Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dreamboat Annie

The rockin' sister duo Heart -- seen here with a cover shot by Annie Leibovitz circa 1980 -- has long been one of my favorite bands. I lose track -- either Heart or Don Henley provided my first outdoor rock concert experience (both played the glorious Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheatre during 1990), each serving as an upgrade follow-up to Janet Jackson's big show at the Myriad Convention Center that summer of 1990. Good times!

Though "Dreamboat Annie" is a great Heart tune, this blog entry is not really about music. The song's title is just a pseudo-clever starting point for another thread of Olympic connections that goes something like this:

Ann & Nancy Wilson -- Heart -- "Dreamboat Annie" -- Rolling Stone magazine -- Heart photo on cover of Rolling Stone (thanks, Google) -- cover photo by Annie Leibovitz -- Annie Leibovitz portrait photos -- Annie Leibovitz Olympic Project for Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games -- Annie Leibovitz back in Atlanta on Dec. 10, 2008.

(The thread could also spin off, I suppose, with references to "It's A Hard-Knock Life" and such, but I digress.)

Last night in Atlanta, former Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz was in town showcasing her latest Random House book titled "Annie Leibovitz At Work" to a packed house in the cavernous main gymnasium of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA).

To me it was fitting that the world-famous photographer took the stage in a gym, since more than one segment of her live presentation (complete with wall-sized projections of some of her most famous photographs) referenced work with Olympic athletes.

Before delving into Leibovitz's presentation (see video), some notes about the book:

"Annie Leibovitz At Work" just hit bookstore shelves and includes 230 or so pages with about one iconic image for every three pages of text written from conversations Leibovitz shared with the book's editor, Sharon DeLano (though the text is written first person, I suspect DeLano did the lion's share of writing as, in person, Leibovitz seems to be a woman of few yet thoughtful words).

Of course, the book includes the famous images of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Rolling Stones, a rose-covered Bette Midler, Meryl Streep, Whoopi Goldberg (in milk-filled bathtub), Demi Moore and Queen Elizabeth. Also featured are some stunning aerial shots of Monument Valley, dramatic war images from Sarajevo (site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games -- one shot near the city's Olympic stadium included) and interesting family portraits that give some ideas for capturing loved ones on film during the holidays ... though none will be taken involving bathtubs full of milk). The accompanying text provides some brief or personal stories behind each image, or some general comments or tips on photographic technique. It's a fast read -- three Olympians appear (Carl Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Charles Austin).

So, back to Annie Leibovitz's presentation.

Leibovitz admitted in so many words that she is not a natural born public speaker. She shared some prepared remarks as an introduction before spending most of the event seated in a leather chair and reading directly from the text.

I was surprised and delighted that some of her most impromptu departures from the text came while describing work with nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, who she photographed just before the 1996 Games. Leibovitz used her story behind the photo to drive home two main points of the evening -- there are some shots that become part of history (capturing Lewis at his pre-Games peak as one example), and you should follow through on commitments even when you don't think you want to (she almost skipped photographing Lewis as he was not expected to medal in Atlanta -- a few weeks later he became only the third person to win nine gold medals).

What did not entirely surprise me (an explanation why begins in two paragraphs) is that Leibovitz remarked on the diversity of connections made with her portrait subjects to arrive at "the shot" -- her most vivid descriptions on this topic came while showcasing a range of photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his early career, Hollywood days and pre-political aspirations, as well as her memories of working with dancers and athletes (her new book includes notes from working with Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses that paint this picture).
Leibovitz closed the remarks by taking a few questions from the audience. I was next in line at the microphone, ready with a personal question for Annie, when she cut off the Q&A to start signing books (DANG!). Eventually, later in the evening, I did get to ask my question, "where was you photo of Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler Matt Ghaffari taken?"

Here is the back story to explain why I posed this question (Leibovitz's answer also follows):

When I was an intern at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs during the summer of 1995 (assigned to work in the public relations department at USA Wrestling), one morning I arrived at the USA Wrestling office to find a message from my boss. He said, in so many words, "There's some hot-shot photographer in town to take photos of a couple of [Atlanta Olympic-bound] wrestlers -- we need you to go with the wrestlers when the photographer comes to pick them up, and spend the day with the crew taking the photos."

