Mentors and Lessons Learned

I recently visited with one of my mentors, Adrian Taylor who had been instrumental in my career.  I met Adrian when he was art director at Travel & Leisure Magazine.  He had just taken that job and relocated to NYC from San Francisco where he had been based for almost 20 years.  My partner, Tom and I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and were young eager photographers when we met Adrian. Looking back, I think that meeting was perhaps the most instrumental and fortunate bit of fate in our beginning careers.

During our visit, Adrian started recanting his amazing stories of when he first got started as an art director.  He was also young and eager to learn, when Frank Zachary, editor of Holiday Magazine took him under his wing.  Adrian was reminiscing because Vanity Fair had just run a story about those early days of and the legendary writers and photographers who contributed to it at the time.  The contributors read like a who’s who:  John Steinbeck, Carier-Bresson, Slim Aarons, Fred Maroon, John Lewis Stage and so on.  At one point in referring to Zachary, Adrian said “he encouraged me.” Without missing a beat Tom replied, “That’s what you did for us too.”

I’ve been thinking about how important “encouragement” is for someone just starting out.  Learning technique and business tips from a mentor are very important things for young photographers to learn when first starting out, but I think perhaps the greatest gift a mentor can give is his or her encouragement.   If there were one thing that I can point to that I got from Adrian it would be just that.  He encouraged us to be the best we could be.  He believed in me so much that I couldn’t not believe in myself and that made me challenge myself and grow with every assignment.

Years later, I had a friend who became a mentor to me when I first started to write.  He too encouraged me.  At times he praised me and other times he was incredibly harsh with his comments, but I learned and I got better because of his encouragement.  He is no longer here, but his encouragement, as well as the lessons learned have played a part in my life. In fact, he gave me the courage to take on one of the most challenging projects of my life.

Mentors come and go in one’s life each making their own mark as they do.  If you should be so lucky to have people like this in your life, make sure you do one thing – take the time to make an impact on someone else’s life.  You never know what will come of that but no doubt it will make a difference, not only in that person’s life, but in your own as well.


Forcing Accountability

Yesterday was one of those days that I had a hundred things to do and only a few hours to do them.  I had to give final approval of an ePub I was wrapping up, package and send out exhibition Blurays and posters to film festivals that I have been invited to and finish a video job I was editing, all before heading into NYC to moderate a panel discussion on video for the NYC chapter of ASMP.  My mom used to say, “If you want something done – ask a busy person”.  I never did understand that when I was younger but I know now, that the busier I am – the better I am with utilizing my time.

I was also fine-tuning the presentation that I was going to be giving to the students at Brooks Institute next week. As an alumna of Brooks,

Gail Mooney as a student at Brooks Institute
© Chad Weckler

I was honored when I was asked to speak. I was also taking this responsibility seriously and I was getting a bit stressed over it, which is uncharacteristic for me.  I’m usually very comfortable with public speaking.  I knew I wanted to talk about the value of “community” and how being part of the ASMP has played into that, but I didn’t want to sound “canned”.  I knew that I needed to personalize that message and really boil it down to what that has meant to me.  But I also knew I needed to come off as someone who is still relevant and not be perceived by the students as just someone whose their mother’s age. I needed to show my spirit inside that hasn’t aged at all since graduating from Brooks all those years ago.  I knew I needed to put myself in their shoes and see through their eyes in order to really connect with them. I started thinking in terms of what I know now and what I wished I had known back when I was a student at Brooks.

So, as I headed into NYC, I had a lot going through my mind.  The ASMP event was great.  It was a packed room with an engaged audience and terrific panelists.  But the best part of the evening was the networking after the event.  That’s where the real sharing of information happens and a sense of community is felt.  It’s easy to get disconnected these days from the human connection because we all spend so much (too much) time online.  That human connection will never be replaced by technology. That was one thing I wanted to point out to the students when I talked to them next week – to physically get “out there”.

I got home late and woke up early and needed a good jolt of coffee while I checked my emails.  One email jumped out at me. It was a newsletter from Jonathan Fields who I started subscribing to after hearing Jonathan speak at the World Domination Summit this summer.   The newsletter had a link to a video of Jonathan interviewing, Chris Guillebeau the founder of the World Domination Summit.  Chris writes a blog that I follow, called the Art of Non-Conformity.  As I listened to the interview, it became clearer as far as what I wanted to say to the students in my presentation next week. Chris said one thing that was right on target.  He was talking about pursuing an idea and he said that by putting your idea out to the world – by telling someone about it – you were in fact “forcing accountability”.

