The world is taking appropriate note of the passing of Nelson Mandela, one of the incandescent leaders of the age. Celebrated the world over, Mandela was perhaps the world's greatest natural leader since Gandhi.
It's curious that human beings are so much more impressed with violence than peace, with cruelty rather than kindness, with aggressiveness rather than gentleness, with competition rather than cooperation. For instance, here in the U.S. we have a hand gesture used by drivers, univerally understood, that means "f--- you." (It's actually illegal in most states—you can be ticketed for using it.) But we don't have a corresponding hand gesture which would mean "sorry / excuse me / please forgive me / I meant no offense." Yet wouldn't such a gesture be at least as useful?
Similarly, the world has a name for leaders who are narcissistic, sadistic, and ruthless—we call them "dictators." But we have no distinct, vivid, universally understood name for leaders such as Mandela, who change the world for the better through benevolence, spiritual steadfastness, kindliness, and wisdom.
Our friend Peter Turnley was present with his camera when Mandela was released from prison. You can see a short video of Peter's reminiscences here.
The world will take much less note of the passing of another éminence grise, one from the far smaller field of American photography. Master teacher, colleague, author, and friend and mentor to a whole generation of photographers, David Vestal died last week at his home in Connecticut. He was 89.
A career educator, he taught photography at the Parsons School of Design, the School of Visual Arts, and the Pratt Institute. More modestly, I learned photography from David, from a Dektol-stained copy of The Craft of Photography open on the tiny counter of my makeshift first darkroom underneath the basement stairs.
When I became Editor of the recently deceased Photo Techniques magazine in 1994, one of the first things I did was to contact David and ask him if he'd like to write a column. He readily assented. The previous Editor was incredulous—he'd been trying for years to get David to write more than just an occasional article for the magazine. Turned out my timing was lucky—David had just retired from teaching, or rather, gone very part-time, and he suddenly had more time to write. His column far outlived my tenure at the magazine.
For many years he published Grump, a private photo newsletter. Every Christmas, Grump subscribers would get a tiny signed original print in a folded rectangle of interleaving tissue. On the tissue would be written in pencil, "MC HNY."
He was the author of both Craft and The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging, both wonderful books about how to print in the darkroom. He wrote many columns for Photo Techniques. He and I always intended to collect and publish them; no telling what will become of those plans now.
David loved the fax machine; he hated the telephone, which would call him out of his basement darkroom where he was immersed in work and then stop ringing before his bad knees could get him up the stairs. The fax machine let him reply at his leisure.
I have a quote from David taped to my computer, a principle which he believed was the cure for what ailed many a student, and possibly a lot of the rest of the world as well. It's characteristically pithy (David loved pith):
"Do your work." —DV
(Thanks to Oren Grad)
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Featured Comments from:
Les Myers (partial comment): "I am very sorry to learn of David Vestal's death...I still have many back issues of PT because of Mr. Vestal's columns. His writing style—short sentences, active verbs, etc.—inspired and helped me fine-tune my photographic philosophy and darkroom techniques. Thank you for alerting us to his passing."
jean-louis salvignol: "Peter speaks of that major historical event exactly as he lived and photographed it: with a tremendous intensity and without any trace of pathos."
Dennis Mook: "David Vestal couldn't compete with Mr. Mandela in changing the world. But David changed my world. Over many years, I hung on his every word, learning from him in whatever media he taught. I read and reread his words to ensure they sunk in. I didn't know he passed last week. Thank you. Both men give me reasons to pause for some thought and introspection."
John Garrity: "A couple of days ago I posted a promised book and a few connected prints to David Vestal only to hear in the afternoon, from a mutual friend, of his death.
"Well back in the last century, when first seriously attempting to make photographs, like many at that time, I looked to the writings of Ansel Adams for practical advice. Unfortunately, to me, Adams's books (first editions in black covers) at initial and all subsequent readings, were essentially incomprehensible.
"A frustrating while later, on a visit to the USA, I discovered David's writings—articles in Popular Photography magazine, which, along with those of Bill Pierce [a current TOP reader —Ed.], were models of clear, problem-solving practicality. I also obtained a copy of The Craft of Photography. Subsequently came the even better book, The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging, with its combination of demonstrative and exemplar photographs, clearly structured writing and a number of valuable test techniques. Sadly, its publication coincided with a hiatus in the publishing industry and it was poorly distributed, with limited sales. (If you wish to learn how to print black-and-white negatives well in the darkroom, it clearly and logically answers virtually every question you are likely to have about making effective, stable prints on silver halide papers. It also answers the equally important questions you didn't even know needed asking.)
"However, before then, while still grappling unsuccessfully with the practical mechanics of the medium, I'd stumbled across an annual collection of international photographs—probably a Popular Photography item. Among the portfolios by Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, etc., etc., was a single small image centred on a page surrounded by editorial text. It showed not much more than a nondescript door, neither old nor new. So quiet that you could flip the page without really registering it. Yet that picture was the one that stuck in my mind. Not those of the chest-thumping heavy hitters.
"David repeatedly made quiet photographs that at first sight could be dismissed as dull. However, the truth of their quiet ordinariness mask their power. A day or so later you realise they have contrived, burr-like, to lodge in the mind. They also force you to look anew.
"Despite being included in books such as The New York School (by Jane Livingston, 1992) (the thesis of which David disagreed with), his reputation as a photographer seems sadly limited. Living in the UK it is impossible for me to be entirely sure why, though I suspect a number of combining factors.
"As Mike has said, he focussed on doing the work. He photographed the ordinary quietly. He didn't spend time or energy promoting himself. He wasn't pompous. He was a sceptic who cheerfully pointed out the absence of the emperor's clothes. He wasn't unkind—he acknowledged others, though in private he could occasionally skewer someone who deserved it with a telling phrase. He didn't make big prints, or woolly statements. He characterised the Zone System as descriptive rather than prescriptive, after getting a complete understanding of it directly from Ansel Adams himself.
"He generally worked in single images, rather than projects or themes. (Though two trips to Brazil, first with his late wife Ann Treer in the '60s, then revisiting in the '90s, resulted in a few self-produced books made from inkjet prints. Similarly, I suspect an excellent small show or publication of pictures of his back yard in Bethelem, Connecticut, could be easily assembled.) He didn’t believe in limited-edition prints.
"He honoured and would try to support the work and reputation of others. He focussed much of his energy on writing. Writing clearly as possible in the mass media. (He blogged before blogging was invented. Firstly his newsletter GRUMP, then after a short pause 'FINITY, which continued almost to his end.)
"I hope someone can make a good book of his work—with no pictures running across the gutter [something David particularly disliked —Ed.]
"A good man, whom I, and many, will sorely miss."