Thank you Dorothy Norman: Encouragement and the Creative Process

Dorothy Norman, photo by Alfred Steiglitz, 1932

When I was a boy of only 18, I had pretty much found my photographic voice. I was fortunate to have the support of The Photo League, Jacob Deschin at the New York Times, and Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. I was essentially self-taught, though I did take a class with Sid Grossman, one of the founders of the Photo League. It was a great class, but what had even more influence on me at the time was a singular meeting with Dorothy Norman. She left an impression on me that I’ll never forget.

Dorothy was a wealthy woman who was both artist and patron of the arts. Among other things, she was Alfred Steiglitz’s lover up until he died. She wrote columns for the New York Post, created extensive portrait portfolios of her friends and family, and was a very committed social activist engaged in civil rights and social justice. I admired her for all these reasons and at one point, when I was about 18, I summoned my courage to write her a letter asking if she would meet with me and take a look at my photographs. A invitation ensued.

I remember walking in to her apartment in an upper class neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, which was unfamiliar territory for me. She immediately put me at ease, asking questions and looking carefully through all my work. She was gracious with her time and latter sent me a letter saying:

“You’re young, but you will go far because you have awe. This is the password to wisdom.”

I brought her gift of encouragement into my own life as a teacher. It was only several years after that, in my early 20’s, that I began teaching in New York City. I’ve never stopped and it’s now been sixty years of teaching. I’ve had hundreds of students, many of whom took repeat classes for years and years. Some were just starting out in photography and some had been shooting and showing for many years.

Generally I’ve taught from my own studio, but I’ve also been affiliated with many colleges and universities over the decades, from my first stint at the Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia to my most recent association with Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Many times when I would begin teaching at a school or institution, because I was low man on the totem pole, they gave me the beginner’s classes to teach. This was fine, because it’s the beginner’s that need the best teachers!

My primary way of teaching is not telling students how to take a photograph, but encouraging them to trust their inclinations. This never ends, no matter how advanced they become in photography. Whether the inclinations are rational or spur of the moment.

I try to get tuned in to the particular vision of the student and encourage them to just let their own vision lead them. In the process they learn about technique and equipment, but really the heart of teaching and of education — at least from my way of seeing it -– is liberation. How can you support and encourage students to free themselves from the strait jackets of all they’ve been taught, which might be impinging on their confidence, on their expression of who they are? One of my firm policies when working in institutions is – never grade students. “Show up to class and you’ll get an A” is my basic practice. I’m sure the administrators don’t like me doing this, but my goal is to have fun with my students and see them as co-conspirators in the great adventure that is photography. Ranking and grading gets in the way and entraps rather than liberates. Encouragement is fundamental to true success – no matter what the endeavor. I like that that word has got “courage” in the middle of it since that’s what we need to stay true to our vision.

As I look back on my life, those who encouraged me on my path stand out even as other parts of my memory subside! Dorothy Norman may never know how important her words were to me, but I hope I’ve passed on her legacy to my own students.