teach yourself

Earlier this week, a photographer showed up at my house to photograph me for a project with an organization I’m really proud to be a part of (more on that soon). This talented photographer’s name is Michael Starghill, and he arrived with an assistant, Sherman McCain (also a really amazing photographer in his own right). As they began setting up, I asked them about how they got into photography — specifically, I asked if photography something that they studied formally, before becoming professionals.

“No, I’m self-taught,” Michael answered. “I studied political science at university, and I got interested in photography after.”

“Same,” agreed Sherman. “In fact, I don’t think I know any other photographers who actually studied photography formally.”

I thought about it, and to be honest, I could only think of one photographer I know who formally studied photography, and who still practices it now. Other than her, every single one I know (including myself, actually) is self-taught.

There are two things that occur to me as I think about this. First, all of these photographers are great examples of the follow your curiosity advice I mentioned a few days ago — they are great examples of people who were curious enough about making photographs that they did whatever they could to learn: they bought second-hand cameras. Read books. Took a class or two. Followed other photographers they admired. Watched YouTube videos. Practiced, practiced, practiced. And eventually, they became pros themselves (in fact, both Michael and Sherman have had the opportunity to photograph some incredibly famous people).

The second thing that struck me is that each person I thought of who was self-taught took the initiative to learn photography at a relatively young age.

Now, obviously, this is hardly a scientific sampling. But it seems to me that at some point, there comes a time when I hear people say, “if I were to do it all over again, I would’ve studied …” something very different from what they do now, or a hobby they’ve always been intrigued by. “But I guess that time has passed,” they’d sigh.

Who says? Is there some age that we attain where all of a sudden, it’s unseemly to learn something new?

I call bunk. I mean, if you think about it, the beauty of being self-taught is that no one needs to know you’re doing it, if you’d rather keep it to yourself. Or you can shout it from the rooftops, and watch as people rush to your side to help you learn. Or you can just change your mind, and decide you don’t want to learn it anymore, and decide to learn something else entirely. And you never know: you might become one of those wildly successful people who followed their curiosity later in life. Like designer Vera Wang, who began designing at 40. Or chef Julia Child, who didn’t even learn to cook until she was 36. Or how about the amazing Ernestine Shepherd, who at 82 is America’s oldest competitive bodybuilder — and she didn’t start working out until she was fifty-six.


All this to say, if you’ve ever thought about learning something new, no time like the present, no matter how old or young you are. Because when you’ve mastered something that lights you up?

Man, there’s no containing that joy.