Archive for October, 2017

It’s a journey

by Sue Dawson

ONE OF MY favorite things about teaching is the moment when things click into place. An “aha” moment, where a student gains an important insight, or looks at his/her art with a different perspective. It’s especially clear over time, when we look back at students’ creative work, and see their growth as artists.

Steve Koppel was a member of our first Mentorship group, which began in 2013. When I first talked with Steve, he said he had retired early, and was a “hobbyist” photographer. But he wanted to know if we’d help with a new non-profit he was starting, MyMoments, to “promote recovery and emotional resilience through imagery created on mobile devices.” He’d use his 1:1 meetings with us as consultation on his new endeavor, and would learn from our trainings and retreats as well. The more Steve talked about his idea, I started getting chills (this happens when something resonates for me), and I told him it would be our honor. 

At our first retreat in January, Steve used his Mastermind to do a presentation on MyMoments, and showed some iPhone images as examples of the techniques he was teaching. It was wonderful to see the progress he’d made with his idea, and how quickly it seemed to be catching on. What I didn’t know was that Steve was nervous. Here’s what he said today:

“When I first called, I would’ve called myself a postcard photographer – no sophistication, no subtlety in what I produced. It was in your face, bright colors, pretty postcard photographs. What I wanted to do was figure out how to make photography a meaningful part of my life. Looking back, I didn’t really know what that meant. I remember at the first retreat, being too ashamed to show any of my own work. The decision to show MyMoments iPhone images was a convenient way to participate, without having to show imagery next to the work of the others, who were much more trained in photography as art. The truth is I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing with a DSLR with other people.”

First, it’s important to say that Steve’s early reluctance to share his own work was a blessing, in retrospect, for MyMoments. Now the EDI Institute, Steve’s non-profit organization is helping patients all over the country. EDI, or “Expressive Digital Imagery,” has been incredibly well-received by clinicians and thousands of patients, and plays an important role in therapeutic programs. Steve still donates 100% of his profit on the sales of his photographs to EDI Institute. 

So now I need to connect the dots. I need to get you from the man who was too ashamed to show his work in front of 12 students, to the successful photographer who’s represented by a top photography gallery, and regularly sells his work.

By the April retreat of that first year, Steve was inspired to get back to his own photography. But he didn’t want to shoot postcard photos anymore. He wanted to understand “what expression through imagery is all about – subtleties of light, design, composition.” He started to explore the movement of water, doing long exposures out on the beach in front of his house on Cape Cod. His second Mastermind showed some of the images he captured, which he called “Wave Art.”

The next year, in addition to upgrading his website, Steve worked to capture the “amazing variety of the phenomenon of the Brewster Flats,” a tidal flat where the water flows in and out over miles of beach, with the tides. He set a tripod on a jetty in front of his house, and took images in all different conditions. The artist was beginning to emerge.

Highest - not framed perfectly

During Steve’s third year with us, his second in the Advanced Mentorship, we held our annual retreat on the Cape. Alison’s been represented by the Focus Gallery in Chatham (formerly in Cohasset) for years, and she decided to bring us all there for a visit. And guess what photograph was displayed in the front window…


Cindy Vallino, the owner of Focus Gallery, had begun to represent Steve that spring, and we were all SO excited to see his work proudly on display.  

That year, Steve had chosen a completely different angle on his beloved beach home. He bought a drone, and was able to capture stunning images from above. He also began doing his own prints, on a large Epson printer. At our retreat in October 2016, Steve covered our large table with his gorgeous prints of these images, asking for the group’s help in choosing the best ones. He also generously brought his drone out to Quansoo beach, and gave us all a demonstration. It was a highlight of the retreat (note happy, waving subjects below).


Later that year, he produced a folio of the prints named “Above the Flats,” and gave copies to friends and family. 

above flats 

These days, Steve goes out early, many mornings each week. 
“It’s become spiritual for me. (What I’m doing now is) EDI with a sophisticated camera. It’s all about self-expression. It’s as much about my experience being out there, as the image I’m capturing. It’s about how I’m feeling, mindfulness, expressing imagery from that. I’m not going out for a shoot – it’s really a journey. I’m out there at 4am, while the skies are still dark. The camera is just an extension of my hands now. I know it so well, I don’t have to think – it’s second nature. I’ll notice changes in the light, movement in the water. There hasn’t been a single time I’ve gone out where I haven’t been inspired. It’s not about getting images for the gallery, about sales – I don’t even think about that. I’m capturing what I’m feeling. The camera sees these amazing things happening, that my eyes can’t see. It’s all real, and I could never have seen it, without the camera that I know really well how to use, as an extension of my own being, my own eyes. And that was all inspired by the Mentorship. I give full credit to the Mentorship for getting me to that kind of place with my imagery. And I feel very blessed that Cindy gave me this opportunity, at the Focus Gallery. The only reason I’m there, and able to talk at a professional level, and understand what she’s looking for, is because of my experience with the Mentorship. There’s no question.” 