As planned, a crew picked up the wrestlers (including Matt Ghaffari, an Iranian American who is one of the most genuine and coolest Olympians anywhere -- a real class act) and I to a public park with a massive green lawn and Pike's Peak looming to the west under a cloudless summer sky.

I was confused because there appeared to be two freshly placed dump truck loads of dirt -- one was sand, the other a darker clay -- recently poured on one flat expanse. The whole scene was punctuated with huge scaffolding covered with tarps, and a couple of ladders were in place. We were at the photographer's "studio" for the day. The photographer, of course, was Annie Leibovitz!

Leibovitz had a big crew and it was clear no expense was spared. Easily more than $100,000 went into this one setting as the dirt was used to create a wrestling venue inspired by ancient Olympic wrestling sites near Olympia, Greece, and the different shades of soil were trucked in to provide a range of hues for black and white Polaroids that Leibovitz started shooting as the wrestlers got going on the Terra firma.

I still have the business card for the Swatch public relations executive who was on site, presumably bankrolling the whole operation for what became Leibovitz's 1996 book titled "Olympic Portraits" (my good friend, Meghan, gave me a sweet Swatch featuring some of the photos from that book -- thanks, Meg).

Imagine my stunned surprise when, during our picnic lunch (arranged by Annie's intern and yours truly -- go, interns, go!) in the park, Leibovitz pretty much scrapped the entire "Greek dirt wrestling" set up because Ghaffari, the USA wrestler who went on to win silver in Atlanta, started telling Annie a very personal story about how as a boy his father taught him to wrestle by "pretending your opponent is a tree and you are trying to wrestle a tree out of the ground."

Leibovitz LOVED this -- you could see the wheels turning behind her tortoise-shell glasses as she asked Ghaffari to take hold of the oak trees under which we were lunching. After just a few more Polaroids we were all sent packing. Photo shoot's over, folks! So long, Annie Leibovitz.

The thing is, on that summer internship day in Colorado, I had NO CLUE -- ZERO -- who Annie Leibovitz was -- the entire day! The name did not ring a bell at all. For real. It was a day or two later, when I told a fellow intern or a family member about work that day in passing, that it finally registered "Holy Sh*t! That was that Annie Leibovitz!" I still cringe about my naïveté that day!

I also cringe because, as an intern on site at the photo shoot, I was asked to help collect all the trash and "Polaroid rejects" belched out of Annie's camera into the dirt. At one time my hands held dozens of "no good" photos staged and lost forever following Leibovitz's work on the ladders (I kick myself monthly on this point -- these shots would be extremely rare Annie Leibovitz originals now, and they are in some landfill instead of my apartment!).

I learned the following year, when the Leibovitz Olympic book debuted at an Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) press conference at The INFORUM in Atlanta, that Leibovitz wound up re-shooting Ghaffari wrestling trees at another location later in 1995. As an ACOG staff member, I was in attendance at the packed press event, and tried to pose the question at a cut-short Q&A there, too -- until yesterday it was my understanding the final Ghaffari wrestling trees portrait was snapped at Midtown Atlanta's Piedmont Park, down the street from my current residence.

The answer, after 12 years: Annie Leibovitz does not remember!

While she signed a copy of "Annie Leibovitz At Work" she answered my question with a friendly and frank reply that they did re-shoot the "wrestling trees" at a later date, but she was not sure when or where. She offered a sincere thank you and handshake during our brief reunion (she has, by the way, some of the most graceful, large and strong hands of any handshake in recent memory) she asked about Ghaffari and how he is doing, perhaps signalling that although he was not the most famous celebrity in her repertoire, a connection was made that day in Colorado Springs.

She did not remember me, so it seems we're "even" on naïveté about each other (ha-ha).

I appreciate Annie Leibovitz taking time to answer one more question -- this one for the Flip Video camera -- just after signing the last of thousands of books sold at last night's MJCCA event.

The question: Would she take on another Olympic project in the future?

The answer (see video) yielded a surprise -- Leibovitz apparently was supposed to attend the Atlanta Games but was denied access near the last minute. It's tough to read whether she remains miffed about this fact (will let you, video viewers, draw your own conclusions).
It is my hope the future will in fact bring Olympians into focus for Leibovitz's craft (if Swatch is out there reading, let's see what you can get in the works for Vancouver 2010 or London 2010, OK?).

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