An excerpt from photographer Jason Landry’s new book of essays.
Remember that catchy slogan from the T-Mobile television commercial: “Who’s in Your Top Five?” Let’s consider a similar question: Who’s in your top five, in terms of friends, mentors, and heroes? Think about the five closest people in your life. If you’re an artist or photographer, you’ll probably look at your “art family,” those people who understand who you are and your ultimate potential. My five-card motley crew breaks down like a mixed bag of M&M’s. Some are connected to the art world, and some aren’t. One owns a business. Another is semi-retired. One runs marathons, and another hobbles around with a cane. The last one dabbles in photography and is a mean bike polo player. I have had at least five mentors and friends who have given me advice, support, and inspiration while I was attending college, while I was an emerging artist, and now as a gallery owner and photography collector. The number of individuals in your close-knit art family can be more than five. I just prefer a smaller group—quality over quantity. This reminds me of a great quote in the book The Start Up Of You which reads, “There is a big difference between being the most connected person and being the best connected person.” The goal isn’t to have a ton of people in your real social network. It’s not Facebook or LinkedIn, plus when you consider Dunbar’s number, quantity means shit.
For the most part, I’ve had the same number of individuals in my clique. I’m glad this cast of characters has stuck with me. They act as advisors, and they’re generally there because they want to see me succeed. At least this is what I believe, and I try to reciprocate whenever I can. These individuals know who they are, and I am forever grateful that they’ve given me so much knowledge, and, in turn, I only have to buy them lunch every once in a while. You’ll read about them in this book.
Who better to start with than Jeffrey Keough. When I was attending the Massachusetts College of Art, my aunt and uncle would tell me, “Jason, you need to meet Jeffrey Keough. He works at MassArt and he would be a good person to know.” Did I do what they asked—nope. I’d done all that when I was in the business world. There, it was all about “who you knew” and clawing your way up that proverbial corporate ladder. I played that angle really well, worked hard, befriended the bosses, and landed a few promotions. But in art school, I was reinventing myself. This would be different. I didn’t want any help, even if they were friends of the family. My theory was, if someone did help me, and I left college and tried to show my work out in the real world and it wasn’t as good as I was led to believe, I would fail.
By my junior year, I felt more comfortable about my abilities as an artist and decided to pay Jeffrey a visit. What I had I found out was very depressing. He recently had had a stroke and was no longer at the college. All of the hype that my family had built up about him now felt like a deflated bubble. I began asking myself: why did I wait so long?
While vacationing at his island retreat on St. Martin, Jeffrey remembers his day beginning with a headache. Lucky for him, his former rental tenant had left a large bottle of aspirin in the cabinet. Those two little pills, according to his doctor, proved to be the difference between life and death.
Jeffery was the former director of exhibitions at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Why former you ask? Well, you can probably figure it out by now. As he puts it,
“I had a little accident…I had a stroke.”
Fact #1: He did have a stroke. That’s not a joke.
Fact #2: He has a good sense of humor considering the circumstances.
Fact #3: It’s safe to say that he is quite literally a little out of his mind.
Fact #4: Now that he’s retired, I never can get a hold of him. Jeffrey: you’re on my shit list!
A year later, he showed up at the college for a lecture. He sat in the back row, all smiles, holding onto an ornate wooden cane with a frog carved on the handle, and talked with one of the photography professors. I sat in front of him, listening to his stories and half listening to the lecture. After the lecture, I went over to his replacement, the acting director of exhibitions, and asked if she would introduce me to him. She said, “Oh Jason, Jeffrey just returned back after having a stroke and he is a little hard to understand. I don’t think this is a good time.” As I sat there in front of Jeffrey listening to his conversation with one of my professors, I understood everything that he was saying. He didn’t sound different to me, because I had never met him before and didn’t know what he had sounded like. So maybe he sounded like a groggier version of Kermit the Frog—can you really fault him for that? It was obvious that if I wanted to make this connection, I was going to have to make it on my own. After most of the room emptied out, Jeffrey was still sitting by himself: I went over and approached him. “Jeffrey…Hi, my name is Jason Landry.” He almost fell off his chair with delight. “Oh-My-God. Your aunt and uncle have been telling me about you for years. I’ve been waiting for you to come for a visit. Please come to my new office tomorrow so we can chat.” This initial meeting with Jeffrey began an endless stream of connections: it was the birth of my social network in the art world.
I learned quite a few valuable lessons from our meetings. First and foremost, listen to the person who’s telling a story. Find mentors and listen and absorb anything and everything that you can from them, regardless of where you are in life—you’re never too old to learn something new. Sometimes you have to endure a few spitballs and sit through lengthy stories that are fragmented, barely coherent, and have more holes than Swiss cheese just to gain something special. You never know when the door might swing open all because of a simple introduction or conversation. The people that Jeffrey introduced me to and the knowledge that I have gained by listening to his stories turned into a life lesson. I credit him with my initial introduction to artist William Wegman and photography collector and MassArt Alumnus Jim Fitts, who in return introduced me to at least a dozen photography collectors, curators, and photography professionals, including Tony Decaneas who was the person from whom I purchased Panopticon Gallery. Our weekly meetings were just as valuable as the M.F.A. degree that I would achieve. Mitch Albom wrote in his book Tuesdays With Morrie that his visits with Morrie were like a second thesis. I truly believe that my meetings with Jeffrey became my second thesis. I remember during one meeting telling Jeffrey how lucky I was for all of the opportunities that had come my way. I’ll never forget what he said to me, “Jason, I can’t count the times that friends or relatives of students at the college have come up to me telling me, ‘Oh, you should meet so-in-so,’ or ‘You should meet my son or daughter… they’re really great.’ You have been one of only a handful that actually panned out. So when it comes to luck, Jason…you earned your own luck.” This was only the second time in my life that I can recall that time stopped. It was also one of the greatest things anyone had ever said to me.
I think when you are a student of any subject; you are always looking for validation from your teachers. You may have some idea of how well you did based on the grades that are listed on your transcript at the end of the school year, but even those don’t always paint an accurate picture. It’s a whole different feeling when it comes verbally to you in a private one on one conversation. What they say about you doesn’t have to be long: one simple sentence is like a masterpiece. It’s more powerful than any “A” on a transcript, and I believe the feeling you get from hearing praise directly from someone whom you truly admire stays with you longer and propels you forward.
Read the rest of this essay in Jason Landry’s new book Instant Connections: Essays and Interviews on Photography