The feeling that Steve is capturing, in those early morning journeys, looks like this:


I told him how much I appreciate his comments about the Mentorship, but the talent is obviously inside of him. And this is what he said…

“Obviously there’s something inside me that I never tapped before. Without the right inspiration and support, it goes untapped. There’s an ability inside that has let loose, but I credit this wonderful Mentorship program for that. If I had just gone and done workshops and done things on my own, I never would’ve gotten this far. I can really see the difference between what I’ve experienced in the Mentorship, and photographers who just do workshops, and haven’t had the benefit of mentorship, of 1:1 coaching. Having your coaching and nurturing all the way thru is what’s made this all possible.”  

I’m booking spaces for the Mentorship now – it starts this coming week, and we do this program only once each year. Actually, to be honest, each year Alison and I talk about our own plans, and where we want to invest our time. We’ve got our own bucket list, and the Mentorship programs are a huge investment for us. There is always a chance we’ll skip a year or two. 
So if your heart lifts a bit when you think about taking your photography to the next level, now is the time to take advantage of that inspiration. If the Mentorship is on your bucket list, email me right now, 

It’s an honor

by Sue Dawson

I JUST RECEIVED a lovely email from one of our former Mentorship students, and thought I’d introduce you to her.

Jean Schnell first took a workshop with Alison on Cape Cod in 2012. She then took our weeklong Martha’s Vineyard workshop in 2013. When Alison and I came up with the idea for a 6-month Mentorship program in 2013, Jean was one of the people we thought would be perfect for it. Happily, she agreed, and worked with us in the Mentorship and Advanced Mentorship for the next three years.

When I’m talking with potential Mentorship students, I often talk about Jean. At our first retreat, in January 2014, she surprised Alison during her first Mastermind (at the two retreats, each person has 30 minutes to present something to the whole group, and ask for feedback or critique – the whole room is focusing on you and your work). At the beginning of the program, Jean had bought a printer, but hadn’t even taken it out of the box. Alison’s first advice was to take the printer out, set it up, and give it a try.

So imagine our surprise, when Jean tacked up LOTS of 8×10 prints – enough to cover our main display wall, plus two rows along the side walls. She had two series of images, and the whole group was engaged in talking about her work. 


From Jean:

“The first year, I began to get a sense of my personal style, and how I see when I take pictures. It was my personal identity as a photographer. I worked on some technical things: low ISO, always using a tripod, and yes, the printing thing. And I began to pull out “projects” from work I had already done. I worked on the “damn website” and put my stuff out there for friends and family to see, which was a first for me, and quite liberating.”

Jean continued on with the Advanced Mentorship the following year, and threw herself into trying new things. She worked on “pure color,” trying to duplicate a Mark Rothko painting in her “studio lab” at her home. She photographed inside the abandoned Marine Hospital on the Vineyard (Alison got them to open it up for her), and showed those images at our Advanced Mentorship group show in May 2015. 

“Most importantly in the second year, I learned how to exhibit work: what goes into an exhibition and how to put it together, how to price work.”

The image below was the top seller at our group show. The editor of a local magazine, MV Arts & Ideas, came to the opening, and later published an article in the magazine, with eight photos from the series. 


At the Advanced Mentorship retreat in May 2015, before the show reception, Jean was already looking to figure out where she should aim her focus next. In her Mastermind, she showed a bunch of different image groupings, looking for feedback. There was a single image that stood out. It was simple – just a wooden chair on a wood floor, with a window behind it, and a plain wall. Light was coming through the windowpanes, and there was a pattern of reflected light on the floor. It was a stunning shot, and we all said so. Jean said “I don’t know why I included that one – I didn’t even mean to put it in here.” She’s Quaker, and had taken the photo at her meetinghouse. It meant something to her personally, but hadn’t made the cut. But the resonance of that shot was so powerful, the whole group encouraged her to do more. I just love when that happens. 

So in Jean’s third year with us, she worked solely on the Meetinghouse project. “I learned how to edit, and make a series in a similar style.” I encouraged her to start a blog, and she did, writing about each meetinghouse she shot, and showing the best images from each one. She posted new blog entries on her Facebook page, increasing her audience with each one. 


