October 25, 2006


I started this year with a New Year's resolution of keeping a daily knitting journal. The purpose of chronicling the progress of my various projects was to keep me focused so that I could finish more of them than I had in previous, non-knitting-journal-keeping years.

This plan worked well enough for the first project that I finished this year.

However, the Level II vest was the complete undoing of my knitting-journal-keeping. How to record that what you thought might be a perfectly good vest turned out to be only a prototype? And with Take Two of the vest, there would have been far too many entries that would have read: Tuesday: Knitted 4 rounds. Wednesday: Ripped 9 rounds. Thursday: Knitted 1 round. Friday: Discovered that the 1 round knitted yesterday went cattywampus; ripped back 14 rounds (half a repeat) to get everything back in alignment. In other words, I found I was recording more negative progress than positive. And that was too discouraging. Demoralizing. Defeating the purpose.

Last night would have been another case in point. We had tickets to the Annie Leibovitz reading at the University of Washington. I thought, Great, I can knit while Scott drives us in to Seattle!

On the freeway headed north, I finished up the current round of my Fair Isle project, then whipped out the chart to see what would come next -- and discovered that I'd used the wrong color of blue in the previous 3 rounds. No way to live with this mistake, for this project uses several colors of blue in a progression from dark to light, and the progression was completely screwed up.

So during the drive, while standing in line for the reading, and once we'd taken our seats and were waiting for the reading to start, I spent all of that time tinking back those 3 rounds. Got my un-knitted yarns all wound back around their respective balls just as Annie Leibovitz was being introduced.

Annie began with a few extemporaneous remarks. She said, "It's been a long, hard day. Because it's Seattle. And it's foggy and rainy here -- " and she gave a brittle little laugh -- "but then, when isn't it, in Seattle?" She explained that she and her partner, Susan Sontag, had come to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant in a last-ditch effort too put Susan's cancer into remission. Susan Sontag had been treated at the University of Washington Medical Center. Although last night's reading was in a lecture hall on the north campus, and the medical center is on the south campus quite a distance from where we were last night, I could imagine how Annie had undoubtedly driven yesterday some of the same streets she'd driven only two years before, during the time of Susan Sontag's treatment. It was obvious memories had come flooding back; a couple of times during the evening she remarked, almost like she was in disbelief, "We're so near the hospital."

She explained that she edited her book, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 to include photographs from both her professional life and her personal life. She said, "In that time period, Susan was dying. My father died. And my children were being born." It didn't make sense to focus on just the private side of her life, or just the public side. So she edited her photographs for the book to weave at all together. The book is all one chronicle of those 15 years.

She then sat down to read a condensed version of the few pages of text that open her book. On the screen behind her was shown a slide of the book's cover. As she began reading, this slide changed to the first photo of the book: A shot of Susan Sontag, minute as a doll, silhouetted in the deep V made between the two walls of a gorge in Petra, Jordan; behind her, lit up in bright sunshine, is a wall of carvings in that ancient city. As Annie Leibovitz started to read the paragraph of text to go with that photograph, she choked up. She got weepy. She had to read three times, before she managed to get through it, "When I made the picture, I wanted her figure to give a sense of scale to the scene. But now I think of it as reflecting how much the world beckoned Susan. She was so curious, with a tremendous appetite for experience and a need for adventure." At one point, a woman in the front row got up and handed Annie a pocket pack of Kleenex. Annie wiped her eyes and said, "If you've been through the process of grief, you know it's like that. It comes in waves."

Certainly the photograph speaks of passages.

I really didn't think Annie Liebovitz was going to get through the reading. It was not a good sign when her first words to us were, "It's been a long, hard day." But only that first part was the hardest. She had a couple of other moments where her voiced choked. It was a tremendously moving reading.

