design specialized independent-studies, I’ll approve the study, you’ll work directly with me and I’ll be the one determining your grade at the completion of the independent study.”
“So I don’t have to take the E-6 class?” I asked, incredulously.
“Oh hell no!” He laughed. “You’d been souping E-6 film at a pro-lab while you were out of school, so you’re competent and up-to-speed. I’m going to go ahead and give you three hours credit and an A for that class.”
And then he dropped ‘the bomb.’
“As a matter of fact, we’re offering side production this semester, since you’ve been doing just that you can teach the class, you know more about it than I do.”
What?! Did I hear that right? I know more than he does?
“Sir,” I asked cautiously, “Can I do that?”
“Of course you can! Your resume tells me you’ve been producing optical effects, processing E-6 slide film, and programming six, nine, twelve and fifteen projector shows all synchronized with Clearlight computer-controllers. All we have here is an ancient Wollensak two-projector dissolve unit, you’ll be fine. I’ve never done any slideshows that big, you’re the expert.”
“I’m the expert?”
“Hell yeah, your resume and portfolio say so. I’ll give you the syllabus, tweak it as you see fit, I’ll take attendance and the class is yours.”
And there, in an instant, direct from the mouth of the professor who intimidated the hell out of me as a freshman and sophomore, was a declaration that I knew more than he did. I was surprised and honored. Curiously, Dr. Jackson seemed completely unfazed by his words and my reaction to them.
Professor Jackson’s response to me surpassing him was remarkably ego-free. He wasn’t bothered a bit because his perspective was from the position of professional teacher and success to him was being surpassed by his student. My momentary mixed feelings about Jennifer surpassing me was from the perspective of teacher and working artist. My artists’ semi-erect ego was briefly punctured by Jennifer’s amazing artworks only to be re-inflated moments later by realizing that, as a teacher, I had succeeded. Dr. Jackson had none of my mixed emotions because he was no longer working as a photographer but instead, purely as a photography teacher. Although his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were in photography his PhD was in education, so his judgment of me was from the perspective of a professional educator and not a photographer. To him it wasn’t a big deal, to me it was everything.
Emmette (we got to a first-name basis quickly and remain good friends to this day, thirty-four years after my graduation) actually taught me more by example than in the classroom, which is the same as it was with me and Jennifer. I think there may be a correlation of teaching styles at play…
When the teacher does their job right, the student should surpass them. Most students don’t because many students don’t finish what they start, they don’t do the work. For those who do, it’s because they’ve taken all the lessons, both the formal lessons of the classroom and the informal ‘life lessons,’ and applied them to their own work, kept up that work, and eventually ended up in a place that surpassed their mentors.
Professor Jackson provided me with a map. He was fully aware that by the time I left that map he’d provided me everything I needed to blaze my own trail but not get lost. I did the same for Jennifer, the only difference being when she left the map she found me at the periphery. As she and I stood there, just off the edge of the metaphorical map, she smiled and said she’d used-up the map I gave her but that was OK, she’d traded it for a GPS, and we should go the rest of the way together. None of us had really surpassed anyone, we got just what we needed to become who we are.
From Jennifer’s 2016 Artist Statement:
Jennifer majored in photography at Sam Houston State University. There, she met her first mentor, Dale O’Dell. One afternoon, she walked into the on-campus photo-lab and noticed a group of people all gathered around O’Dell, who had some of his new photographs placed in front of him. As Jennifer stretched over the crowd to see, she remembers commenting out loud; “That’s what kind of work I want to do.” She subsequently transferred to The Art Institute of Houston, where by another act of fate, O’Dell became her teacher. At that point, Jennifer knew she was on track, and that something special was happening to her.
Dr. Emmette Jackson passed away on July 16, 2016 at the age of 75. I will forever miss him; to this day I still try to make photographs that meet the high standard he set.