Rather than choose just 12 images for a traditional portfolio of her meetinghouse series, Jean decided to do two large Blurb books, and include her writing. She ended up shooting every meetinghouse in Massachusetts, and her books are a wonderful reference for the series. We (Sue and Alison) were blown away when Jean brought all of her prints and put them out on our conference table. Each one was more stunning than the last. 


We helped Jean choose the very best images, and Sue worked with her on design and typography for the books. The books are expensive to produce, and are not for sale. But they’re a fantastic reference for galleries who want to show the images, and a wonderful way to see the entire series. I have copies in the gallery, and bring them out often.

I’m humbled by an email Jean just sent, letting us know what she’s doing now. She called us her “photographic touchstones.” 

“In short, in the three years, I learned the artistic process. It is something I return to again and again. The foundation is now there. I use what you taught me all the time. I give you all the credit for taking me to the level of competence I now feel in photography. I am so grateful for the time I had with you.”

We don’t take all of that credit – Jean’s an incredibly talented artist. I’m honored to say that she blossomed during the time that we worked with her, and deepened what she already had. She invested herself in the process, worked hard to develop her innate talent, and discover her unique vision. These days, she’s revisiting her flower photography, “honing in purely on shape and color. That work began under Alison,” she said, bringing it all full circle. 

For more of Jean’s work, here’s her website. For more on our Mentorship program starting next week, click here. I’ll be sending out emails tomorrow to the 96 people who’ve expressed interest in the program, for just 9 available spaces. If you want to take your photography to the next level, email me now, I’m booking spaces this week.

Making our own way

by Sue Dawson

SO HOW ARE YOU DOING? I ask this because we’re living in a pretty crazy time. Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, politics…. I often wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety these days, to be honest. Things are increasingly out of control, which can make me feel powerless, and worried. When I wake up at 2 or 3am, I read the news on my iPhone, and scan through Facebook. I’m staying in touch with what’s going on as much as I can, both in terms of national/international news, and the everyday posts of my friends and family. I guess it helps me feel more connected, and less vulnerable, to know that we’re all in this together. 

All summer I’ve been talking with people who come into the gallery about this. I’m fascinated by the different ways people deal with the uncertainty of weather events, political upheaval, and the overwhelm of daily life. Some folks turn off the news, choosing to protect their psyches by avoiding what’s happening. That can work in small doses, but inevitably we do get pulled back to reality at some point. Others learn all they can, throw themselves into finding solutions, and helping others. They need to do something. Some people choose to exercise, travel, or do creative work, to find a sense of personal balance that seems so elusive these days. 

In the summer and shoulder seasons at the gallery, Alison and I promote and sell Alison’s fine art photographs. We’ve done this for many years, running our own business around Alison’s (and my) creative work. But for the last five years, we’ve chosen a different goal in the off-season: to nurture the work and creativity of serious amateur photographers. We developed our 6-month Mentorship program to create an ongoing supportive relationship with each person, working with you over time. Our goal is to help you find your unique creative voice, and to provide you with strategies that enable you to make the most of your skill and creative expression. These days, spreading the wealth and nurturing the creative voices all around us feels especially important. We need art right now, as artists, and participants/viewers/readers. We need to keep connecting with each other.  


Alison and I designed the Mentorship as a roadmap – customized for you – to identify your dreams, and create a plan to achieve them. There are trainings on things like creativity, Lightroom, writing an artist statement, and putting together a portfolio of your work. You become part of a group of peers, who support each other via our private Facebook group, and at the two weekend retreats. The highlight of the retreats are the Mastermind sessions, when each student has a block of time to present your work, get support, feedback, suggestions, and the group’s full attention. It’s a powerful experience to have the whole room focused exclusively on you and your work – some of the best insights have come from Masterminds. Throughout the Mentorship, you’ll have one-on-one sessions with Alison, focused entirely on your photographs, your workflow, and your goals. And sessions with me, where we look at your website, writing about your work, and getting your photography seen and appreciated by others.

It’s hard work. It is. No sugar-coating that. Your results will be directly proportional to your investment of time and effort. But this is about your creative life, after all. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road, and thinking you’ll be able to focus on your creative work some other time. We all need your creative voice. And you do too.

40 people have done this before you, each of them full of reservations and excuses, each of them nervous that they picked now to jump in. There’s a section on our website where you can see a list of some Mentorship student accomplishments, look at portfolios of students’ work, and read their thoughts on the Mentorship experience. 

We’re not solving world hunger over here. This is our small contribution. I think that art, music, film, writing – and all forms of creative expression – are crucial to our health and well-being. Use us to help nurture your own creative exploration.

For more info, go here, and click the blue link under the photo to download a pdf. Or email me: The Mentorship starts on October 23rd, so let’s talk.