Hi. I wrote you a letter earlier today. It seemed like a thousand letters that went through my head as I flitted from one task to the next, photo edits, recipes, an essay. Now that I’m actually sitting down to write, I wonder what each little paragraph in flight contained.
I wanted to confess the kitchen is a terrible mess with an overwhelming number of dishes in the sink after having made two different potato gratins, smoky bean burgers, and a loaf of bread, not to mention the snacks in between. The counters are covered in even more cooking projects. A new batch of sourdough, a bowl of oat flour mix. Then there’s the kitchen table, the resting place for everyone’s notes along with a miniature Christmas tree that neither Luke or I can part with even though it’s been unplugged for weeks.
Seated at the table earlier today, Luke told me stories of a terrible fox. “Oh, honey. Foxes are your friends. They won’t hurt you.” I say. I try to remember what it was like to be so open and vulnerable and honest. As I looked at him, I saw myself, the little ticks he’s adopted from me. He drew a finger to his lip and said, “I was thinking about going to the bookstore later. We can play with trains and look and books and…that sounds like a good idea, right, Mama?”
Oh, yes, I thought. The bookstore is always a good idea and distraction for days like today when I’m slow to write. I sit down once again at the table. The house is quiet. I can hear sluggish raindrops outside. There are days like this one when writing feels more like trying to scrub a white cotton dress dipped in tar with brambles and thorns stuck to it clean. It’s impossible. No matter how much I write, I cannot get to that plain white dress. The simple truth that’s there all along before all the stuff clings to it for fear of being shown. I move from one task to the next, not paying attention as I should be to the letters collecting, because by the time evening comes and ready Luke for bed with Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Billy Goat’s Gruff, he says, “Papa, can I get up now?” It’s 8:30 p.m. Three going on fourteen.
Then I remembered this book I wanted to tell you about called Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz. It’s bound to keep me up for another late night. If you don’t know Leibovitz’s work, she started her career as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in 1970 while she was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Three years later, she became their main photographer and by the time she left the magazine in 1983, she has shot 142 covers and published photo-essays on a number of subjects including her unforgettable accounts of the resignation of Richard Nixon and of the 1975 Rolling Stones tour. Leibovitz also worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and for corporate advertising campaigns. Her portraits of rock musicians and documentations of the social landscape of this country are among the most compelling works to date.
For this book she wasn’t on assignment, nor did she have a particular agenda other than making photographs of places that held meaning for her. She made pictures of objects, rooms, houses, and landscapes. She started with a small digital camera and made photographs of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, then went on with her three young children to Niagara Falls, New York. “That’s when I started making lists,” she says. Leibovitz photographed Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond in Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home and Orchard House, the same place where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived and worked. She also added Daniel Chester French’s Massachusetts art studio, the photographic archives at Gettysburg, the trails of Yosemite Valley where Ansel Adams worked for 50 years. Most of the photographs were made in America but she also added the English countryside houses of Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin along with Sigmund Freud’s final home in London and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s house on the Isle of Wight. As the project developed, she used larger cameras and a tripod and brought an assistant along. The photographs document Leibovitz’s pilgrimage and while they are inherently about other people’s lives; the photographs tell as much of her own story as those inside the frame.
“From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal,” she says. “It taught me to see again.”
I have a few more books that I think you might like as well.
Birds of Paradise (a novel) by Diana Abu-Jaber. I have 18 pages left to read, so I’ll wait to give you the details.
An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz. A biography about photographer Diane Arbus. It’s my next read.
50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan. I’ll tell you about a few of the photographers in the next photo post.
and 1 more Annie Leibovitz book because I’m on a roll…
American Music. A collection of her notable portraits of rock musicians.
Next up, that potato gratin with sweet and yukon gold potatoes and a leek and shallot cashew cream sauce that I mentioned earlier.