Post-Its and Praise: A Photographer’s Ode to His Unsung Hero

I am in the habit of marking my photography books with yellow and pink Post-it notes, flagging the images that I find most influential for my own work. Yellow means good, pink means best. Most of the Post-its are in books by Norman Mauskopf—a black-and-white documentary photographer I assisted during his workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have since developed a friendship with.

Influence is a mighty thing, particularly in photography. It shapes our eyes, creates awareness of overlooked moments, and develops our definition of justice and sense of timing. Influence, it seems, is a core tenet to our identity.

For me that foundational inspiration has been Norman’s inky monochrome photos, which have resonated within my own work since I flipped through his shimmering pages on a plastic table in Santa Fe five years ago. His images inspired my naive ambition that one could actually be a documentary photographer—that there even was such a thing. From him I learned about the greats, like Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand. So let this essay serve as my ode to Norman—I’ve realized how important his influence is, and I need to share it.

Norman is tall and lean, always speaking slowly and grinning slyly. He’s won multiple awards for his work and has been included in various solo and group exhibitions, twice at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France—but you wouldn’t know it by his unassuming nature, not unless you had Googled him. He makes his own prints, preferring to feel his own darkroom-crafted concoction of chemicals, rather than the keys of a keyboard, on his fingertips.

And he’s direct. Occasionally he’s demolished me with a fiercely honest rebuke of my subpar work; however, he’ll dole out a compliment when it is worthy. But, even then, he’s followed his compliment by emailing me a photo, similar to mine, shot by a legendary photographer, just to put me in my place. It’s his way of making me a stronger photographer.

As for Norman’s work itself, he lingers on his projects, indulging his sense of the decisive moment and a perspective on humanity that is only achieved with ample time spent. It is an insight sustained by an honest, mystical mixture of curiosity and persistence. Fueled by a genuine interest, his projects are active for years, with some coverage spread over the majority of a decade. It creates a consistency throughout Norman’s portfolio.

In A Time Not Here, he explores the African-American musical and spiritual life in the Mississippi Delta. I can feel the damp, tilled rows of the empty field, the bass of rhythm and blues animating dancers at a midnight club, the water weight of soaked baptismal robes, the heat of a solemn midday funeral, the casket being lowered into the dirt. I can hear the sermon songs; I don’t hear Norman. The moments are timeless. Perhaps because for Norman time wasn’t a concern, being an unrushed fly on the wall.

It’s rather self-evident that Norman haunts my own photographs, although my skill isn’t as refined. If not in the images, it’s his voice that is in my mistakes—all those trips I cut prematurely, or moments I abandoned before they came into bloom. Now I force myself to stay still when I’m grabbed by a scene, to sit until the image reveals itself on its own schedule. Perhaps I’ll need to return the next season or on a cloudy day or at dusk. I must learn to linger, like a wallflower on prom night, to elevate a good photo into a great photo.

During my time at National Geographic, I have become aware that many photographers can make wonderful photographs. Sometimes luck throws you a bone and it’s easy, sometimes it’s a technical and challenging image. But what makes good photographs incredible is persistence, showing up again and again and again. And again.

Norman Mauskopf

Jake Rutherford is a National Geographic photo coordinator and native Texan. He has taught photography in New Mexico, owned a video production house, managed brands at a design firm, and watched Battlestar Galactica three times over. If he were granted one wish, it would be to time travel with a camera in hand.

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