Mentors and Mentees: Four Pros and Their Assistants Talk Relationships

by Sarah Kinbar

August 23, 2013

Working alongside an accomplished photographer is one of the best entries to the industry, but finding that symbiotic relationship can be a battle. Why does a wedding photographer choose one assistant or second shooter over another, and how do you find your ideal pro? We spoke to four wedding shooters and their assistants to learn what makes a beneficial mentor/mentee relationship. Then we asked each pro photographer to pick and comment on their favorite image(s) from the person they’ve taught.


© Karen Seifert

Jason Groupp and Karen Seifert
It was photographer Jason Groupp’s previous assistant, Lindsey Thorne who first brought Karen Seifert to his attention. “I have a loose rule when you are my studio manager: If you want to quit, you have to find your replacement first,” Groupp says. “That said, I’ve enjoyed working with Karen because she has been the best at self-starting projects on her own, doing the research and reporting to me. She’s also been fun to work with and always keeps a great attitude even in the worst situations. And there have been some doozies over the years!”

Seifert learned of the opening at Groupp’s New York City studio through a photographer friend who knew Thorne was moving. Already looking for an opportunity to leave her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, for the Big Apple, Seifert’s interest was piqued. “Jason was pretty picky and went through a couple of other people that just didn’t quite work out,” says Seifert. “It took a bit of persistent emailing to both Jason and Lindsey, but I was able to come up to New York from Virginia and meet them on a wedding shoot. I look back on that wedding day and am amazed at how much I’ve learned since then.” Seifert says Groupp threw her into the ring early on, and “there was definitely a bit of a sink-or-swim aspect to it.” Although she had been shooting in Richmond for a few years prior, Groupp still expected her to learn more, and quickly. “But he was also understanding when I needed to stop and ask a question,” she says. “I am so much more confident with my photography now, thanks to working with Jason.”

Photo above: "This made me sit back in my chair and beam with pride [for Karen]. First of all, it’s a gorgeous shot and a beautiful location, and the couple is super cute, too. Then I noticed she added a little ‘pop’ to it by adding an off-camera flash to the background. That extra work just makes the shot, and I know she learned that from me. That shot would’ve been fine without it, but she asked herself, ‘How do I make this better?’ and went for it." —Jason Groupp


© Rebecca Walker

Kathi Littwin & Rebecca Walker
Kathi Littwin found assistant and second shooter Rebecca Walker when she received a blind email query from the up-and-coming wedding photographer. The complimentary email combined with a recommendation from Rangefinder’s editor-in-chief Jacqueline Tobin paved the way. “She lived across the street from my apartment, making for a fortuitous series of events,” Littwin says. “Ultimately I had to love her work and her personality, which of course I did. [Photographer] Miana Jun also came to me through a recommendation from [Tobin]. It certainly helps when someone in the industry puts in a good word. When choosing someone, you need to do your homework. There is a delicate balance to find someone whose work is mature enough to complement mine, but also a person who will be able to stay with me for a while before striking out on their own. When someone is able to work with me over a longer period of time, we can build a real relationship that lasts after our mentor/mentee collaboration changes.”

Walker was online looking for work when she found Littwin’s photos on a website for a bakery located around the corner from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. “I was looking at [the bakery’s] website and loved their pictures,” Walker says. “Then I researched Kathi and loved her website and decided to send her an email about how I’d love to assist or second shoot with her if ever the opportunity arose. Once I realized we lived across the street from each other, I was sure it was meant to be. We quickly met up and I began to second shoot with her pretty often for the next two years. She taught me a lot about lighting, getting those classic moments and also being very organized. She was really patient and lovely with me, and our friendship grew as time went by.” The experience paid off for Walker—she is now a principle shooter under Ira Lippke Studios in Brooklyn.

