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 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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