I thought back to when I first had the crazy notion of traveling around the world with the purpose of creating a feature documentary about individuals on six continents who were making a positive difference in our world.  The idea had been tossing around in my head for months before I told anyone.  Then one evening as I was walking back from dinner with fellow ASMP board member, Blake Discher, I decided to put the idea “out there”.  It was something I did on impulse, but as I look back on it now, Blake was probably the right one to “test run” this crazy idea on.  He responded with an affirming, “thumbs up”, but not overly exuberant, which was exactly what I needed. Blake is a very grounded person, so for someone like him to not look at me and tell me that I was out of my mind, was the nudge I needed.  So, it was that short, impulsive, casual conversation that forced me to be accountable with my idea.

I went on to make the movie that I set out to make and even better, I got to share the experience with my daughter Erin.  It has changed both of our lives for the better.  That’s not to say that everything has worked out in ways that I may have wanted or thought I wanted.  But it has been a journey that I was meant to take. I have met people that I never would have met in the process and that in turn has led to so many more incredible experiences and adventures that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

I started thinking about my life’s journey and all the things I have learned since my days as a student at Brooks.  And then I thought,  “what if I knew then what I know now? “  The thing is, if I had already known all those things back when I was a student, I never would have had the journey that I’ve had.  Everything happens in its own time and when it is meant to happen.  And that’s what life’s all about – the journey along the way and that only happens when we leave room for the unexpected.


I’ve often talked about how important collaboration is in video.  And with the right mix of people collaborating – wonderful things can happen.

My longest collaboration has been with my husband and business partner, Tom Kelly.

June 4, 1977

Today marks our 35th wedding anniversary, but our relationship goes back even further – another 4 years.  It’s truly hard for me to believe that so many years have gone by, but that’s what happens when one is busy living life.

The way Tom tells the story of the day we met is that we were with our classmates (our first class of Brooks Institute) on a field trip, and we ended up at a roadside hangout in the mountains just outside Santa Barbara, California.  We were on a patio drinking beer – I was barely of legal age – and Tom spotted me – “this exotic chick with rings on all of her fingers and smoking Turkish Ovals (cigarettes)”. I didn’t have rings on all my fingers and I stopped smoking long ago, but the real reason I stood out back then was that I was 1 of only 6 women who attended Brooks at that time.

For me, going to Brooks Institute in the mid ‘70’s, was like mixing “oil and water”.  I had just come back from a yearlong “hippie-backpacking” odyssey around the world. I was the ultimate free spirit and I was thrown into a rigid educational environment with ex GI’s from the Vietnam War.  But, I met Tom and that’s when our collaboration began.  I knew nothing about photography, other than managing to get lucky with some images that I took with my Nikon FTN and 50 mm lens, on my travels.  Tom had processed reconnaissance film in the Air Force and had a dark room as a kid, so I looked to him for advice. That’s how we started and we quickly became a couple – being there for one another.

After graduating from Brooks, we moved back East and worked a year in NYC as assistants to two commercial studio photographers. (I had gone to high school in NJ and Tom grew up just over the state line in Pennsylvania) We also moonlighted, shooting jobs our bosses didn’t want to do and also shooting for ourselves on the weekends. One summer we took our bikes and cameras “down the shore” and shot a wonderful personal project on the boardwalk – some of those images shot during that summer, remain favorites of mine. Perhaps that’s when the lines between business and personal became blurred.

We were extremely lucky in our early years to have an amazing mentor, Adrian Taylor, who was art director of Travel & Leisure at the time.  Adrian gave us many precious gifts as young photographers just starting out.  The most important gift was his encouragement and his unwavering belief in us. Every time Adrian gave us an assignment, we wanted to raise the bar and Adrian’s eyebrows as well.  Each assignment for the magazine was more challenging and ambitious, shooting major city stories with celebrity subjects, and luxurious environments in fabulous destinations.  And the best part – we got to experience this together!

