You don't need one mentor you need a whole tribe of mutual influencers and role models... And you need to give as well as take.


A portrait of one of my friends across decades. Famous advertising and editorial photographer, Will Van Overbeek. Here's his website: https://www.willvano.com/

I was over at Will's house on Friday. We were sitting in his enormous yard just a quarter mile or so from Zilker Park in Austin, Texas. Mark was there with us too. Mark's not a photographer per se. He spent most of his career as an emergency room doctor. But here we were watching the December sun drop down and blur into the horizon's haze, drinking glasses of wine and talking about life. How to retire. How to stay young. How to persevere doing the stuff you love. 

Will and I have known each other since the late 1970's when we were both at the University of Texas at Austin. He was in the Photojournalism school and I was vacillating, year by year, between an engineering college and the English department. Our common interest from the outset was photography. 

Will has spent the last 45s pursuing magazine editorial work. He beat me to St. Petersburg, Russia and Moscow by over a decade. He's been to exotic places like Azerbaijan. He's spent time in central Mexico and also spent more Summers vacationing with his family in the South of France. 

In some ways he is my polar opposite. He cares exclusively about the photographs. The finals. The prints. He is bored and unengaged by camera gear. For years he shot amazing stuff with an ancient Olympus RD35 film camera. It was a cheap compact camera. He loved it because he could sync flash at any shutter speed. That was all he cared about. I've never seen him with a Leica unless he was trying to act curious about some new camera I was smitten with in the moment. He's probably spent $10 on cameras and lenses for every $100 I've spent over the years....

I've learned so much from Will. He took me on a shoot about Mesquite furniture done for a shelter magazine and I watched him direct ultra-rich home owners with exactly the same attitude he used with car mechanics, restaurant workers and kid models. He brought me along on an assignment for a famous business magazine when he needed a last minute assistant. We were going to photograph the CEO of an up and coming (and now huge) Austin-based computer maker. I watched as the marketing director for the company tried to tell him how he wanted the shot to look and what should be in the background. Will said "no" and the marketing guy for the computer maker stuck his heels in and said that his suggestion was the way the photo was going to go. 

Will very calmly starting packing the lights and cameras up and I helped him. The subject of the article and his marketing guy were dumbfounded. They asked Will why he was packing up. He responded with a no nonsense delivery. He told them he didn't work for them. He worked for the magazine and the magazine hired him for his point of view; not theirs. If the computer guys didn't want a spread about their fast growing company in one of the world's biggest business magazines that was fine with him. They folded on the spot and Will did the job exactly the way he wanted to. It was an amazingly powerful lesson for me. I've used what I've learned from Will on nearly every shoot I've done since. 

He is brilliant, curious, always well informed and he understands his working techniques forward and backward. 

I'm sad that younger photographers aren't getting the opportunity to work with people like Will now. They learn what they think they need to learn from YouTubers like Peter McKinnon and legions like him. It's at best superficial knowledge created mostly in the service of selling more camera gear. Not making art. I'm lucky to know people like Will and from time to time I've been able to help him with snippets of post processing techniques or equipment recommendations. But he sure didn't need me to tell him how to work a band when we shot a rushed shoot with the B-52s. Or countless other celebs. His secret? He treats them like everyone else. And he treats each shoot like he is the final arbiter of.........everything in the frame. 

We had a nice sunset happy hour. He's a great host. And his biggest secret? He genuinely likes and respects almost everyone he meets. He's the definition of a highly talented artist who is at the same time non-judgmental. Nice guy. Seems to finish ahead of the pack most of the time.

It was one in a decade long series of casual conversations with good friends. What a holiday gift!