Photo above: "The photo I chose of Rebecca’s shows the very small and intimate things that happen at a wedding. You need a keen eye to go to these things when so many other bigger things are happening as well. In my opinion, the body of work is more interesting when you vary the way you see and crop. You take a long shot, show the landscape, feel the day, and also remember to catch the faces and the emotions to tell the story. Then if you can also go in for these little emotional details, it’s precious."—Kathi Littwin


© Kristen Loken

Elizabeth Messina & Kristen Loken
When it comes to hiring assistants, according to photographer Elizabeth Messina, it helps if they are humble: “From the first job we worked on together, Kristen [Loken] was willing to do whatever I needed, from lugging ridiculously heavy bags, to loading film and second shooting. I loved her work ethic; nothing was too big or small for her to handle.” Messina says what clinched the partnership was Loken’s ability to begin anticipating her needs. “On several occasions, she would appear by my side with a glass of water and a smile saying, ‘You have not had anything to drink all day.’ It’s those little moments that made me feel grateful for her.” Plus, because Loken was already familiar with Messina’s romantic work when she began the job, she was easily able to take complementary images. “A couple of years ago while shooting a wedding in San Francisco, I had some time constraints and needed Kristen as my second shooter,” Messina says. “I sent her ahead to the reception at the Presidio Social Club with instructions to carefully shoot the room and all of the details. Kristen did a beautiful job and when I met her there later in the evening, she smiled and handed me a glass of water.”

As an assistant, Loken found Messina’s style as a mentor a perfect fit. “I first met Elizabeth on referral from another photographer—she was shooting more and more in northern California, where I’m based, and it worked out that when she needed a second shooter up here that time I was available,” says Loken. “Her energy on a shoot is at once enthusiastic and soothing. You can’t help but be caught up in her sense of light and romance, and it is inspiring to be a part of the day,” says Loken. “To see how her creative process unfolds pushed me to be more innovative, inspired me to approach my work in a more personal and heartfelt way.”  
Today, Loken works mostly for herself, only occasionally doing special projects for Messina. Loken credits Messina with much of her current success, and Messina’s savvy business sense (her blog, Kiss the Groom, has thousands of followers and paid advertisements) also rubbed off on Loken, who launched her own innovative app for photographers, called iVow.

Photo above: "I love Kristen’s attention to detail and willingness to do whatever I needed her to capture. This image was a detail shot from Kathryn Storke (owner of Snippet & Ink, a well known wedding blog). I was shooting at another location with the bride and groom and knew I would not make it to the reception in time to capture the details. I sent Kristen there with instructions to take images of the room and all of the details. She did a wonderful job."—Elizabeth Messina


© Lacie Hansen

Jose Villa & Lacie Hansen

Jose Villa hired his studio manager Lacie Hansen as an assistant seven years ago. “She came to me not really wanting to be a wedding photographer, which I see as a good thing because I didn’t want someone who just likes weddings; she was also into black-and-whites and art photography. I hired her as an assistant in the office, and then after about four years, she became a studio manager. She slowly worked her way up.” Villa says that another selling point was Hansen’s ability to have her own style. “Some of the other people I worked with in the past mimicked me, and their work started to look at lot like mine. This was not the case with Lacie.”

Like her mentor, Hansen attended the Brooks Institute of Photography. In her second year of school, she learned a friend who worked for Villa was leaving to start her own business and get married. Hansen met with Villa shortly after and he hired her over the phone. “I was beyond thrilled,” she says. “I learned a lot in school that I am very grateful for, but working with Jose—now that’s an education you can’t get anywhere else. Originally I did not see myself photographing weddings, but I assisted my first wedding with Jose, and that was it. I knew from that moment I wanted to photograph weddings. Hansen still works with Villa as his studio manager, in addition to being his assistant and second shooter. “Jose is truly a inspiration for me, and even that word does not do him justice. His work ethic, humility and his ability to keep setting the bar for the rest of us fellow photographers is something that continues to inspire me.” 

Photo above: "I love this image [of Lacie’s] because it feels so genuine and real. The tone of the image gives it a very old-school look that I also love; it’s timeless and soft. The mood of the image is dead-on for me."—Jose Villa

RF

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