As much as we’ve had an extraordinary career, working together and independently,  we’ve also had a wonderful marriage and family – our best collaboration – our daughter Erin. Tom and I  are so completely opposite of one another, but somehow it has worked.  Tom is more comfortable being out of the limelight and pointing it at me. What’s amazing is that Tom not only manages to produce his own jobs but he also takes care of a lot of things around the house.  There is a whole secret world in our basement, that I know nothing about. I’m the dreamer with the crazy notion to think anything is possible and  Tom has always been there for me, supporting my latest scheme and adventure. He has been the wind beneath my wings. It hasn’t been easy,  and there have been times, when both of us have wanted to walk away – but we didn’t.  In our “throw away society” I suppose that’s rare. I think it’s a pity that people give up too quickly – you never know what’s just around the corner.

Like any good story though, a life well lived comes with conflict and contrast.  Sometimes that has to happen to get you to the “next place”.  I’m grateful to be celebrating a life well lived with Tom, my husband, my partner, my soul mate.

Happy Anniversary Tom – love you.

Women and Photography

I have to get something “off my chest”, so forgive this mild rant.

Yesterday, I attended a conference in NYC.  It was a trade show geared to video production with an educational track.  I was sitting in on one session and there were only a handful of people in the room – I’d say less than 10.  I was the only woman in the room. The instructor went to each person in the classroom and asked them what they wanted to learn from his workshop.  He went to everyone in the room – but me!

I was sitting next to my partner, who is also my husband.  I suppose the instructor decided that he didn’t need to ask ME that question. I didn’t count.  Maybe because we were together and he felt that he only needed to ask one of us.  But if so, why not ask me? I felt invisible. It was an all too familiar feeling that I have had in my 35-year career as a photographer and now a filmmaker. But I couldn’t believe that I was still feeling invisible after all that I’ve accomplished in those 35 years.

When I started my career in photography, it was definitely a man’s world.  I was one of six women at Brooks Institute and the only woman in my graduating class.  I fell in love with a “Brookie” and we headed back East to make our fame and fortune in photography.
We’ve done a lot of jobs together over our 35-year partnership and we’ve done a lot on our own.  I needed to do my solo gigs because I felt I had to prove to myself that I could deliver the “story” or the task on my own.  When I worked with my partner, it was always assumed by the client or our peers that I was the rep for my partner – never the photographer.  People have always asked us why we refer to each other as partners rather than husband and wife – that’s why.

Perhaps that’s why I try so hard – but then again maybe that’s just my nature.  And maybe because I always give it my all, I can’t help but be surprised when I’m treated like I’m invisible.  At this point in my life, I can either let it bother me or I can think about who I am and what I’ve done and contributed to my profession.  I focus on that and I take every opportunity to share and talk to young people – women and men.

The irony is, in photo schools these days the women far outnumber the men, yet there are still instructors out there like the one that I encountered yesterday.  I have to ask myself why? I do know that in giving seminars over the last two years for ASMP, I would consistently get comments from women telling me how refreshing it was to have a woman teaching tech.  But they also told me that I wasn’t intimidating like some male teachers they’ve had.

So what’s the point?

I only have one point and that is don’t hire me because you need to fill the slot with a “female” – hire me based on what I’ve accomplished.  Hire me for who I am.  Think past the gender and teach your children well.

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The Smell of Fixer in the Morning

This is a bit off topic but was prompted by my trip yesterday to Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC.  I was giving a seminar for ASMP  “Converging Media – Adding Video to Your Skill Set”.  After setting up for my presentation I was given a tour of the school – a wonderful facility.  After going through their impressive computer labs and studios – I asked my guide and Program Head, Chuck Egerton,  if the school still had dark rooms.  He smiled and said “I’ll show you”

The second I entered the darkroom – and got that familiar taste of fixer in my mouth – I was immediately transplanted back to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara where I had studied 34 years ago.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 34 years but when I walked into that darkroom and saw the students making their prints – it seemed like I was back at school.

A lot of memories flashed through my mind that hadn’t surfaced in years.  Being the only woman in my class – and one of six in the entire school.  Always being in a rush because I was working full time at night and going to classes and executing my assignments during the day.  Racing from the Riviera campus to the Montecito campus at break neck speeds around the curves in my big old orange Dodge van.  And most of all living in beautiful sunny Southern California, yet spending a lot of my time – in the dark.

The changes in photography have been profound since then and I’d probably have to say that as much as I learned at Brooks – I’ve learned a lot more since – out of necessity because of technology.  I love learning more now than I ever did in my younger days.  History gives interesting perspectives and when something jogs my memory and I remember my own history – I’m amazed by how much things have changed.  Seems like only yesterday.

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