From time to time over the past few years my social media feeds have been peppered with ads for Masterclass and I’ve always looked at the pictures of Shonda Rhimes in those ads and thought, “Someday…” There have always been other things to spend my money on. And then the tsunami of Covid hit and my world shrunk to a thousand square feet and the Internet. And Masterclass had a sale, so for $180 dollars I bought myself access to some of the greatest minds and most successful people in a variety of areas that have always held interest for me. As a side note: I want Shonda Rhimes to be my new best friend.
I’ve plowed my way through seven of the classes so far, and there are at least that many more I can’t wait to get through. And apart from learning an incredible amount in a variety of areas I’ve always had some interest in, I’ve made a certain realization. There are two kinds of people. For the first type of person, what’s important is that they speak. They’re not really concerned about what comes out of their mouths as much as they are concerned about that they are making sound. Annie Liebovitz? Could not give a rat’s ass if you are gleaning anything from her. It’s clear someone told her she needed to say ten thousand words and on the ten thousand and first, the check would clear.
Annie’s responsible for some of the most iconic images from a number of different eras: the helicopter carrying Richard Nixon away from the White House after his resignation, Demi Moore’s pregnant belly, John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono. Brilliant images one and all among a catalog of breath-taking photos. But her class is all about Annie talking about how humble Annie is and how simple her work is. She’s just a simple girl with a camera looking for a soft light. In her class, we’re treated to a ten-minute look into one of her simple shoots of the cast of Angels in America. And for this humble photographer, a simple shoot requires at least a dozen assistants holding state-of-the-art equipment while Annie micromanages the position of every actor in the shot. It’s a gray day on a Hampton dune, and the actors are clearly freezing while Annie directs them to move a foot an inch. And then we get to see the resulting shot and there’s virtually nothing simple or natural about it. It’s pure Liebovitz. Well, Liebovitz and Photoshop. The sky was flat gray on the day they shot. And Nathan Lane is actually added to this picture. It’s an amazing picture, but I promise you it didn’t come out of the camera that way. Do we know how Annie got it? Absolutely not. To hear her tell it, the photo is the result of years of experience and a single well-chosen moment when she snapped the camera.
Contrast that with Shonda Rhimes who discusses how she created the pilots for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Shonda painstakingly breaks these television episodes down, almost beat for beat, and tells you what choices she made and why she made them. She acknowledges the elements of luck and inspiration, but at the end of the day she’s not afraid to tell you that it was hard work that got those episodes onto the television. If you’ve not seen the pilot for Grey’s Anatomy and you have even a passing interest in writing, you must see it. The first three seasons of the show are damn near perfect television. But in Shonda’s class, all of that is a backdrop for her purpose, which is to leave her students with something of value.
Shonda Rhimes is the second kind of person. She’s the person who’s more interested in her message being heard. Yes, she’s chatty and she repeats herself, but her intention isn’t to perpetuate an image of being a natural-born genius who farts masterworks before breakfast. She works hard. She expects her students to work hard. And Shonda Rhimes wants you to be successful. Before I bought my Masterclass subscription, I knew more about writing than I did about photography. I have a master’ss degree in writing. At the end of Shonda Rhimes class, I knew even more about my art and how to approach it than I did before her class. At the end of Annie Liebovitz’s class I only knew that Annie Liebovitz thinks Annie Liebovitz is a genius. And she is. But there is no chance she’s interested in you becoming one too.