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.

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