And it had some light moments, too. The picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the ski slopes in a tight-fitting T-shirt drew a laugh from the audience, as did the one of Jack Nicholson in a bathrobe, socks and slippers, cigarette dangling from his mouth, wielding a putter in front of a lineup of golf balls got an even larger laugh. You could see the progression of her career from taking staged, posed photographs of celebrities to taking more candid shots of them in their everyday surroundings; she tried and abandoned studio portraiture in favor of taking photographs of people in context of their everyday lives -- the shot of Bill Gates at his computer in his home office marks the transition from the one philosophy to the other.

She took questions from the audience. One man said, "I own two of your photographs: One of Woody Allen, and the one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I wondered if you could comment on taking the photographs. How did you take a picture of Woody Allen in the bathroom?"

Annie said, "I'll start with Woody Allen first. I've photographed Woody a couple of times, and he would only give me, like, 10 or 15 minutes. So the second time he asked me to photograph him, I rented one of those photo booths and told him to take his own picture.

"For that photograph, though, he was working in an editing room. Now I would find that interesting and I would want to take a picture of him in that context of the editing room. But at the time that didn't interest me. I walked down the hall and saw a bathroom, and asked him if I could take his picture there, and he agreed. The walls in the bathroom were pink and, I don't know, at the time I thought it was funny. But now I don't like that photograph all that much."

Then she pulled a face, and said, "Oh, but you own that photo, don't you? Yeah, that's a great one -- it's from my pink period."

She explained about the John Lennon photo (the one where he is naked, curled up around a clothed Yoko Ono) that it was taken on the last day of his life. I had not known that, but I'm sure everyone else in the audience did. She said that Jann Wenner had sent her to do a photo shoot of Lennon, and to get only Lennon and not Yoko. But when she got to their apartment, Yoko was there, too, and she thought, "Now what do I do?" There was no way to not include Yoko in the photos. Annie liked the kiss that was on the cover of the Double Fantasy album that had just come out, and she wanted to explore that idea of the kiss. She talked with them about doing a nude shot, but Yoko had reservations about that and wouldn't agree to being completely nude. Despite all of these complications of the shoot, the resulting photo works beautifully like a yin and yang motif: the lightness of the nude Lennon curled around the darkly clothed Ono, with her dark hair spread out.

She took other questions from the audience, too. She kept apologizing, saying things like, "I didn't really answer that." I think she was in that emotional space of University Medical Center and Susan Sontag's last days, even though she was trying to be present with us and answer questions about film versus digital photography. (There were lots of photographers and photography students in the audience.)

She signed books at the end, of course. It was like the books were coming across the table on a conveyor belt, she was signing them so efficiently. She didn't really chat with anyone. My dear husband, who sometimes amazes me with his people skills, got the longest remark from her (at least, as of the time we got through the line -- she may have spent more time with the people who stayed till the end). As she was signing our book, he said, "I stood in a line this long 30 years ago to have Ansel Adams sign my copy of his book."

She replied, "Ansel Adams was an amazing photographer -- far more technically-oriented than I am. I was honored to have been able to spend some time with him. It's too bad they kept him in a darkroom the last two years of his life." *

"Thank you so much for sharing your story with us."

She smiled and said, "Thank you for coming to hear me." She was very genuine.

Like the children's book Where's Waldo, this photo is sort of like, Where's Scott? The hand and arm at the left of the photo belong to a University Book Store employee who was opening the books and sliding them in front of Annie for signing. Scott is on the opposite side of the table from Annie but too much to my left to be included in the photo.

*Scott explains: Ansel Adams was very particular and developed all of his own prints. There was so much demand for his work towards the end of his life that he spent all his time in production, and not out being creative and taking new photos.

Posted by Karen at October 25, 2006 12:13 PM

Kar--What a wonderful summary of your evening with Annie Liebowitcz, my favorite photographer, though I like Ansel Adams a lot too.

I'm worried the Seattle Times will lure you away from Two Swans Yarns to become an entertainment writer for the paper. Bliss and I are thoroughly enjoying your reviews.

Posted by: Shirley at October 25, 2006 05:28 PM

If only -- !

Posted by: Karen at October 25, 2006 06:32 PM

Thanks for this glimpse into the presentation of a fascinating artist!

Posted by: Janine at October 26, 2006 10:50 AM