A pleasing afternoon at the Annie Leibovitz Retroseptive yesterday, Tuesday: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005, at S.F.'s Palace of the Legion of Honor. 'Twas a beautiful day - warm yet breezy and with a clear, blue sky view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the squeaky clean towers of downtown, and in-between the hills and towers, snatches of the Bay.
As I walked towards the museum, the azure blue of the parking lot's round fountain felt so inviting, in a Mexican Riviera kind of way, that I almost jumped in for a quick dip. Almost - too shallow and a bit too chilly today. As I entered it's colonnaded courtyard, the Thinker by Rodin was as always, thunking' away. Surprisingly, in a corner just pass the entrance columns; a gaily-colored Medusa hair crowned plasticine tree sculpture nicely deflated the neo-classic seriousness of the Legion. But at the end of the courtyard, the triangular glass pyramid poking out of the ground, as if in solidarity with the Louvre's own glass pyramid, reminded me once again that the Legion seriously identifies with France.
I mostly know Ms. Leibovitz's photos from her work for Vanity Fair. Many VF photos are in the collection including the famous color shot of a naked Demi Moore in full-term pregnancy and the companion B/W one of her then-husband Bruce Willis's rough hands sprawled across her smooth pregnant stomach.
The Vanity Fair color photos of the powerful, President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office and the group photo of President George W. Bush and his Gang of Gang of 5 (Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Card, & Powell) in a White House when they were riding high, made me yearn for a Richard Avedon shot of each of them alone, in B/W, against a blank canvass, devoid of any trappings of power other than the clothes of choice on their backs. Those Avedon photos always unraveled who the subject was in ways frightfully accurate, like a creepy deer caught in headlights. BTW -- there is a shot of Avedon in this show. In that photo, his eyes burn as two fireplaces.
Yet Ms. Leibovitz managed to catch that kind of stark revelation in a shot of Donald Trump and his most recent wife (also fully pregnant), him seated in a hot silver sports car, door flung open, and her ascending the rear stairs leading into their sheeny private plane.
But my favorite gallery was one set up as a broad corridor simulating two long walls of Ms. Leibovitz's bunker like beige brick farm house in Rheinbeck, New Year. Several hundred photos are mounted on the walls as part of the original process to wean them down into this Retrospective and the companion book. On one wall, stuck onto Homasote panels with stickpins and tape are shots of her well-known professional work and on the opposite wall, personal shots of her family of origins, and especially shots of her mother, whom Ms. Leibovitz obviously adores and respects for her vitality and own unrealized dreams of artistry.
The exhibit initially contemplated a bifurcated approach: professional vs. personal. But the more they looked at both sides, the organizer and Ms.Leibovitz started to see the connective nodes and so the show ended up organized in a way that transitions you from family (including many photos of her companion Susan Sontag from their travels) to professional and back, and in their view, seamlessly.
It's the rawness of the photos jammed against the wall - corners curling, a crinkle line here and there, overlaps, handwritten comments on tiny yellow stickums on a photo face, the aforementioned stick-pins and tape holding them to the wall, and then the crime scene yellow plastic ribbons with the year printed in bold black print organizing the photos - that sizzles this space for me.
It's just this aspect of creativity - assembling, reassembling, finding new transitions, i.e., editing that is so much part of my writing and I am sure of film, photography, and of course, retrospectives. One must step back from all those individual centrifugal memories to delete the "bad" stuff and the even greater challenge of taking out the good stuff because it doesn't fit into the narrative structure. To me, this process often feels like cutting off one's flesh.
One shot that didn't make it into retrospective, and I only discovered it perusing one of three of her photo books on sale, the collection entitled WOMEN, was of an early editor of The Eighth Promise and friend, Gloria Steinem. In it, her long, lean frame leans cozily against the lush body of another friend, Wilma Mankiller, author and the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation. They are seated on the back of a worked pick-up truck somewhere in the Cherokee nation in Oaklahoma.
Once the poet June Jordan asked me what I thought of Wilma's last name, to which I responded that I took great comfort when I discovered that was this was her given name, and not one she chose for herself. Wilma is indeed a powerful woman, but if I've always felt her to be completely nurturing.
I was glad that Ms. Leibovitz, however she got there, refused any border between her professional and her personal photos.
Because without knowing of this division in her editing process or how closely her mother has inspired her own work, just that morning, as I breakfasted with my mother and youngest brother John, I asked her help on a professional project. The Eighth Promise is being translated for publication into Chinese by a major Taiwan publishing house in a Complex Chinese characters edition (and under negotiation with mainland houses for a Simplified Chinese character version). For those of you who know the book, my Mom's voice alternates with mine in every other chapter, yet she is fluent only in Toisanese and Cantonese dialects.
Well, in the book, I phoneticized a number of Toisanese words into rough American spellings, and although Toisanese is a Chinese variant, my accomplished translators at the prestigious Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages, were of course unable to hazard a guess as to their standard script. So, there we were, Mom, all 80 years of her with memory starting to fade, and me going back and forth with meanings and phonetics and old names at Mel's Diner with the waitress refilling her coffee from time to time, James Brown rumbling away in the background, and me feeling that there's no longer any division between what I do as my work and my own family of origins. And the books already been out a year, and we're still working together..
Interestingly, some of the words I thought were Toisanese weren't, like "bee-bee" for "baby." This turned out to be Toisanese phoneticizations of the American word. So guess what Mom wrote down in response? - "B-B" in her limited American literacy, instead of the Chinese characters I had expected.
There was even one surname that is so rare now that Mom needs to confer with a few of her Clan Sisters and get back to me.
It would be wonderful if Mom would be invited to fly out with me to Taipei for the promotional launch. By then, about a year from now, I hope my Mandarin will be good enough to be able to translate her Toisanese before a live Taiwanese audience.
I remarked to my brother, to which he chuckled in appreciation, that mainland based Chinese professors are translating into Complex Chinese for a Mandarin speaking Taiwan audience a book written in American by an Overseas Chinese born and raised in California that contains Toisanese words and whose family of origins is Cantonese speaking Southern China.
Sometimes this feels all too complex for me and on other days, it is just so clear and right.
But then, today's life theme is of no borders between the professional and the personal, and perhaps the thinning borders between nations and cultures and the fading of old, sad, centrifugal memories of war, extremism, and nationalistic bitterness that keep people divided and rearing to go another round.
(C) 2008. William Poy Lee
Causes William Lee Supports
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